How Do the Candidates Give?

We now know how wealthy some of our presidential candidates are -- but what we really need to know to judge each one's character is how they give those funds away.

To begin gauging their moral and personal priorities, we should scroll down their 2010 tax returns to the "charitable donations" line. More than income, this figure will help us find out what really matters come November: Just how much are the candidates willing to sacrifice for the sake of our nation and global community?

It is important to know how they have spent taxpayers' dollars in office, but it is perhaps even more crucial to know how and why they empty their private coffers for the greater good. After all, the ancient Jewish scholar, Maimonides, tells us that giving tzedakah -- the Hebrew word for giving money to create a more just world -- is the sign of righteousness.

The Shulchan Aruch, the basic authoritative code of Jewish law, also tells us that a person should give at least a 10th of his or her wealth to charity -- an amount that represents a significant pledge on the part of the giver. According to their 2010 tax returns, a few candidates measured up well, giving an admirable 14 percent of their income to charity. Another gave just over 2 percent.

And the tax returns don't just tell us how generous the candidates are with their money; they also tell us what they believe in. These candidates gave to churches, to children's health care, to lodging for sick veterans and their families, and to Haiti. Each of these donations indicates the issues the candidates value most.

Voters should ask themselves if they share these values.

As a philanthropist myself, and current board chair of American Jewish World Service, an international human rights organization, I declare my notions about how to repair our broken world every time I write a check to a nonprofit. And I judge others, especially potential leaders, by these same activities. I want to know where people give, to whom and why. It is only then that I can start to understand what motivates them and begin to predict their future actions.

So, during these next debates, let us ask the candidates to discuss their philanthropic values with us. This conversation will help people deeply probe the candidates to find out who best represents each of us and our hopes for our nation and the world. Certain candidates struggling to connect with voters might even relish the opportunity.

Barbara Dobkin is board chair of American Jewish World Service and trustee of the Dobkin Family Foundation.