Deepening Our Tzedakah

[Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma Now, a curated monthly conversation on Jewish Sensibilities. These articles, examining the differences between philanthropy and tzedakah, originally appeared in October 2001.]

By Jennie Rosenn

As a child, I would sit with my brothers on the living room floor with one, five, and ten-dollar bills piled up around us. By our parents’ feet was a stack of solicitations, newsletters, and remittance slips. One by one my father would explain each organization. My two younger brothers and I would deliberate and then decide how much money from our individual stack we each wanted to give. Whether wisely or unknowingly, my parents signed us up for a lifetime of giving by indicating on each check that the contributions were from us. To this day, my brother gets mail from Greenpeace addressed to “Tony Castleman, age 5.”

My family tzedakah collective was actually the only time money was displayed with such abandon in our household. Even our allowance would be quickly put away and either saved for years to come or spent quietly within the week. Whatever our spending habits, my brothers and I, good New Englanders, learned at a young age that money was something to be handled discreetly and even with slight embarrassment. The memory of us sprawled on the living room floor surrounded by piles of dollar bills remains an incongruous image in our family’s landscape.

My family’s practice introduced us at a young age to the serious and nuanced work of giving tzedakah. In elementary terms, we debated the relative merits of advocacy and direct service. We argued about how to prioritize local and global need, human and animal worth, Jewish and secular causes, and we learned the importance of giving.

At its best, tzedakah involves thoughtful discourse and consideration of complex issues. A tzedakah collective of any kind, whether family or community based, can help us think more carefully about how to respond to pressing issues and deepen our understanding that we are part of a community of people approaching the world’s needs in diverse ways. It can also remind us that – joined with others – we can have a greater impact. My family’s tzedakah collective did all this.

In looking back, however, I am also struck by how some of the limits of my family’s giving reflect larger Jewish communal challenges. Our general discomfort with money, for example, meant that we did not engage in conversations about spending, wealth, and money beyond these random tzedakah Sundays. How can we understand tzedakah as part of a larger sacred relationship to money? How can we strive to view money in a holy way, as we do time, sex, or food?

I often hear college students say, ”I’ll give when I have money.” Many college students feel squeezed for money. Many receive financial help from their parents, some work, and most enjoy some amount of spending money. Imagine parents and children discussing tzedakah as part of their conversation about “allowance.” How do we make real in our communities the Jewish mandate for everyone to give – even the person who receives?

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, my family never discussed how much in total we should give. The piles of bills just appeared on the living room rug, and we never knew how much more our parents contributed. Like most American Jews, I knew there was a Jewish obligation to give, but had never heard that the recommended amount is 10-20 percent of one’s income. According to Dr. Gary Tobin, a leading researcher of Jewish philanthropy, Jewish households contribute annually an average of 2 percent of their income to tzedakah. A shift to even 10 percent would be significant. Not only would there be literally millions of additional dollars working to increase justice, health, and dignity in the world, but the ways Jews give tzedakah would change.

Giving tzedakah more seriously would challenge us to prioritize our giving in order to achieve the greatest impact. In giving greater amounts we would also be more likely to build tzedakah into our monthly routine. Regular conscious giving, in turn, can ultimately cultivate a deeper understanding of how we are connected to and responsible for the fate of others. How can we cultivate a culture in which American Jews budget 10-20 percent of their income for tzedakah in the same way they budget amounts for housing, groceries, education, retirement, and recreation? How can we put this on the Jewish communal agenda?

Tzedakah has been integrated into the consciousness and life of many American Jewish communities, classrooms, and families. But we need to challenge ourselves further – bringing money fully into the realm of the sacred, recognizing the tremendous impact of which we are capable, and creating communal standards for tzedakah. It is time we push the envelope on our giving.

Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, a member of the Sh‘ma Advisoy Board, is Associate Jewish Chaplain of Hillel at Columbia University and Barnard College.