Director of Education, Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco
When teaching parents of teenagers, I often ask them about their own parents. For example, “What money messages did you learn from them, either directly or indirectly?” My own parents taught me to save and to keep a budget from a young age. As I got older they taught me about credit and compound interest. I also learned that it is impolite to ask about money or to talk about your own. Money is important, powerful, and private. This last lesson might be why I never knew about my parents’ tzedakah giving, though I knew all about their volunteering and community service. It wasn’t until recently, as the director of a Federation Jewish youth philanthropy program, did we ever talk about their long practice of giving, both inside and beyond the Jewish community. Why the distinction in sharing about giving time and talent versus giving money?
Tzedakah, the ancient Jewish practice of giving money to make the world a more just place (with the linguistic root of tzedek/justice, built right into the word) is one of the most elevated commandments in our tradition.
"Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah" – Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1:1.
"Greater is tzedakah than all the sacrifices" – Talmud, Sukkah 49b.
And there is abundant wisdom and guidance from our sages about best practices, especially in communal giving. Yet in modern times, most children and teens are not guided in the practice beyond dropping a few coins in a tzedakah box once a week. And they are absorbing more lessons about money and giving than we may be intending. A third grade student who doesn’t give to the needy or social justice organizations because they don’t have their own money will likely to hold the same mindset in university, and maybe beyond. They believe that philanthropy is an activity for the super wealthy, as opposed to a mitzvah for everyone (and one that helps the receiver, the giver, and the community in equally important ways). The danger of this mindset not only fosters an unhealthy relationship to money, but it feeds the very real and present trends in giving. Philanthropists are increasingly represented by the oldest generation, in their 80s and above. And giving is becoming concentrated into fewer and fewer large donors, which threatens to create imbalances of influence in our communities. The world, including the Jewish community, needs a new generation of philanthropists; young, numerous, diverse, values-driven, and engaged.
Today, youth are exposed to social justice travesties large and small, near and far, on a daily basis via television and the internet. In his book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the existential tension created by this greater awareness and the limited ability to do something about it. “Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war, and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated.” Especially for youth who cannot travel across the globe independently, who do not yet have professional skills to offer, and in most cases have little freedom even over their own schedules and transportation on a local level. Tzedakah offers one antidote to this experience of hopelessness and disconnection.
In terms of changing social ills, supporting funds for a full time, licensed social worker will likely change more lives long-term than volunteering for a day or a weekend serving meals at a homeless shelter. Making a donation to help victims of the Syrian civil war is probably more helpful than hopping on a plane to volunteer for a week, especially if you lack needed language and other skills. These examples do not belittle or minimize the value of direct service. In fact, Judaism does not offer us a choice between tzedakah and acts of loving kindness (gemilut chasadim). We are commanded to do both, and both make a unique impact (again, on givers and receivers and the community). But for youth who have so little free time and refined skills, tzedakah is an active practice for seeking out problems that need solving, making decision based on their own values, and making a real impact.
In youth philanthropy programs, we teach both fundraising and grant making skills. By researching their cause, sharing it with people in their lives, and overcoming hidden messages to not talk about money, even youth can raise significant funds…literally tens of thousands of dollars. And they contribute their own personal funds to start the process, demonstrating their own commitment to their work and their cause. In this way, giving tzedakah is both personal and communal. It becomes a venue for identifying their passions, finding their voice, and being a leader in their community.
As we lose elder members of our communities, and the number of active philanthropists shrinks as well, the world needs youth to be engaged in tzedakah. Torah and Talmud recognize this as well as human nature’s resistance to this commandment. Maimonides advises us to give no more than 20% of our possessions to tzedakah and no less than 10%. In fact, even someone receiving tzedakah, he writes, should give at least half a shekel to tzedakah (Mishneh Torah, "Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor," 7:5). It is so interesting to me that there was a concern that someone may give too much tzedakah, that an upper limit would need to be set! And further interesting that someone who needs help would be expected to give some of that help away to others. What is the point here? As I read it, the rabbi sees the desire in the human heart to give, to help, to create a just world. But with money there are dozens of tiny questions and hesitation that stop us. Am I giving to the right place? Can I afford this? Is it really making a difference? What I see Maimonides telling us is to just get started! He gives us an upper and lower limit, and not even the poorest is excuses. Get started!
Tzedakah is a muscle, like the heart. We must use it to make it grow, grow stronger and more capable. Using it this year does not mean it will still be strong next year. It is a lifestyle and a life practice. We would not prevent our children from growing any other muscle when they are young. Like any skill or exercise, they need role models and opportunities before they are full grown adults. Even if they have very little money to give. Even if they aren’t sure it will help. Even if they have never done it before. We need them, the Jewish community needs them, and the world needs them to get started. And they need it too.