As Canada begins welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees, it behooves us to think of the flourishing Jewish community that once existed in Syria. The Jewish world owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Judy Feld Carr who, at great personal risk, rescued over 3,000 Syrian Jews. They were remnants of a once great and glorious community dating back thousands of years, most of whom had fled in the first half of the twentieth century.
Among that earlier group of Syrian refugees was 11-year-old Elie Horn, who fled with his family to Brazil in 1944. He has built a successful real estate company, and most recently was the first Brazilian (and as far as I can tell the first shomer shabbat Jew) to sign The Giving Pledge, together with his wife Susy. This initiative, begun by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, asks the world’s billionaires to contribute at least one half of their wealth to charity either during their lifetime or in their will. To date, some 141 billionaires have done so.
One can be forgiven for having missed Mr. Horn’s pledge, as it was given on the same day that Mark Zuckerberg pledged to donate 99% of his shares in Facebook during his lifetime, an estimated value of some $45 billion dollars. With his wife Priscilla Chan, they signed The Giving Pledge in honour of the birth of their first child. What a beautiful baby present.
In explaining his decision to give, Elie Horn explained that “as human beings, we will carry nothing with us to the other world - the only things we shall take are the good deeds that we accomplish in this world. We are in this world to be tested, and each one of us must grant the fruit of his abilities. Doing what’s good is a great investment. That’s so obvious, I don’t understand how people can’t get it.”
It is so very obvious - in theory - but as we know, theory and practice often diverge. While it may be hard to understand how one can amass so much wealth and not agree to donate at least half (perhaps invest would be a better word), it is equally clear that for most people - billionaires or not - helping others with their wealth is tragically hard for them to do. The Forbes list of billionaires as of March 2, 2015 had 1,826 names on it. In other words, just over 92% of the world’s billionaires have yet to pledge to donate half their wealth to charity. The fact that 141 billionaires have agreed to donate at least half their wealth is most gratifying and will go a long way to making this world a better place. Whatever they may have achieved in business pales in comparison to the true legacy of their lives. Imagine how much more could be done if the other 92% joined in. And imagine what might happen if just a small fraction of corporate wealth went to charity. In their latest quarter, Apple reported cash on hand of 205 billion dollars (that is a lot of zeros).
Under the new Liberal government, Canadians earning over $200,000 will be subject to an increased tax rate on that income from 29% to 33%. At the same time, donations made on any income above that $200,0000 threshold will see their donation credit also increased to 33%, making donations even more beneficial from a tax perspective.
Our Jewish community in Canada is blessed with a good number of billionaires. We eagerly await them to join with Elie and Susy Horn in sharing their blessings with others. Mr. Horn has announced that his focus of giving will be on “secular and religious education.” Let us hope that this Syrian refugee’s initiative will spread to the benefit of both the Jewish and general communities.
We end with his words of inspiration: “I make my pledge with pleasure, and the good feeling that I tried my best to give meaning to my mission in this world (my late father gave 100% of what he had). The more we give, the more meaningful and stronger we shall become.”