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I know that Jews are supposed to give 10% of their income to charity, but what constitutes a charity? I know that Shuls, Jewish schools and poor people in your community count, but what about secular organizations? There are some that save lives, such as the Red Cross. How about organizations that help children, perhaps a secular orphanage or Make a Wish foundation? Then there are the cultural arts, museums and zoos.

I'm sure the jewish definition of charities can's be as simple as the IRS' definition.

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Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz gave a lecture on charity a few years ago, and someone asked him this. He said the key was "providing for those who otherwise wouldn't have." An orphanage or library certainly does that. (He mentioned Catholic charities that have helped Jewish parents adopt a baby, too.) As for arts organizations, he asked if they provided something for those who couldn't afford it on their own.

He also pointed out that compared to "general" secular charities, Jewish charities have a much narrower donor base, so your donations might be needed more; but certainly the Red Cross or the like can count toward the 10% figure. And that different people will have different values for different causes and give accordingly; this is okay, and as a result, many different causes get funded.

  • What about direct contributions to an arts project? Would that count? – Seth J Jan 20 '12 at 18:30
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I like Shalom's answer, I did want to clarify something: while certain contributions to a Synagogue would count as tzedaka, regular Synagogue membership dues do not.

This post gives also gives a very detailed explanation: http://www.pidyon.com/latest-writings/halacha/10-maaser/48-computing-maaser-how-much-tzedakah-charity-do-i-owe.html

  • Shimon, welcome to the site: I hope you stick around and enjoy it. Please consider registering your account, so the site can keep track of all your contributions as having come from the same person. ¶ The site you linked to claims synagogue membership cannot be paid for from maaser, but it gives no source for the assertion. Do you have one? My understanding is that it's not so simple. – msh210 Sep 23 '11 at 22:26
  • In Rabbi Breitowitz's lecture, he said as follows: if you live someplace where there's only one real synagogue around, you'd be obligated to pay for membership there, so the dues can't come out of maaser. If there are multiple synagogues, no single synagogue can claim "you owe us!", therefore all your dues can come out of ma'aser. – Shalom Dec 15 '11 at 14:14
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There are 2 different mitzvot, one of tzedakah (giving charity to the poor) which is accomplished by giving away a few dollars (YD 249:2) and one of maaser (carefully separating 10% or more of your income, see here for more details).

Your question is which non-Jewish organizations count against one's maaser obligation.

In The tzedakah treasury p. 406, R Avrohom Chaim Feuer writes

We provide financial support to the gentile poor (Gittin 61a, YD 151:12) [...] [R Pesach Feinhandler in] Responsa Avenei Yashpei (YD 1:193) maintains that one may deduct charitable donations to non-Jews from his maaser obligation. However he does suggest that the concept of darkei shalom, i.e., fostering harmonious, peaceful coexistence only applies when the non-Jew asks for Jewish aid. If the non-Jew does not request Jewish aid and does not expect it, there is no obligation to volunteer a contribution because there are sufficient non-Jews who can support those causes.

In Priorities in Tzedaka p. 82, R Moshe Goldberger writes

One may give to secular or non-Jewish charities in order to promote peace darchei shalom. It would depend if the money goes for causes that are in accordance with the Torah. For example, if a [secular Jewish] community center is open on Shabbos, it is forbidden to support it with any type of funds.

See also this related answer: What constitutes tzedakah?.

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