How do you make giving meaningful? Tzedakah, the Jewish commitment to righteous giving, is something that most people are familiar with. Tzedakah boxes are things of childhood memory for many Jews, except me. I tithed. Growing up with a Baptist mother, a Methodist father and educated in Catholic schools, the idea of giving charity was not lost on me. I can remember my mother reaching into her pocket book every Sunday morning to fish out crisp dollar bills for my sister and I to put in the collection plate that was passed around. I don’t remember what it felt like to put that money in the shiny gold plate, because it wasn’t my money.
Fast forward two decades and now I’m a Jewish woman with a giant student loan balance. The promise I made in the mikveh comes with the responsibility to give funds according to our Jewish tradition. Student loan payments aside, the idea of giving money rather than time sometimes seems like a cop out. Why get your hands dirty helping the poor when you can write a check and not think about the people in need? Just giving money rather than time and energy seems like a way of avoiding the situation by throwing money at it.
Yet Jewish tradition requires each person give ten percent of their financial earnings to people in need. We’re obligated to do so not just as a nice thing to do, but to bring us closer to God and to atone for wrongdoing. Living in a city like New York, giving to people in need comes with an entirely different set of conflicts. If I give money to the homeless person asking for spare change on the subway, how can I be sure that they will use it for food rather than alcohol or drugs? Would it be better to give my money to an organization that works toward helping people in need or give to individuals living on the street?
Taking a cue from one of my conversion rabbis, I’ve gotten in the habit of adding money to my tzedakah sack (it’s a cloth bag rather than an ornate box) when I’ve ignored a panhandler on the subway or walked by a homeless person on the street. I say a little prayer asking God to bless the person and when I get home I put all of my spare money into my sack. Depending on the day it’s a few pennies or a few crumpled up dollar bills. I’ve got all of this money – now what?
Our colleagues at Where Do You Give? recently launched their new interactive website asking Jews to “Re-imagine Tzedakah for the 21st Century.” As you click through the website you will find links, videos, and guides around tzedakah as well as a design contest which opened on January 10. Reading through the site and listening to the stories of people who are already actively engaged in giving helps put the idea of tzedakah into perspective. We’re obligated as Jews to give tzedakah. Where we give is where we can find passion in a time-honored tradition.
Where do you give? Click here to add a video to the Where do You Give? site. Camera-shy? No worries: add a note here instead.
Erika Davis is the Temporary Program Associate for Pursue. She also works as a freelance writer for Sh’ma, Jewcy and Tribe Vibe while maintaining her personal blog Black, Gay and Jewish.