DIY philanthropy

Six months ago, when Michal Taviv-Margolese started working as the Western Regional director for AMIT, a nonprofit operator of 108 schools in Israel, she started thinking more seriously about charity.

“For the first time, I was involved in a charitable organization and in doing fundraising, and I began thinking a lot more about giving and the requirements of the mitzvah,” she said.

As an observant Jew, Taviv-Margolese, 34, knew she should be giving 10 percent of her income to charity, but she had never really held herself to it. For starters, she never bothered to track what 10 percent of her income would amount to, in dispensable dollars. And even though she had always held salary-paying jobs — including as the former executive director of JConnectLA, the Jewish networking group for young singles — she never considered herself rich. “Philanthropist” seemed out of the question.

“I felt like I would give a little charity here, a little bit there, but I knew I wasn’t giving the requirement,” she said.

So late last summer, Taviv-Margolese decided that the best way to ensure the fulfillment of the mitzvah would be to create a tzedakah fund. 

She began by opening a separate account at her bank that was linked to her checking account and into which she could automatically transfer 10 percent of each paycheck. As a salaried employee, she could easily designate the exact amount for each bimonthly transfer. She nicknamed the account: “Tzedakah.”

“Now, whenever I want to give to charity, I can go and see how much I have in that fund and transfer from my tzedakah fund back into my checking account to pay for it.”

The tzedakah fund serves as a kind of charity holding cell; save now, give later.

“The main thing that’s so interesting about it is how quickly that money builds up,” Taviv-Margolese said. “Before this, I was never really clear on how much I had to give. Now I feel much more generous. Anytime anybody asks me for anything, I can say, ‘Yeah I can give a little bit.’ Actually, I can’t give it out as fast as it’s accumulating.”

After she makes her bimonthly transfers, “I don’t count it as my money anymore,” she said.

Since Taviv-Margolese opened her tzedakah fund in August, she has been able to contribute to a wide variety of organizations, including the Etta Israel Center; Chabad Center of the Five Towns’ Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund; Darche Noam, the yeshiva where she and her husband studied in Israel; the Chai Center; Friendship Circle; Maayon Yisroel on La Brea, the Chasidic center where she attends classes; and Meir Panim, the hunger relief organization based in Israel. She said she has given in increments ranging from chai, $18, to $660, and added that she is currently saving so she can join AMIT’s Chai Society, the organization’s second-highest giving level, which requires an annual contribution of $1,800.

“In my life I had never considered the potential of being a big donor in an organization,” she said, practically gushing with excitement. “I always considered myself not capable of that kind of giving, but now that I have the fund and money is increasing, it’s made me feel wealthier.”

One of the pleasures she derives from having the fund is cataloguing her giving. And the way Taviv-Margolese describes her process almost makes it sound like an addiction: “Every time I make a transfer, I write what it’s for, and it’s so nice to see all these little causes. I wonder, ‘What else can I give to?’ ”

Even though she sounds like a cheerleader on this topic, she admitted that giving didn’t always come naturally. “By nature I’m much more of a hoarder,” she confessed. But the tzedakah fund has helped to alter her perception of her own economic power and changed her overall relationship to money. 

“This has made me feel wealthier, more generous and more desirous to give,” she said. “I mean, yes, I worked hard for that money; but that money doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the world. And it’s my job to contribute to the world. Having a bank account just makes it much, much easier to facilitate the process and helps me feel I’m doing God’s will in this world.” 

Rabbi Now Connects L.A.’s Young Jews

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein knows how to excite Jewish youth. He’s been the guiding light behind the annual Jewlicious Festivals in Long Beach, which bring together youth from all denominations to celebrate their spirituality with raucous concerts mixed with some serious learning; he’s been a highly popular campus rabbi at Cal State University Long Beach Hillel, and now, he’s just moved to Los Angeles to head up JconnectLA, which presents social events for young Jews. Bookstein (or Rabbi Yo, as he’s known to his followers) and his wife Rachel have also worked hard on behalf of Jews living in Poland. He talked with The Journal recently about what being a rabbi at JconnectLA means to him.

Jewish Journal: It’s no secret that JconnectLA is primarily a social organization. What’s a rabbi doing there?
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein: I am not a typical rabbi. I see myself available to any young Jew who doesn’t have a rabbi, whatever their denomination or background. I feel, personally, that we have a desire to connect with other Jews and to connect with Jewish things. I don’t mean bagels and lox, I mean something deeper than that. I see my role as helping Jewish people connect.

JJ: Why is JconnectLA important to the Los Angeles community?
YB: The statistics show that young Jews in Los Angeles are one of the most unaffiliated groups of young Jews in the country. In L.A. there are more than 10,000 people who have been on Birthright, and those are old statistics. You’re talking thousands of Jews in L.A., and most of them are not connected to a synagogue or to Jewish groups. Hopefully they have some Jewish friends, but I think that for young Jews to really fulfill themselves they can have a great time connecting with other Jews.

JJ: Why should people come to JconnectLA instead of going to synagogue?
YB: We aren’t trying to replace synagogues. We are trying to be a place where people can come together and expand their Jewish horizons socially and culturally. JconnectLA is a place where people who don’t have a home in the Jewish community are accepted and feel at home. The Jewish Federation has done a study where they invested thousands of dollars into trying to figure out how to keep the next generation of Jews Jewish. Before JconnectLA started, young Jews in L.A. didn’t have so many options of stuff to do, and they didn’t want to go to a synagogue for a mixer.

JJ: You have been working with young Jews for a number of years, first at a college campus and now with young professionals. How would you characterize the current generation?
YB: Young professionals in L.A. are looking for a meaningful Jewish experience, but on their own terms. Whereas, sometimes I felt college students would put being Jewish as maybe the last thing on their agenda, young professionals are looking back to see what’s in the Jewish community for them, and the unfortunate thing is that there’s not very much. They want to carve out something new for themselves — a customized Jewish identity.

JJ: You work with Jews at an age when most of them are dating or looking to marry. You and your wife have been open about the fact that you were shomer negiyah [halachically observant, including not touching] before you were married. How do you reconcile your Jewish values about dating with the reality of raging hormones?
YB: I want young Jews to meet, date, fall in love and get married.  My favorite part of my job is doing weddings. I don’t tell people what to do unless they ask me for advice. I am not going to tell somebody who grew up Reform, don’t hug and kiss. They are going to look at me like I’m from Mars. What I like about my background is that I didn’t grow up Orthodox.

JJ: I have read that your wife, Rachel, shocked students at Long Beach when she was candid answering questions about sex. What’s the best relationship advice you have for people in their 20s and 30s? 
YB: You know, it is interesting. When do people call rabbis? When someone dies or is getting married. Judaism is very sex positive, but also believes that sex is holy. To fulfill yourself sexually and to have a great sex life, you need to respect it. It is just like having self-respect. I see a lot of couples who are acting as husband and wife and haven’t really made a commitment to each other. When people have a commitment together they connect deeper and have a better intimate life.

JJ: What kind of impact do you hope JconnectLA has on the people involved? 
YB: We want to be a unifying force in the Jewish community. If I had a vision, it would be that every young Jew in L.A. is connected to something Jewish. You don’t have to leave your Jewish star at the door. You could live an exciting, fun life and live an exciting, fun Jewish life as well. They’re not a contradiction.

JJ: Is there anything else you want to add?
YB: My home is going to be open to people for events and Shabbat dinners. I am available 24/6 online through instant messaging, Facebook and my blogs. I look forward to connecting with as many young Jews as I can in Los Angeles. I’m really excited.

The intercontinental JConnector dreams big

Just try to put Michal Taviv in a box — she won’t fit.

She’s a multinational citizen with passports from Israel and South Africa; she’s at home in Pico-Robertson and comfortable traveling abroad; she’s a double-degree business major who spends most of her time networking, matchmaking and community building. It’s taken 30 countries, two homelands and finally Los Angeles for her to put down roots.

But instead of settling for the status quo, she’s created the community she craves. Taviv is using her own religious struggles as a springboard to create a forum for young, disaffected Jews — or more precisely, those who are disconnected from their Jewish roots.

She started small, organizing hiking trips, Shabbat dinners and parties, hooking herself into Jewish Los Angeles, hitting the scene and hoping that she could inspire a loyal following for her baby, JConnectLA.

Enter Cheston Mizel, who had long been dreaming — and seeding — a new concept of Jewish unity. All he needed was a partner. Together the two created JConnectLA as a social networking “clearing house” for Jews between the ages of 20 and 40, of any background, affiliation or level of observance.

Now in its third year, JConnectLA’s primary focus is bringing together these Jews from different backgrounds, providing them a space in which to commune and connecting them with organizations that can further develop their Jewish involvement.

Just don’t confuse it with a singles organization.

When Taviv, 29, first arrived in Los Angeles from Israel three years ago, she didn’t know where young Jewish singles could go to socialize. As she explored the city, she found that it lacked a social center where Jews of different cultural and religious backgrounds could come together as a community.

Taviv, an effervescent woman, devoted herself to reaching out to multicultural Jews. She hooked herself into any Jewish event she could find, hitting bars, clubs, concerts and shuls in order to inspire a following.

“So many young Jews are being ignited, and it’s not necessarily in a religious or political way,” she said, but people are yearning for ways to live a meaningful life.

“We want to live a life that allows us to contribute, that allows us to feel like the potential we have as human beings is being fulfilled, and it’s really starting to come forth,” she said.

Taviv didn’t connect with religion until adulthood. The eldest of four siblings, Taviv spent her formative years in South Africa, raised by scientist parents originally from Russia. Her father, a nuclear physicist, and her mother, an engineer, both emphasized hard math over Judaism, reason over spirituality.

“Shabbat on Friday night was the only meal that we ate together as a family — then we’d go watch TV or go out,” Taviv said.

“I was suspicious of dogma, suspicious of institutions, of rules and regulations and definitely did not want to take on some system that I didn’t understand, that just told me what to do,” Taviv said.

After her brother made aliyah and immediately entered yeshiva, her family thought he had been brainwashed.

Taviv went to Israel to investigate her brother, but she found herself relating to the multifaceted nature of Israeli society, and her trip became a catalyst for broadening her own Jewish journey.

“I think I was always a seeker spiritually, but I hadn’t scratched beyond the surface of Judaism to see the value and the beauty of what was there,” she said. “But once in Israel with open eyes and a more open heart, my soul couldn’t help but respond.”

After a sojourn that took her around the world, Taviv landed in Los Angeles, a multicultural hotbed that possessed all the ingredients of the diverse, dynamic community she desired.

In January 2006, as program director for Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK), which she credits as a critical partner in helping launch JConnectLA, she was assigned to work with Mizel and build the grass-roots organization.

“JConnectLA started at the Shabbat table of Cheston Mizel, as an ingathering of the exiles,” she said, betraying pride that the organization’s unconventional roots reflect her own.

The founding partnership proved to be a lucky one. Although they had different roles, Mizel, as the primary fundraiser, and Taviv, as the programmer, shared the same vision: Jewish unity.

“Unfortunately, I felt like there wasn’t enough conversation or dialogue happening here between the different groups, different cultural and religious backgrounds,” she said.

Formed quickly through word of mouth and fueled by a handful of private donors who committed to a three-year operating budget of approximately $250,000 per year, JConnectLA began attracting a vast network of multiethnic, multicultural Jews by offering Jewish-themed social programming. In only three years, it has increased its database from 800 to almost 4,000 people.

“This is the place where all Jews need to feel comfortable, where any Jew from any walk of life can feel a sense of belonging, a sense of welcome and kinship,” Taviv said. “What we want, what we measure our success by, is if a Jew comes to one of our events and walks away feeling ‘That was a good Jewish experience.'”

In order to appeal and be accessible to everyone, Taviv has been especially sensitive to ramping up religious standards to the highest level of acceptance so that even the most devout Jews can participate in their activities.

At their annual Purim party last March, black hats were bopping to the band Moshav in the same room as scantily clad Queen Esthers.

Taviv insists JConnectLA has no religious agenda.

“We’re not trying to fundraise from them, we’re not trying to make them religious, we’re not trying to send them to Israel — if all that stuff happens, fabulous! That’s a byproduct,” she said.

Perhaps the greatest impact of JConnectLA has been on Taviv herself, whose Jewish identity has deepened in tandem with the organization’s growth. While she once identified as secular, Taviv is now shomer Shabbos and a regular in the Pico-Robertson hood.