Chapel at Congregation Beth Israel in La Jolla
The chapel at Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego’s oldest Jewish congregation. Courtesy of the congregation

As the CEO of a Jewish community foundation, I often walk the halls, sanctuaries, offices and schools of many synagogues.

At these institutions, Jewish values are evident everywhere: toddlers are marking Shabbat in the preschool; youngsters are reciting the aleph bet in Hebrew School; tweens are studying for their bnei mitzvah; and high school students debate the relevancy of Jewish law on the pressing issues of today.

As I continue my walk through the social hall, adults are feeding the homeless and preparing to host them overnight in a makeshift shelter, all efforts that carry out Jewish values. They prepare this meal in what is likely a kosher kitchen, or at least a kosher-style one.

All of this is as one might expect — just until I make my way to a meeting of the finance or investment committees, which are responsible for managing the temple’s assets. And, while I’ve soaked up Jewish values on my walk, I’m expected to check those same values at the door before I enter that meeting.

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But why is this the case? Why does a synagogue community go to great lengths to show faith through action, but allow its financial decisions to be influenced by investors whose environmental, labor and community practices are at odds with its values?

Jewish tradition and many other faiths value worker dignity and champion employers’ obligations to employees. Religious laws prohibit businesses from charging exorbitant prices for consumer staples lest people be unable to take care of their basic needs. We are admonished not to destroy our natural resources. We are told that the highest form of charity is to provide a job or otherwise enable a person to become self-sufficient so that they will no longer need charity. And the list goes on and on.

The Jewish faith, like many other religions, has implications for how we earn, spend, donate and invest our funds. Just as no single human being can observe religious doctrines all the time, no company has a perfect record consistent with its stated values. But like all people, all companies can improve their performance—if they are encouraged to do so.

Using an increasingly popular tactic known as impact investing, faith-based institutions can invest their funds in ways that encourage companies to behave consistent with religious values, and they need not sacrifice financial return. Impact investments are investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.

For example, two years ago, the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego became the first Jewish community foundation to offer its fund holders the opportunity to invest consistently with our values while still earning the financial returns they are accustomed to from traditional investments. Branded as the Impact Investment Pool, this investment option has so far financially outperformed its traditional comparative benchmarks.

Beth Sirull
Beth Sirull

As part of its impact investment pool, the foundation participates in the Jewish Advocacy Strategy, an investing strategy overseen by JLens Investor Network, a firm that works to align investment capital with Jewish values. Rather than screening “bad actors” from their portfolio, the Jewish Advocacy Strategy leverages an ownership position to change corporate behavior.

Recently, JLens and the foundation, along with other investors, successfully convinced Teva Pharmaceuticals, the largest distributor of generic opioids in the world, to shift how doctors are educated about opioids, how sales teams are compensated for them, and how prescriptions are tracked, to identify potential irregularities. These are significant steps in addressing the opioid crisis.

Our religious doctrine suggests that we conduct business in good faith. We are seeing just how far investments consistent with our values can go, without sacrificing financial return. By partaking in faith-based investing, we need not check our values at the door before a business meeting—and perhaps our spirituality can see dividends as well.

Beth Sirull is President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego.