On the 2nd Night of Chanukah: Turning Family Tradition Into Lifelong Passion

Originally posted on the blog of Where Do You Give?

September 1997: I am sitting with my family on the soft, beige carpet in the family room ready to begin our annual tradition. Index cards are lined up in front of us: “Hunger in Africa” “Literacy in America” “Homelessness in Mountain View, CA.” My parents hand my brother and me each $1,000 in small bills (monopoly money, of course). We then spend the rest of the afternoon talking about the different issues we could support and how much money we want to donate to each. Once all the money is spread out among the index cards, my brother and I run into our rooms to grab our tzedakah boxes. We pour the coins that we have been collecting all year onto the carpet. As we meticulously count the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, my parents calculate the percentages that will go to each organization based on what we allocated with our monopoly money. As our tzedakah boxes lie empty on the carpet, I know it is time to start setting aside my money for the next year.

Little did I know that my family tradition of giving would become a personal passion after a mandatory 7th grade philanthropy project at my Jewish day school.  In class, we learned how to read a budget, send out a request for proposal, and leverage our money. Each of the twenty-seven students had to select an issue and organization they cared about and present it to the group. After fundraising activities and some matching grants from large donors, my class had over $30,000 to allocate to our different non-profits.  Over the course of this yearlong project, something inside of me just “clicked.” For the first time, I was confronted with so many of the world’s problems all at once.  At the same time, I realized that I had the power – in my hands – to help tackle these issues and even save lives.  Maybe I should have felt overwhelmed or terrified, but truthfully, I felt exhilarated and empowered.

The next year I was selected to be a member of the first Peninsula Jewish Community Teen Foundation board and I jumped at the chance to participate. It was the perfect way to put into practice the passion and knowledge I had gained the previous year in school. In just eight meetings, the twenty-one teens and I ran a consensus based foundation that was guided by Jewish values of giving and gave out thousands of dollars in grants.

I found myself on the cutting edge of a new and exciting movement of Jewish youth philanthropy. In the five years after my 7th grade project, I read over 500 grant proposals, allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars, traveled to Uganda on AJWS’ volunteer summer program and most importantly I continually witnessed the tremendous power of a group of young adults determined to change the world. My experiences as a young child faced with tough allocation decisions combined with my constant conversations throughout high school about how to use Jewish values to inform and guide my giving laid a strong framework for my own personal philanthropic focus.

I have spent the last four years of my university career both at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and my year abroad at Oxford studying issues of international development. I have spent extensive time in Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, and Nicaragua and throughout all of this, my giving and approach to aid remains fundamentally based on four key Jewish texts that speak most to me.

Do not let him slip down until he falls completely, for then it will be difficult to raise him; rather strengthen him as he begins to fall. (Rashi, Leviticus 25:35 (cf. Torat Kohanim, Sifre Behar, Chapter 5)

A person should not contribute to a tzedakah fund unless he knows that its management is reliable and knows how to conduct the fund properly.
(Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 249.7)

I am committed to long-term structural and sustainable change. I do this in large part by giving to organizations that have proven through rigorous evaluation that their aid projects create real, lasting change. Additionally, I give to organizations that are committed to constantly improving their programs to fit the needs of the beneficiaries – as expressed by the recipients themselves.

Our rabbis taught: We give a livelihood to non-Jewish poor together with Jewish ones, and we visit the sick among non-Jews together with the Jewish ones, and we bury the dead of non-Jews together with the Jewish dead, out of consideration for the ways of peace. (Talmud Gittin 61a – codified by Maimonides in Mishneh Torah 10:12)

While there is great need in both the global Jewish community and in my local American communities, I strongly identify as a global citizen. Therefore, I look to help the neediest, regardless of nationality, gender, or religion.

If a poor person comes and asks according to his or her need and the giver cannot afford to give, the giver should give according to his ability….The average way to fulfill this commandment is to give 10% of your wealth. Less than this is considered an evil eye. (Rambam, Laws of the Gifts to the Poor 7:5)

Finally, I am committed to donating 10% of my annual income for the rest of my life. As a result of these four fundamental tenants of my giving, all rooted in Jewish texts, I joined Giving What We Can (www.givingwhatwecan.org) last year by pledging to give at least 10% of my annual income to causes that most effectively fight poverty in developing countries. My commitment to and passion for the tenants of tzedakah and tikkun olam can be traced back to my family’s practice of our annual tzedakah allocations. The causes, organizations, and way I choose to donate may transcend the Jewish community, but the conscious decisions I make in the donation process remain rooted in and informed by my Jewish identity.

Rachel Levenson is a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut where she is studying government and economics, focusing on African development. She spent her junior year studying at Oxford University. Through an internship with Innovations for Poverty Action, for the past two years, she has been researching informal moneylending practices in Uganda to improve evaluation of microfinance.