Let’s Ground the Conversation about Giving in Jewish Values

by LuAnne Geffen

On September 16, 2013, eJewishPhilanthropy.com published an article called, “How Parents Teach Children about Charitable Giving Matters According to New Study.” The study referenced is “Women Give 2013” out of the IU Lilly Family School, which asks the essential question, “How can I raise my children to be charitable?” It finds that intentional conversation between parents and children about their giving is more important than role-modeling in rearing children who will be charitable as adults. The take-away for parents is: “It’s easy. Just talk to your kids about how and why you give.” We can surmise that this applies equally to Jewish parents and children. However, as a Jewish communal professional and educator with an interest in Jewish philanthropy, my concern is that parents make their gifts according to the imperative of tzedakah and that they ground their conversations about giving in Jewish values.

Paradoxically, as the title of the eJewishPhilanthropy.com piece articulates, it is precisely how Jewish parents teach their children about their giving that makes all the difference. The how is what matters because the how is what distinguishes Jewish giving from charity. The rationale behind Jewish parents’ giving and the types of conversations they have with their children around their giving inspired my 2012 capstone project for the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at the Hebrew Union College titled, “Jewish Philanthropy: A Family Affair?” With a dearth of research on the topic available, I collected qualitative data from a small, but diverse group of religious school parents at a large Los Angeles Reform synagogue. My study sought to find how Jewish values of giving are transmitted from one generation to the next. In learning how parents relate to tzedakah, it became clear to me that parents give, but most do so with little or no connection to Jewish values. Like the respondents of “Women Give 2013,” they stated they give because “It’s the right thing to do.” They feel it’s their civic duty to give, but fail to articulate their giving in Jewish terms.

Sure, it’s the right thing to do, but it isn’t tzedakah.

Translated from Hebrew, tzedakah literally means “justice” or “righteousness”. It is a mitzvah, an imperative to give. To be exact, it is a requirement with Biblical origins to give ten percent of one’s crop production – or in modern day terms, income – to those of one’s community in need. Whereas the act of charity reflects a desire to give, tzedakah reflects an obligation to give. An understanding of Jewish values and tradition underlies this responsibility. While the outcomes of charity and tzedakah may look the same, the intention behind the gift is what differentiates the two. If it’s the “right thing” and benefits the community the same, then why is this distinction so important? It is precisely the intention with which one gives that has implications for whether Jewish parents will raise charitable adults or adults that do tzedakah.

In order for the conversations parents have with their children about giving to be the right conversations, the organized Jewish world has to better understand this reality and do more to address it. Despite parents’ inability to root their giving in Jewish values, most conveyed interest to engage with their children in education about tzedakah. About the importance of family education on tzedakah, David Arnow (1993) provides this perceptive observation:

This kind of introduction to tzedakah conveys Judaism’s profound conviction that many of the tragic elements of the every day world are not immutable, that little by little the world can and must be improved. Youngsters discover the world’s imperfections all too quickly. They know it needs repair, but the job seems too overwhelming and children don’t know where to start. A healthy exposure to Judaism’s particular approach toward tzedakah – in a family setting – creates a safe space to start. At the same time, this builds pride in one’s heritage along with a durable sense of optimism and enthusiasm for continuing the lifelong work of tikkun olam … But, if tzedakah and other Jewish values are to be transmitted effectively … a quarter in the pushke at home or at school is simply not enough. (p. 3-6).

As Arnow suggests and the recommendations of “Jewish Philanthropy: A Family Affair” confirm, only once families have the knowledge to give Jewishly, will parents engage their children in the right conversations about how they give. And so Jewish nonprofits, synagogues and institutions that train Jewish professionals, here’s a request: While our community is abuzz with chatter about Jewish philanthropy, let’s take note and then take action. How we teach Jewish families about Jewish giving matters.

Lu Geffen is a Jewish educator and nonprofit professional. She resides in New York and serves the community of Central Synagogue.

For more insights and recommendations: “Jewish Philanthropy: A Family Affair?

For a curriculum guide on family education about Jewish philanthropy to bring to your organization see Kupat Tzedakah: A Family Collective and write to Lynn Flanzbaum at tartak@huc.edu.