It’s Not as Easy as Dropping Coins into the Tzedakah Box

by Avi Loewenstein
2011-12 Roots & Branches Foundation member

Tzedakah, charity inspired by the pursuit of justice, is a tradition of Judaism on par with matzo ball soup, movies on Christmas Eve and the struggle of standing through the concluding service on Yom Kippur. In Sunday school, we dutifully dropped our coins into tin tzedakah boxes, and we learned that the giving of tzedakah is a mitzvah, a good deed.

Drawing on this tradition, one of the very few rules governing Roots & Branches Foundation is that the grants that we make, our tzedakah, must be “primarily Jewish in nature.” We were told that we must decide for ourselves what this means, and that our goal for our first few meetings was to answer this question. However, this is a deceptively difficult question to answer.

While we know that tzedakah is our tradition, our childhood education ended there; we understood that we give tzedakah because, well, that’s what Jews do. We did not learn what makes tzedakah Jewish or to whom we should give tzedakah. The world today is chock full of problems and organizations vying for our support. What problems should we address and to whom should we give? If it were only as easy as dropping coins into the tin tzedakah box.

Does giving Jewishly mean that we must give only to Jewish organizations helping Jews? Alternatively, can we rely on a broad interpretation of tikkun olam, the repair of the world, and give to non-Jewish organizations helping non-Jews in faraway lands? As we struggled to define what giving Jewishly means to us, we were assisted by a trove of traditional and non-traditional Jewish sources.

We studied Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Maslow. The great Jewish thinkers, unsurprisingly, vehemently disagree with each other. “Two Jews, three opinions,” the saying goes. We studied Rabbi Heschel, who opined that Jews today are in a “spiritual emergency,” and that we should “give priority to teaching and inspiring our children to live as Jews.” In contrast, Maimonides argued that “we should treat resident aliens with the consideration and kindliness that are accorded to Jewish people since we are commanded to sustain them,” and cited a verse from Deuteronomy holding that “you shall give it to the stranger who belongs to your community that he may eat ….”

As we explored and discussed these sources, it was inevitable that we faced the important and challenging questions facing American Jews today: Is our unprecedented assimilation a good thing for our people and tradition? Given the success and prosperity of Jews in America, do we have an obligation to help those less fortunate prior to helping our own? We quickly realized that the exploration of these answers was really an exploration of our own Jewish identities. Whether we help Jews before others cannot be answered without first exploring what it means to be a Jew in America.

For me, this self-exploration and struggle was one of the most powerful aspects of my Roots & Branches experience. Roots & Branches is not about simply getting together and giving away a bunch of money. It is about exploring and shaping – individually and collectively – our Jewish identities as funders and leaders in our community.

Rose Community Foundation is currently accepting applications from young Jewish adults between the ages of 25 and 40, living in Greater Denver and Boulder, who want to be part of this collaborative grantmaking program in 2012-13. Visit to learn more and apply. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, May 30, 2012, however applicants are encouraged to express their intent to apply by Wednesday, May 16th.