The Othering of Tzedaka in Jewish Education

By Aurora Mendelsohn

Penny in the pushka,
Penny in the pot,
We give tzedakah right before Shabbat.
Counting all the pennies, nickels, quarters, too
It’s fun to help each other,
It’s what we ought to do.
One for the family without enough to eat,
One for the poor folks that live down the street,
One for the little girl who learns in special ways,
And one for Israel and that is why we say…..

This is a song that countless children learn at Jewish day school and Hebrew school. On the face of it, the song reinforces the important mitzvah of giving tzedakah. However, something about the song always bothered me. At first I thought it was because it emphasized giving money as the sole method of giving Tzedakah, which in many senses is the easiest. Money does not force us to interact with a person in need who may be different from us; it does not force us to see difficult situations or real suffering in person.

In the past decades Jewish educators have made great strides in transforming Tzedakah and Tikun Olam from sterile money-collecting enterprises to deep, experiential learning and giving. In eye-opening programs children have given food and clothing had conversations with homeless people, served dinners in shelters, performed at nursing homes, cleaned parks, built homes and visited the sick.

As commendable and necessary as these changes are, I feel we are compelled to go farther. The problem with the song is that the ones we are helping are always framed as “the other,” (even if it is not the case in reality). We, the singers of the song, the teachers, the students in the class, are the “Givers,” who help the poor, those with special needs or those who do not have enough to eat. The idea that the children in our schools, or their families or neighbours may be those who are poor, who may not have enough to eat, who have complex needs or mental illness is never brought up in the context of Tzedakah in the classroom. If this were in fact true of the school population we would have a big problem in our community in that Jewish education would be only available to those who never struggled with these issues. (And it is a problem in that it is less available to those who do struggle). Jewish schools do have students who fit in to these categories and do have students who don’t lack for food but do require tuition subsidies and do have complex needs or have family members who do. By presenting those students as “Other,” as outside the defined “We,” who are the “Givers” but not the “Receivers,” we risk making those legitimate needs fell shameful and the receivers of help feel like that cannot speak of their experience in the communal conversation. It also risks allowing the student who sees himself or herself as a ”giver” but not a “receiver” as thinking of herself or himself as being in a different group than those who do receive, and often subconsciously as being in a superior group.

While for privacy reasons we should not identify who gets a Pesach food hamper or who gets a tuition subsidy, we should acknowledge that they are among us; that they are indeed, Us.

We teach children that even those who receive tzedakah must also give tzedakah (Gittin 7b,). We need to look in the other direction as well. To borrow a phrase from another religion, we need a bit more of the sense of “but for the grace of God go I.” Students need to be reminded that we are all also recipients of the tzedakah of others: the donors of the buildings we learn in, the countless volunteer hours of those who make our shuls and schools possible, and the professionals who serve our community, making sacrifices to do so. A community is made of those who give and those who receive – and we are all both.

Aurora Mendelsohn has been involved in Jewish education as a teacher, board member and parent. Aurora blogs at RainbowTallitBaby.