The Case for Tzedakah in Jewish Education

tzedakah boxby Saul Kaiserman

Jewish education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth. Further, we believe that by studying the past we can successfully prepare for an unknown future. We believe that compelling questions of value and meaning have shaped our communities since the days of the Bible. Our role as educators is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to enable our learners to form reflective communities, guided by the decisions of previous generations while empowered to take responsibility for arriving at their own conclusions.

I believe our classrooms and other places of learning must be the “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing vital and distinctive experiences our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives. In my role as director of lifelong learning at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, I have been part of a team of passionate educators who strive to create such environments. In our supplementary school, like so many others, the weekly collection of tzedakah is an integral part of our curriculum. What we do is perhaps not very different from any other Jewish school. I share our work in order to speak to the purposes of Jewish education – not only to guide value-driven practice and participation in Jewish community (as if those weren’t enough!), but also to offer unique ways of engaging the world.

At Emanu-El, we teach that the Hebrew word tzedakah literally means, not “charity” (from the Latin “caritas,” “altruistic love”), but “justice.” On our website, in our classrooms, and through family programming, we emphasize that sharing our good fortune fairly with others is not only an act of compassion, but a responsibility. We show how our tradition teaches that our achievements are always dependent upon Divine providence, and that with our wealth, we must seek equity. Further, we emphasize how this sense of responsibility has always, and continues to play, a central role in our communal identity.

Each Fall, our student council (composed of students in grades 4 – 7) debates the relative merits of different causes and selects two organizations to be the recipients of the funds we raise. Members of our high school A-TEEM (“Assistant Temple Emanu-El Madrichim”) then teach the younger students about the work of these organizations. Students are encouraged to bring tzedakah every week, and we regularly announce (and celebrate) where our fundraising stands. This collection fits into the framework of life that the parents live, many of whom are philanthropically minded. The student council also runs a booth at our Purim Carnival to teach about (and raise funds for) these causes.

Yet, there are also times when we, as the school leadership, decide where the funds we raise must go. Our first beneficiary every year is New York Common Pantry, so that we may take action on hunger locally, in our immediate neighborhood. Most years, we (sadly) have at least one week in which tzedakah is diverted for an urgent response to an emergency, such as typhoon Haiyan or super-storm Sandy. Thanks to the suggestion of a religious school parent, during the week of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 8) our collection supports The Blue Card, an organization that provides financial assistance to destitute Holocaust survivors. By sharing with our children the causes that matter to us, we pass along our values to the next generation.

Our students not only raise awareness of these organizations and the funds to support them, they also provide direct assistance to those in need. Through the Emanu-El Tikkun Olam Committee, we run “Mini-Mitzvah” projects prior to the start of school and during school hours over the course of the year. Social justice becomes the central focus of our 7th grade Mitzvah Corps. Throughout the year, these students learn about different social and economic issues and then volunteer in agencies that respond to them. However, we do not want our children to grow up to be “mitzvah dilettantes,” believing that a single act of volunteering can address deep need. Therefore, the students who participate in at least 18 sessions during the course of that year (the “Mitzvah Messengers”) decide together which cause they will focus on as 8th graders in our Tzedek League. These students examine the root causes of social inequality and injustice, and respond through direct service, philanthropy, and advocacy (by lobbying a city council member or state senator about legislation that can address the issue they have chosen).

As Jews, when we give tzedakah, what we do looks like what others are doing when they give charity. The critical point is that we understand it differently. At Emanu-El, we believe that our students are learning that with privilege comes responsibility. Our young people understand that it is their responsibility, as Jews, not only to study but also to act upon their beliefs. Our students engage in sophisticated and nuanced dialogue that leads them to become both advocates for causes they believe in and philanthropists on their behalf.

Saul Kaiserman is Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.