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4 Steps to Make Purim Great Again and Help the World

Are you stuck in the Purim Party rut?

Do you go to few Purim parties and then pay for it the next day with a horrific hangover? If this is the case your Purim needs an extreme makeover, because there is more to Purim that meets the bottle. If you are suffering from over-doing-it from too much Purim Partying, you actually miss out on the seriously great parts of Purim.
You see, Purim’s combination of customs and mitzvot make it totally unique in the Jewish year. No holiday has Purim’s power to unite Jews from all backgrounds and generate spiritual growth. If you want to make your Purim Great Again, if you want your Purim to be “off-the-charts”— then use these four steps to make your Purim truly memorable, enjoyable and rewarding.

There are four mitzvot for Purim – and each one is a step up a ladder of spiritual/material interaction and revelation of the Divine.

Step One: Listen To The Megillah aka Kriyat Megillah To relive the miraculous events of Purim we listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, on Purim evening, and again during the day. Try to hear every single word of the Megillah – so make sure to turn off your cell phone! 🙂 When Haman’s name is mentioned make lots of noise and stamp your feet to “eradicate” Haman’s evil name. According to Kabbalah this noise has profound impact. It’s not just kid’s shtick. Click here for Pico Shul’s Purim Schedule.

Step Two: Give money to the Needy aka Matanot La’evyonim Concern for the needy is a year-round responsibility. However, on Purim it is a special mitzvah to remember the poor. Give charity to at least two, but preferably more, needy individuals on Purim day. The mitzvah is best fulfilled by giving directly to the needy. If you cannot find poor people, you can donate online and I will hand out tzedakah to poor Jews for you on Purim Day. All of it goes to Tzedakah – we do not take any cut. How much? A lot. Seriously consider giving 10% of your monthly profits to help poor members of our community. You will feel very good and do a lot of good in the world. As with the other mitzvot of Purim, even small children should fulfill this mitzvah.

Step Three: Send Food Gift-Baskets to Friends aka Mishloach Manot On Purim we emphasize the importance of Jewish unity and friendship by sending food gifts to friends and family. On Purim day, deliver at least two gift-baskets of ready-to-eat foods (e.g., pastry, fruit, beverage), to at least one friend on Purim day. The more you deliver – the better! Don’t have time to pack your own? There are many stores that sell read-made baskets and only need to add your card! Children, in addition to sending their own gifts of food to their friends, make enthusiastic messengers. We travel around by minivan and the kids run up to houses and deliver the baskets.

Step Four:  Eat, Drink and be Merry aka Purim Seudah Purim is celebrated with a special festive meal on Purim Day, where family and friends gather together to rejoice in the Purim spirit. This feast should be over-the-top with courses, variety and duration. Join us at Pico Shul for our Purim Feast! It is a mitzvah to drink wine or other inebriating drinks at this meal – and that is where the tradition to drink on Purim originates.

Now that you have your blueprint, you can start filling in the details:

  1. Organize where you will be to hear the Megillah
  2. Get cash ready for poor and/or make online donations to worthwhile organizations helping the poor on Purim Day
  3. Shop for gifts for your friends and family.
  4. Reserve a spot for Purim meal, or make your own.

If you follow this four step Purim regimen, you will elevate your life, and the lives of many people around and the world. Have a safe, inspiring and delicious Purim!

No donation too small for tzedakah

It would be nice to have millions of dollars that could be used to better the world. But let’s be honest: Most of us don’t have gargantuan bank balances, seismic investment portfolios or seven-figure incomes.

But what we all can do is put a little of what we do have aside for the causes we care about, whether it’s modest charitable giving, regularly dropping change in a tzedakah box, or donating toys, gifts or even just our time and skills. 

When it comes to charitable giving, everyone has the power to make a difference, according to Elana Wien, director of the Center for Designed Philanthropy at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA).

And not only does philanthropy help others, it helps us feel good by contributing to a sense of engagement with the community and the causes we support, she said. Studies show that children whose parents discuss and involve them in philanthropy at a young age are more likely to be philanthropic later in life, Wien noted.

To ensure our giving has the most impact, it’s a good idea to home in on the one or two causes that are most important to you, she said. That could mean you have to say no to other worthy organizations.

 “Instead of trying to be all things to all causes, it’s important to define those causes most meaningful to you,” she said. “[This] focus, in my professional opinion, results in greater satisfaction on your part and also means a wonderful thing for the charity you are supporting, as they benefit from your long-term support and involvement.”

Wein suggested researching charities before giving to them by using online resources such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar, and reaching out to funders such as JCFLA, which can give you a deeper understanding of a particular organization. One of the best things you can do is visit the organization and speak to its staff and clients to see firsthand the impact they are making in the community, she said.

Another way to add power to your giving is through collaborative efforts, such as joining a local giving circle, participating in community walks or contributing to crowdsourcing and other online campaigns, Wien said. She cited the viral success of the ice bucket challenge, which netted more than $100 million in contributions to advance global ALS research.

Rabbi Moshe Kesselman of Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles said there’s a tradition of giving in Judaism. Specifically, he said, Jewish law recommends giving 10 percent of one’s income to charity.

“But not everybody’s in a position where they can afford it, and if they’re not, then they shouldn’t be giving 10 percent,” he said. “I tell [people in this situation] that their responsibility to themselves and to their families comes first, so as wonderful and as beautiful as it is to give to charity, they should always make sure that they’re being responsible about it.”

Paying back debt also comes before charity, according to Torah, Kesselman said. But if after debt and family obligations you can afford to give something to charity — even if it’s just a small amount — you should, the rabbi added.

“Even if they can give just a little bit … they should never underestimate the value of even what may be perceived as small contributions to charity,” Kesselman said.

In his own life, Kesselman said he tries to meet the 10 percent requirement. He also encourages his three children to give to charity by putting tzedakah boxes around the house and constantly encouraging them to put coins in them.

 “It teaches them generosity, it teaches them the value of the mitzvah, it teaches them that this is something that should constantly be on our minds,” he said. “And it teaches them the value of even small contributions.”

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino also stressed that charitable giving should include the entire family.

About twice a year, Farkas and his wife, Sarah, sit down to talk about causes they feel passionate about and put together a plan for how they’re going to support them. The couple also talks to their four children, ages 2 to 8, about the importance of giving to charity. Each time the kids receive gifts for occasions like birthdays, their parents ask them to put a small number aside to give to seriously ill children in the hospital.

“Giving is an attitude more than an action,” Farkas said. “We’re teaching [our kids] the attitude, the character trait, that when somebody gives you a gift — especially a large gift — you don’t need all of it and you should pass the love on to other people who need it.” 

Making charitable giving a routine part of your life is more important than how much you give, the rabbi said. He emphasized the importance of putting your tzedakah box in a place where you’ll see and use it regularly, such as next to where you put your keys or your Shabbat candles. Also, remember to follow through on your tzedakah and donate the money once the box is full, he added.

While Jewish scholars have recommended giving 5 to 10 percent of one’s income to charity, many people don’t reach that, Farkas said. Instead of focusing on the amount, the rabbi said he tells people to give beyond the minimum and not just what they put in a tzedakah box.

 “It’s not just money that you don’t need, but you’re giving up something to help other people. It’s a sense of ‘I’m giving more than the minimum because I’m giving enough that I can actually feel it in my pocketbook,’ ” he said. “There’s no number for that; I think that that’s a personal choice.”

Giving is a core Jewish value, not just something you do because you have a good heart, Farkas said.  

 “In our tradition, we see tzedakah as an obligation; it’s part of who you are,” he said.  “It’s an obligation to support those in the community who don’t have. … Anyone can do it and anyone can be a part of it because it’s inculcated into the Jewish soul.”

Pesos from Heaven: A High Holy Days message

I haven’t seen or spoken to my parents for years now. This isn’t because of negligence or lack of caring, it’s that they’re no longer in this world.

Nonetheless, we keep in touch. I guess you could call it a “long-distance” relationship.

With that in mind, I’d like to share something that happened to me this week.  

I‘m currently producing a new cartoon series called “Pig Goat Banana Cricket” for Nickelodeon, and I was getting ready to visit our animation studio in Mexico City. A few days before the trip, I walked into the kitchen and saw a strange site: a large Ziploc bag filled with a stack of old passports. They belonged to my parents and grandparents. Amazingly, alongside the passports was a stack of …

Mexican pesos.

That bag had been sitting in a storage box for years. I have no idea why it was unearthed when it was. But there it was, right before my trip — my parents’ passports and a stack of …

Mexican pesos!

We use passports to travel from one country to another. Or from this world to the next, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells it in “The Munkacher Passport,” an awesome story and a must-listen. 

I couldn’t escape the feeling that my parents, in their ongoing love, were giving me spending money for my trip. 

But how?

The Talmud teaches that this world and the next are as close as two hairs on a person’s head. As interconnected as one cup stacked within another. Our dimensions intersect. We just don’t have the eyes to see it.

The bills were old, but the man behind the glass partition of the airport’s currency exchange assured me they were still good.

My brother-in-law lives with his family in Mexico City. Before I left, my wife emailed him, asking about kosher restaurants near my hotel. He wrote back impishly with the address of “a restaurant for my soul.” In other words, the location of the nearest shul at the time of morning services.  

The truth is I was planning on going to morning minyan anyway, but it was nice to have an address and a time.  

One of the wonderful things about being part of the Jewish community is that you can walk into any shul around the world and instantly speak the same language. Walls fall, and you realize the larger Oneness we all inhabit.

But the real reason I’m writing this is to tell you what happened next.  

During the prayers, someone came around collecting tzedakah, charity for the poor of the community.  

I wanted to give, but I was in a foreign country, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  

Then I realized I had my parents’ pesos!  I reached into my pocket, took out the bills and gave them to tzedakah. 

After the Torah was read, they gave me the honor of gelilah, wrapping the Torah scroll.  I learned from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that this aliyah is a segula, a blessing to complete projects. How appropriate!

The idea that children can reach to a place in time and space that our parents no longer have access to amazes me. What a privilege it is to be our parents’ hands, and to have the potential to complete what they may have wanted to do but no longer can. 

This, of course, goes beyond our parents. It applies to the dreams of all the previous generations who worked and yearned to bring the redemption.  

We are their hands. We are their feet.

But let’s go deeper.

The same dynamic that applies to parent and child also applies to us and our own selves.  

At High Holy Days, HaShem creates a new us. The previous version of ourself no longer exists.  

As such, the new, inspired us has the ability to complete the work that the old us never got a chance to. The new, inspired me can reach to a place (in time and space) and do what the old me may have desired but was never able to accomplish. 

That means I can fix my own soul.

May HaShem bless us to see the wondrous completion of our work, of our parents’ work and of the work that all previous generations gave their souls for to bring to reality.

David Sacks produces torahonitunes.com.

Sharing tzedakah with the next generation

Like many doting grandparents, Peggy and Ed Robin have given their grandchildren small cash gifts over the years. Last year, they upped the ante and made a significant gift to each of the seven.

This time, though, the money came with a caveat: It had to be given away.

The Encino couple created donor-advised funds to be used for charitable purposes for each of their grandkids, who range in age from 12 to 22, through the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA). The Robins declined to specify the amount donated, but the minimum required to set up such a fund is $5,000, according to the JCFLA website. 

In giving in this way, the Robins hope to offer their grandchildren something more meaningful than a birthday check or graduation gift — they want to pass on the value of tzedakah

“We think that they all abstractly understand the value of giving — that it is good for other people and makes you feel better, makes you happy. They all get that,” Ed explained while sitting in the kitchen of the Robins’ art-filled home one recent morning. “This empowers them to do something about it.

“If they develop the habit, if you’ve always done it, you just continue to do it. We thought it was a practical way to transmit the value. Also, we’re not mandating what they do. They may have different interests.”

The Robins’ decision to set up the funds was inspired by their friends and mentors Dorothy and Osias “Ozzie” Goren. Those local philanthropists used $48,000 last year to start 13
donor-advised funds for their children and grandchildren.

The philanthropic roots of Peggy, 71, and Ed, 72, go back to their parents and grandparents. Both grew up in Jewish households that valued giving time and money: Peggy in Charleston, S.C., and Ed in Jacksonville, Fla. Both remember the iconic, blue Jewish National Fund collection boxes in their respective homes, and Peggy’s parents were involved with Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and Israel Bonds. 

“My parents had modest means but participated where possible, particularly in the synagogue,” Ed said.

Philanthropy and its importance wasn’t something either family explicitly discussed; it was just part of the environment, something that became second nature, he explained.

“That’s the greatest gift we were left with — that the default is to give and participate. With us, it’s not an acquired skill or necessarily a choice. It’s what we are and who we are,” he said. “With us, the default is to give.”

“It’s hard to understand how people don’t,” Peggy added.

The couple met as students at the University of Florida and moved west in the 1960s. Ed became a labor-
relations attorney and helped establish NAS Insurance Services, an insurance underwriting firm where he still works, albeit very part time. (It is now run by their son, Rich; their daughter, Jill Linhardt, works there as well.) Peggy became a speech pathologist working with stroke and Parkinson’s patients but is mostly retired now. 

The couple, longtime members of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, have given in excess of $1 million over the years to many causes. Among many things, they have been passionate about supporting Jewish life in the former Soviet Union — Ed is a past chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and co-chaired Freedom Sunday in 1987, when 250,000 Americans gathered in Washington, D.C., in solidarity with Soviet Jewry.

They have backed Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, the Los Angeles Jewish Home and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, for which Ed served as vice chairman of the board. 

Much of the Robins’ giving has been done through a donor-advised fund at the JCFLA. Having this pre-existing relationship with the nonprofit, which vets charities and handles all the paperwork as well as the allocation of funds, made setting up the funds for the grandkids a no-brainer. 

It allows Peggy and Ed to be completely hands-off — they don’t even get the statements for the funds. The grandkids handle everything; this way they can take full ownership and learn responsibility, along with the importance of being charitable. 

“We’re not trying to micromanage it. The money is there to be given away. From our standpoint, it’s already been given away,” Ed said with a laugh. 

The Robins did make one adjustment to their original plan, however. 

“My son had a very good idea,” explained Ed. “It wouldn’t be meaningful unless [the grandkids] had some skin in the game. We set it up so that they have to add a portion of their gifts back to the fund. If they give $100 to something, they have to put in $10.”

And what do the grandkids think?

“I thought it was really cool helping us start to give tzedakah so when we’re older we’ll understand what organizations to give to and how important it is,” said Maya Robin, 12.

Already this past summer, she was busy making timely allocations — $250 each to two organizations.

“When the war escalated in Israel, I gave some to Friends of the [Israel Defense Forces] and some to Magen David Adom,” she said. “I gave a decent amount of money to each. My sisters gave more because they had more money from their bat mitzvah. But I gave to two organizations.”  

Jake Linhardt, 22, a research analyst based in San Francisco, said receiving the funds from his grandparents has been empowering.

“Before receiving my Jewish Foundation account, charitable giving always felt like something that I would do one day in the future, but not necessarily right now,” he wrote in an email. “Thanks to my grandparents, I have been able to donate money at a young age and experience the benefits of giving to others. I hope to continue supporting important causes with the help of my account.”

Courtroom mavens give back on temple boards

One Century City law firm has assembled a dream team of high-powered leaders — in more ways than you might expect.

Three partners at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP do much more than work long hours; they are, or recently have been, presidents at prominent local synagogues.

“It’s the culture of the law firm to serve and give back to the community,” said Norman Levine, 64, who practices real estate and intellectual property litigation, and is president of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino. “The firm has a long history of service to the Jewish community.”

His colleagues and fellow presidents — past and present — are Joel Weinstein of Sinai Temple in Westwood and Bernie Resser of Kehillat Israel (KI) in Pacific Palisades.

Arthur N. Greenberg, a founding partner of the firm, encourages the other lawyers to give back to the community, Levine said. Greenberg was a founding member of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Skirball Cultural Center. The firm as a whole has contributed to organizations like The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Free Loan Association, Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Levine, who has been VBS president since last May, said the volunteer work has never been an issue inside the firm.

“Maybe at other law firms if they had two synagogue presidents at one time it would be too much of a burden for the firm to carry, but it hasn’t impacted our legal practice,” he said.

Weinstein, 57, who practices corporate and securities law, among other things, said he pursued the position at Sinai, where he’s been a member since 1985, because “I wanted to give back to our temple, and I wanted to build on the successes of those leaders who were past presidents.”

Weinstein said that in his 10 months as president, he has helped enhance member-to-member and member-to-clergy relationships, sustain and boost membership, and answer to the needs of congregants.

From 2007 to 2009, Resser, 59, was president of KI, a Reconstructionist synagogue. A member for 16 years, he was initially inspired to get involved when his children were nearing their b’nai mitzvah ages. 

“We all ask our kids to do this stuff and commit to Judaism as adults,” he said. “I think instead of telling our kids what to do, we need to model the behavior that we want our kids to grow toward. When I was asked to be on a committee, I said yes.”

Resser said that during his term as president, he was taken aback by the similarities between his responsibilities at temple and his work in litigation and real estate; intellectual property; and restaurant, food and beverage law. 

“I was surprised by how much being a lawyer informed my job as temple president and how much being temple president has informed my professional life,” he said. “We need, as synagogue leaders, to be second to the goals of the organization. It’s not about me as a lawyer when it comes to my clients, and it’s not about me as a temple president when it comes to my temple. It’s about the congregation and making the congregation and lay leadership work together when it comes to their goals.”

Practicing law and serving on a board at a synagogue also require the ability to take the reins on issues and complete the work that needs to be done, an area where Weinstein said he’s been helped by his training as a lawyer. 

“Our relationship that we have with clients [requires that] we be responsive, reactive and proactive to them, just like at temple,” he said. “As a lawyer, I developed the ability to set agendas, [which helped me] serve as leaders of board meetings [at temple], welcome fresh perspectives, accept and implement people’s ideas, and set timelines and guidelines.”

At Greenberg Glusker, the three synagogue leaders know the importance of giving back, even if it means adding to their already strenuous schedules. 

“We volunteer what is a tremendous amount of time for our respective temples to enhance the values and benefits that all the members receive now and in the future,” Weinstein said. “We all recognize that we have a place in the world and that we’re here to do our best to make it a little bit better before we leave.”

Family keeps tzedakah tradition going with funds

When Osias “Ozzie” Goren turned 90 last year, he and his wife, Dorothy, were moved that their grandchildren donated $900 — $90 each — to a Head Start preschool for low-income families that the Gorens supported for many years.

After all, it was right in line with the way the philanthropist couple from Pacific Palisades have lived their whole lives. When they expressed their desire that their grandchildren continue to carry on these practices, sons Jerry and Bruce remember it giving them an idea.

“If you’re really interested in trying to make them charitable, why don’t you provide them with the means of doing that?” they asked.  

And the Gorens did. 

Announced this spring, the Gorens made an initial allocation of $48,000 from their family foundation to create 13 donor-advised funds through the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCF) that will allow all 10 grandchildren and the Gorens’ three children to discover what causes they are passionate about and donate to them. Each child’s fund received $10,000, with each grandchild’s receiving $1,800. They will be increased by those same amounts every year, according to Bruce Goren.   

Dorothy, 90, said the object of creating the funds was to “infect” their grandchildren with the  “idea of giving to the community” and to interest other people with foundations to do the same with theirs. (Several other Jewish families in Los Angeles have since established similar funds.) 

 “L’dor v’dor [‘from generation to generation’] is exactly what we are doing,” Ozzie added during a conversation with the couple in his Westwood office. “We are inculcated with the business of tzedakah, of giving, in our lifetimes. We want to make sure it goes on and on.” 

An attorney since 1962, Ozzie went on to pursue the investment, development and management of commercial real estate. His resume includes time spent as the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Dorothy is a former president of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and was the first woman in a major city to chair a United Jewish Welfare Fund campaign. The couple created the Goren Family Foundation in 1986 through the JCF, which counsels and manages charitable assets for Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists. 

The new donor-advised funds, they said, are about more than the money they put into them. Ozzie and Dorothy said they hope the funds eventually grow from donations their family members each independently contribute, thereby sustaining them well beyond the couple’s lives. 

Jerry Goren described the funds as a vehicle that ensures the Gorens’ grandchildren are thoughtful about giving, because they now have the means to do so at some small level.  

In fact, even though the funds were created less than a year ago, they are already making a difference, as the grandchildren can recommend donations go to virtually any organization they choose (although the foundation has the final say). 

Bruce Goren said that his children, who are all in their 20s, are now concretely thinking about “what they want to be passionate about and what they think is a worthwhile cause.” Because they now have charitable funds with which to work, it “puts the onus on them to do something,” he said. 

Cole, Jerry Goren’s 13-year-old son, said that in particular he is now concerned with the homeless population in Los Angeles, and that he appreciates how his family is sharing this legacy of giving together.  

When Ozzie and Dorothy Goren’s children and grandchildren start donating — they can make recommendations immediately and independently — they will continually remember the values that once prompted the funds’ creation and share them with the Jewish community, said Marvin Schotland, president and CEO of the JCF, who oversaw the organization of the Gorens’ donor-advised funds.

Schotland, who has known Ozzie and Dorothy Goren for almost 25 years, said his first impression of the Gorens was they have a “deep and abiding love for their family. They also have a deep and abiding love for the Jewish community and Jewish traditions and values.” 

Together, Ozzie and Dorothy Goren have held just about every major volunteer position in the Los Angeles Jewish community, and they continue to support organizations like JFS and Federation. They helped smuggle needed items into the Soviet Union to assist refuseniks and assisted in the relocation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. They also supported efforts to get black South Africans to Israel during the apartheid era.

The couple attributes their philanthropic nature to their Eastern European parents, who all immigrated to New York, and to living through the wake of the Great Depression, the Holocaust, World War II and the beginnings of the State of Israel. As a result, they said, they believe in a responsibility as Jews to improve the world for everyone.

“We care for each other, and for the outside community,” Dorothy Goren said about the Jewish community as she welled up with tears.  “On the total community, on the world.  We care a lot.”

Her husband cut in, “If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” referring to Hillel’s aphorism from the Mishnah about one’s relationship to the world.

The Gorens have tried to pass down this legacy of tzedakah and tikkun olam (repairing the world) to their children and grandchildren, who serve turkey dinners to 100 families every Christmas, a tradition Ozzie Goren started 57 years ago through the Los Angeles Urban League.  

For as long as he has been a grandfather, Ozzie Goren has referred to his family as his “immortality.” He and his wife alluded to this term in the conclusion of a letter they sent to their whole family this past spring to unveil their plans about the donor-advised funds.  

 “The art of giving is one of the great Jewish traditions, and we hope that what we are doing will help immortalize that tradition through you, from generation to generation, l’dor v’dor,” they wrote. “Giving to those not as fortunate as ourselves not only makes them smile, but makes you smile and feel good as you continue in our family’s multigenerational tradition of charitable giving.”

Four New Yorkers charged with pocketing aid for Israel

New York state’s attorney general accused four New Yorkers of pocketing more than $2.5 million in donations for charitable projects in Israel.

The New York Times on Friday named four defendants from Brooklyn: Yaakov Weingarten, 52, and his wife Rivka, 52; and two of his employees: Simon Weiss, 28, and David Yifat, 66.

Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general, said the four “brazenly abused the generosity of the public” by using more than $2.5 million raised in donations for personal expenses from 2007 to 2013.

A lawsuit was filed Thursday against the defendants in the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, the Times reported. Weingarten’s lawyer, Sheldon Eisenberger, did not respond to a message left by the Times with his receptionist.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants collected money for 19 charities they were running. The charities had buzzwords in their names intended to appeal to Jews eager to help Israel, the Times reported.

Only a small amount of the donated money actually wound up in Israel, the Times reported. The defendants bounced at least 2,100 checks and wasted $65,000 of charitable donations in overdraft fees, Schneiderman charged. The lawsuit asked the court to close some charities managed by the defendants; it did not immediately address the issue of repayment.

Schneiderman said the defendants spent the money on home mortgages, the remodeling of a second home, car loans, dentist visits, video rentals and a trip to the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City, among other expenses.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of “preying on a vulnerable public’s charitable instincts, and in particular the charitable impulses that many persons of the Jewish faith have for Israel.”

Among the organizations named in the lawsuit are Bnei Torah, Magen Israel and the Israel Leukemia and Cancer Society. Only two of the 19 entities were even registered in Israel, Schneiderman said. The solicitations also used “doctored photographs” of workers and equipment belonging to actual Israeli emergency organizations, the complaint said.

Schneiderman’s office would not say whether criminal charges were also forthcoming.

Israel stingy with foreign aid, Israeli prof says

When it comes to sending international aid abroad, Israel and its citizens give less than most other developed free-market economies, according to a new report.

Hillel Schmid, a professor at Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Philanthropy, told the Los Angeles Times that an “anti-philanthropist” culture in Israel could help explain why the Jewish state sent so little charity abroad.

Over the past decade, the Times reported, Israelis collectively sent 0.1 percent of all their charitable donations abroad. Belgians send 48 percent of their charity outside their country and 5 percent of Americans’ charity goes to non-American recipients.

“Even though Israel was built by philanthropists, today surveys show that Israelis think philanthropies are self-interested, political and wasteful,” Schmid told the Times on June 5.

Israel also gives less to domestic charities than other countries do – 0.7 percent of its GDP, Schmid told the Times. The U.S. gives about 2.5 percent of its GDP to social programs education, art and cultural charities.

“They feel, ‘We pay taxes, we serve in the army,’” Schmid told the Times. “‘Why should we give more?’”

The article has provoked a firestorm of nasty – and in many cases, overtly anti-Semitic – comments on the Times’ Web site.

Schmid says that Israel could improve its reputation in the world by reversing the trend, but changing the culture will take some effort and education. 

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, said that the question of how – and how much – Israel should devote to foreign aid is currently a subject of intense conversation among Israelis. But he feels that the new study ignores unquantifiable contributions the Jewish state has made to international development.

“We've always specialized in sending experts, not in sending money,” Siegel told the Journal on June 12. Israel’s international aid agency, Mashav, is currently working on 30 projects in other countries and has, Siegel said, trained 300,000 people in 134 countries over the past 50 years in agricultural technology, health education and other matters related to international development.

“When you judge what Israel does on a dollar-by-dollar basis,” Siegel asked, “how do you monetize an Israeli agricultural expert who has trained people in methods over 40 years?”

Siegel, who saw Israeli experts at work when he was stationed in Eritrea, also said that the Times’ report didn't pay enough attention to the differences between Israel and countries like Belgium and the United States. Israel has a much higher defense burden, Siegel said, and it is in some ways, still a developing nation.

“Israel only joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2010,” Siegel said, referring to the 34-country body that aims to stimulate economic development in democratic and free market countries. “We’re being compared to countries that have been there for decades.”

IRS’ ‘return free’ bad for most vulnerable

As April 15 nears each year, American taxpayers take inventory of their income and expenses and hand over a year’s worth of detail to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Many of us utilize the expertise of accountants to prepare what will become a complex analysis of the many life happenings that impact the sum of the taxes we owe or our refund. Our financial lives are often inherently complex, and they become even more complex when they must be reported and evaluated according to federal and state tax codes.  Tuition payments for our children’s education, contributions we have made to various charities and the cost of caring for our elderly parents are just a few of the deductible expenses that we communicate to our tax preparer. These factors are particularly relevant to our Jewish communities, where education, tzedakah, and caring for the sick and elderly serve as religious and cultural imperatives.

I am deeply concerned to learn about the IRS’ latest fight in Congress. The same federal agency responsible for collecting our taxes and issuing our refunds wants to be responsible for processing our filing information. This means that instead of communicating the countless details of our annual economics to accountants, the IRS wants us to hand over that information directly to them and await their response in the form of a refund and/or a collection notice.  I devote several months to the process of filing my taxes. As a spouse, rabbi, homeowner and contributor to multiple charities, my tax-filing experience is loaded with nuance, and I count on the tremendous detail and accuracy of my preparer to assure that I pay what I owe according to law and not more or less than that. I cannot imagine a scenario where those specific factors become unimportant in a system so large and disorganized that it cannot possibly process my truly individual return.

As an ethicist, I look beyond my own experience and shudder at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society. Lower-income, minority, senior, veteran and disabled people rely on their refunds more than anyone. I am blessed to be concerned about how my charitable contributions will be accurately processed, but there are folks across this city and our nation who rely on their tax refund to pay the mortgage, cover medical expenses, and even keep the electricity and water on at home.

The IRS’ proposed “Return Free” program proposes to experiment with its new concept on the lowest income bracket of our nation, guaranteeing that the fallout will impact those who need the most support. Many of the same individuals and families who will suffer as a result of being issued inaccurate refunds under this program are also the people who will encounter the most significant barriers in rectifying that unfairness. 

If Congress allows the IRS to go through with this plan, I will likely have to hire accountants and attorneys to revise what will be an inaccurate return and then to get the IRS to accept the revisions. I am fortunate enough to have the money and knowledge to do that, but there are so many Americans who will never be able to repair the mistakes of the IRS. Language barriers, mistrust of government and centuries of discrimination will make reparation impossible for the most targeted and at-risk victims of this proposal.

What is the motivation of a United States federal agency to pursue such a flagrant conflict of interest as making the tax collector also the tax preparer? Doing so will compromise the accuracy and integrity of the American tax system and will, according to the Government Accountability Office, open the doors to the most frightening economic and privacy issues the United States has ever faced.  As it stands, the IRS answers at least one in five tax-related questions incorrectly. As is stands, the IRS often returns error-ridden tax paperwork, with sensitive personal identification information, to the wrong address. With stakes as high as basic annual budgeting and the security of our private information, how could the IRS possibly imagine that they could handle the accurate processing of every single American tax return?

We need to contact our Congressional representatives to urge them to stop this IRS plan before it starts.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff is rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University.

Big Sunday Weekend goes beyond community service

Phil Rosenthal, creator and executive producer of the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” was leading a game of Bingo in the annex dining room at Canter’s Deli on the morning of May 5 — not a bad way to spend Big Sunday Weekend, the annual festival of community service that featured more than 150 projects this year.

In this case, the players consisted of about 60 mostly middle-aged and elderly ladies, along with a few older men. Some were residents of the Downtown Women’s Shelter, a permanent housing solution for the low-income and homeless of downtown’s Skid Row; others were members of the Hollywood retirement community Bethany Towers. Volunteers of all ages, some of them from local synagogues, were among the players as well.

As Rosenthal called out letters and digits, the players focused intently on the Bingo cards placed in front of each of them, marking numbers. Plates of Danish pastries and cups of coffee sat in front of them at the ready. At stake were jumbo chocolate bars, Burt’s Bees beauty products and, of course, “Everybody Loves Raymond” DVDs.

Before long, a woman in a pink T-shirt, a resident of the women’s shelter, yelled out those magical words: “Bingo!” 

The real magic, though, was the community-building happening at Canter’s, the bridging of the gap between folks who would not normally spend time together, as opposed to traditional community service projects that emphasize who are the haves and who are the have-nots. 

“Everybody wants to help, that’s what social connectedness is,” said David Levinson, founder of Big Sunday Weekend, which ran May 3-5 this year. Levinson also is the executive director of the nonprofit organization Big Sunday, which puts on Big Sunday Weekend as well as smaller-scale opportunities for giving back all year-round.

This year marked the 15th iteration of Big Sunday Weekend, with thousands of volunteers fanning out across the city, state and country. This was the first year that the initiative expanded outside of California, with events taking place in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Denver, Oklahoma and Georgia.

What was conceived in the ’90s as a mitzvah day involving only one synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, now has grown into something of enormous proportions that includes community-wide efforts to paint schools, plant gardens, clean beaches and hiking trails, distribute clothes and books, beautify mental health facilities and animal rescue sites, feed the homeless and more. All events are non-religious and apolitical.

The weekend — it takes place over the course of three days and has the support of the Los Angeles’ mayor’s office — has grown to include all religions, ethnicities and ages. Moreover, a large number of volunteers are made up of corporations that send contingents of employees to pitch in at certain projects. Some even hold their own projects. TriNet, a national corporation that provides human resource consulting services to small to midsize businesses, sent more than 200 of its employees to volunteer.

Some events consisted of traditional community service projects: On Sunday, more than 150 volunteers gathered at The Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County to make 1,000 sandwiches for Long Beach’s homeless community. Similarly, 500 volunteers turned out to the Islamic Institute of Orange County to conduct bake sales, clothing drives and food drives.

“I want to give back to the community in Los Angeles,” said Big Sunday volunteer Joel Miller, a 55-year-old founder of a literary talent agency from Mid-City. “I think it’s important for those of us in a position to help others to be a part of these opportunities.”

Other projects — such as the “Everybody Eats, Everybody Wins” events at Canter’s, Ocean Seafood Restaurant in Chinatown and Guelaguetza Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard — demonstrate a model of “community-building,” important to Levinson. Ditto for the Big Sunday “Adventures,” which brought communities together for activities such as horseback riding, a boat ride and trips to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At each of these projects, volunteers took up half of the spots and the other half were reserved for homeless people, low-income seniors, battered women and others.

People coming together from different socioeconomic backgrounds to nosh, hang out and play games is, perhaps, Levinson’s idea of the perfect Big Sunday.

“These are my favorite events,” he said, watching the Bingo game at Canter’s. “Just bringing people out and showing them a good time.”

Judaism’s greatest lesson: Behavior matters most

If I were asked to identify the greatest Jewish teaching, the most important lesson to be learned from all of Judaism, I would argue that, aside from ethical monotheism, it is that behavior matters more than anything else, and certainly more than feelings.

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.


The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.


The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act. 

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

Social Justice

“Social justice” is a politically loaded term. Nevertheless, I will deal here only with the intent of those committed to “social justice” — to helping people who are less well-off than we are. 

We have here another prime example of the relevance of the Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters: Making social policies that work is what matters. Too often, social justice policies are enacted because they make their proponents feel good because they think they are doing good, not because they actually do good. To give but one of many examples, everything I have read confirms what common sense suggests: Lowering standards for college admission for blacks has done far more harm than good for black students. But proponents don’t seem to care about that; what they care about is feeling that they are helping a historically persecuted group.


In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.


The rule that one should not rely on feelings to determine one’s behavior even applies to sex with one’s spouse. That is why the Talmud actually lists the number of times per week/month/year a man owes his wife sex. The same holds true for wives. If a woman is married to a good man whom she loves, in general she shouldn’t allow her mood alone to be the sole determinant of whether she has sex with her husband. It is far better for her, for her husband and for their marriage to have sex even on some occasions when she is not in the mood. Of course, it is his obligation to then try to get her in the mood, but she should allow him to at least try to do so even on occasions when she is not in the mood.


Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.

You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

In Marseille, one of France’s poorest cities, Jewish charity is booming

Standing with dozens of hungry people in a 
breadline, Collette Quidron counts her blessings. 

“I enjoy coming here,” says Quidron, a Holocaust survivor with diabetes. “I know everybody and there’s always someone to talk to. If you’re Jewish and need tzedakah, Marseille is as good as it gets.”

The breadline, started 18 years ago behind the city's main synagogue, serves about 1,000 poor Jews each week thanks to an annual budget of about $630,000.

It is but one arm of an extensive Jewish charity network that has risen in
 Marseille, home to 80,000 Jews and one of France's poorest cities. About $1 million flows annually through the network, which comprises some 25 organizations.

Despite the relative poverty of Marseilles, the community has a robust commitment to charity, contributing slightly higher than its percentage of the country’s total Jewish population of approximately 500,000 to France’s main Jewish fundraising appeal.

“Tzedakah is very strong here because ours is a Sephardic community of 
recent immigrants from North Africa, who have a very strong tradition 
of taking care of their own,” said Elie Adevah, president of Baskets 
for Shabbat, the organization that runs the breadline.

And care they need. More than 25 percent of Marseille's residents live 
below the poverty line, compared to 16 percent in France overall. The 
unemployment rate is 30 percent higher than the national average. More than 2,000 Jewish families receive support from the French Jewish Federation, nearly double the number the organization helps in Lyon and Toulouse, which combined have approximately the same Jewish population.

At a 
time when Europe's leaders are undertaking austerity measures and
 fending off social unrest brought on by persistent unemployment and mounting fiscal challenges, the economic plight of Marseilles makes 
scant distinction between Jews and the general population.

“It affects Jews just as it affects everyone else here,” said Elie 
Berrebi, director of the Marseille Consistoire, the local branch of the national organization that administers Jewish religious services in France.

Baskets for Shabbat, which grew out of the Consistoire, conducts a telethon each fall that raises $50,000 for the organization. The rest of its budget comes from the Consistoire and the municipality. 

Several weeks after the telethon, Marseille Jews again are asked
 to open their wallets for the National Appeal for Tzedakah, which starts each November and this year marked its 20th anniversary. The appeal collects about $3.5 million annually for the French Jewish Federation, a national organization that provides social support and education services.

Marseille Jews contribute about $450,000 to the appeal, or about 15 percent of the total. The federation, in turn, funds Jewish charity in Marseille — about $366,000 annually, helping 1,750 of the city's seniors and 2,050 local families, and delivering kosher food to dozens of families with disabled members.

Beyond the federation, the needy families of Marseille have a multitude of places to seek help.
 CASIM, the city’s oldest Jewish charity, runs a supermarket where basic supplies can be had at about one-tenth their actual cost.

“At CASIM’s social supermarket, people at least pay something for food,
 just like you and me,” said Gerard Uzan, the director of CASIM, which was established in 1906. “Even token payment builds a sense of self-worth.”

CASIM also runs a charity center called Social Boutique, where low-income families not only can purchase food at reduced prices but also make use of a library and cooking classes, even a free beauty salon. CASIM has an annual budget of $230,000.

The extent of local charity helps people like Esther S., 57, to save about $250 a month.

“I used to clean houses, but over the past two years I haven't been able to find work,” said Esther, a Morocco native. “I live on about 630 euros [$800] a month, and if not for tzedakah, I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent.”

Uzan laments that the breadline is an undignified relic of 19th century soup kitchens and would like to see the various charity projects united under a single umbrella. But others say the complaints are unwarranted.

“The fact that people benefit from various projects shows there’s a need,” said Jean-Jaques Zenou, the president of Marseille’s Jewish radio station. “So what’s wrong with forming more solutions?”

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.” 

Entitlements and American politics

I like entitlements.

I know that’s somehow a terrible thing to say. “Entitlement” has become a dirty four-syllable word in our deranged political culture. On Fox News, they spit the word out like a rotted pistachio nut. The very obvious and universally accepted truth that our system of entitlements is broken is being taken to mean, or being used to mean, that entitlements are in and of themselves bad. But they’re not. They’re good.

People who have worked their entire lives should be able to live out their nonworking years in dignity. Children of workers who’ve died need help, as do people with disabilities. That’s why we have Social Security. Older people, the disabled,  the poor and those who, like Nick Kristof's now-famous college roomate Scott, just make mistakes,  need to be certain they will have access to good medical care — that’s why we created Medicare and Medicaid. 

Is that so terrible?

On Fox, they rail about what kind of America we will leave our grandchildren if we keep incurring massive debt. They don’t ask what kind of America we will leave our grandchildren if the poor, old and sick suffer and die of neglect in a nation of plenty.

When you read accounts of America before entitlement programs were created, and extended, it was a more miserable place. It was a crueler place.

Then came the New Deal and the Great Society, and the elderly, the sick, the poor, the disabled — “the widow and the orphan,” to use the biblical shorthand — had somewhere to turn.

I drag the Bible into this because Jewish tradition makes it very clear that helping those in need is not charity, it is tzedakah, whose root, in Hebrew, means justice. Charity is optional; justice is not.

The Hebrew word for entitlement is זכאות — zcha’ut. In English, entitlement carries an almost wholly negative connotation (unless, of course, the entitlement is your own). People who feel entitled annoy us. But the Hebrew word connotes “innocent,” as well as “right, merit, prerogative.” 

The distinction reminds me of the line in the movie “Unforgiven,” when Gene Hackman tells Clint Eastwood, “I don’t deserve this … to die like this.” “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” Eastwood replies (and then, you know, shoots him). It is our obligation, in the name of justice, to care for the poor, sick, disabled and elderly among us who cannot at the moment take care of themselves — deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

That said, it’s obvious the entitlement system is horribly broken. The “transfer state,” as the historian Niall Ferguson calls it, is not sustainable.

The most humane social safety net we can build is gossamer if there’s no cash to pay for it, or if its cost, whether from borrowing or taxes, depresses investment and growth.

We also know that entitlements, whether welfare for the poor or medical care for seniors, has to be managed in a way that doesn’t create dependency or fraud. In Jewish tradition, tzedakah cuts both ways — you are entitled to help from others only when you help yourself first. The Talmud admonishes that even for scholars it is better to take a job “skinning animals” than to receive charity. Tzedakah, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out, has to be apportioned justly — people must not cheat or abuse the system, and they must live within their means. 

I know that, at least among Jews, I’m not alone in feeling this way. That’s why the American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish attitudes found that the top three concerns for Jewish voters in this election are the economy, health care and Social Security. For the majority of Jewish voters, this election will come down to this question: Which candidate is most likely to fix what is broken in our economy without destroying what is right about our system? 

These voters are not leftie-zombie-Democrats, as some commentators would tell you. They are far more like Ed Koch than Dennis Kucinich. They want bipartisan solutions that link solvency with compassion. They are pragmatists who understand that a system that truly protects the weak is actually better for the strong. They understand that being tough on international issues, including Israel, doesn’t matter if you have a nation of struggling, underemployed, undereducated people.

Last week, the Jewish Journal published our first book, “The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney: A Jewish Voter’s Guide.” It’s by Shmuel Rosner, our senior political editor. Read Rosner, available at amazon.com, if you want one of the most penetrating sets of insights into this election. But if you want the ideals on which to base your “Jewish” vote, let me offer my go-to political consultant, the prophet Isaiah.

“If you reach out to the soul of the hungry,” Isaiah wrote, “if you ease the soul of the bruised, then your light will shine forth in the darkness, and your shadows will turn into noon. The Lord will guide you forever. … You will become a well-watered garden, an unfailing source of fresh water.”

When the issue is entitlements, my Jewish Voters Guide is Isaiah.

Mount Sinai gives away tzedakah boxes

Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries is recognizing the importance of traditional charitable giving. Los Angeles’ largest Jewish funeral home has begun offering free, limited-edition tzedakah boxes to California, Arizona and Nevada residents, hoping they’ll give to charities of value without being told where to give.

It’s the inspiration of Leonard Lawrence, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries. “I was sitting in my office, and I happened to have a blue [tzedakah] box here, and I said, ‘Gee, here’s something that Mount Sinai can do for the community that can really be meaningful,’ ” he said.
“People can write in, call in, e-mail, stop in, and we will happily send boxes out,” Lawrence said. With every box it gives out, Mount Sinai is including a packet filled with 18 cents — 18 denotes chai, the Hebrew word for “life.”

Run by Sinai Temple of Los Angeles as a nonprofit, Mount Sinai Memorial Parks operates locations in Simi Valley and Hollywood Hills, serving all streams of Judaism.

In light of the gifts, Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada is planning a tzedakah project, encouraging congregants to requests boxes — the funds collected in these boxes will be pooled after a three-month period and given to an anti-hunger organization or shelter, Rabbi Mark Goldfarb of Temple Beth Ohr said.

“It has generated excitement, and people are looking forward to being a part of this ongoing collection project,”  Goldfarb said..

The design of the box replicates a window in the chapel at Mount Sinai’s Simi Valley location, unofficially known as the “Shabbat window,” with its rainbow-colored, mosaic pattern. Flanking the slot on the top of the box are words capturing the project’s goal: “Repairing the world one coin at a time.”

On the Money

What do you do when you run out of money? When you’re about to be evicted from your home, or having trouble feeding your kids, or simply can’t afford the basic necessities of life? What happens, also, when you can’t afford certain things you consider crucial — like sending your children to a Jewish day school?

And what if you don’t want to go through the formal hoops of organized charity to fill out a bunch of forms to see if you qualify for help?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve met some people who have taken on these issues in distinct and refreshing ways.

The first is Shlomo Rechnitz, a 40-year-old Orthodox businessman who lives in the La Brea/Fairfax area. For the past seven years, Rechnitz and his family have followed this simple model for helping those in need: You ask, they give.

No forms to fill out, no matching grants, no performance metrics. Just a check.

The scene unfolds every Saturday night, and you’d think you were in a Polish village in the 18th century. A line of people extends outside the Rechnitz house and leads right to a dining room where Shlomo Rechnitz, dressed in a white shirt, sits at the head of a long table, waiting for people to come.

Each person in need sits next to him for a few minutes of conversation, receives a check, says thank you and then goes home. Some might bring “evidence” of their despondency — like an eviction letter from a landlord — but they hardly need it. Everyone walks out with a check.

He sees about 100 people on an average Saturday night, and they are diverse: religious, secular, old, young, Sephardic, Chassidic, mothers, fathers, businessmen down on their luck, young people out of work, etc.

Rechnitz allowed me to play observer one recent Saturday night, because he wants to encourage other wealthy people to pitch in. He feels there is too much suffering in our community, and too much money out there that is not being used to help those in need.

I know what you’re thinking: This is not the best way to give charity. Rechnitz should be helping people “learn how to fish” rather than just handing out the fish; he should be checking their qualifications to make sure they really need the money; and he should be monitoring where his money is going.

Yes, he should be doing all those things, but then he wouldn’t be Shlomo Rechnitz. Many of these people have nowhere else to go, and they need immediate relief. That’s why he makes it so simple.

Rechnitz gives to many causes, including the school where he serves as president (Toras Emes Academy), but it’s the Saturday night ritual that makes him stand out. Obviously, he doesn’t expect every wealthy Jew to give this way, but, especially in this rough economy, he’d love to see them give more than they’re currently giving.

A week after witnessing the old-school approach of Rechnitz, I met three Jews who are fighting another community problem — the soaring costs of Jewish education — in a whole other way. Instead of offering financial aid, they have started a new school, Yeshiva High School, which reduces tuition costs dramatically through an innovative “blended learning” model of education.

The model combines online learning with traditional learning in a classroom setting, with a teacher/facilitator addressing the individual needs and pace of each student. It is a fully accredited college-prep program with national standards and a daily flow of data to monitor individual progress.

But here’s the upshot: Because the model is so cost-effective, instead of paying an annual tuition of $20,000 to $30,000, parents will pay $8,000 a year when the school opens next September.

The founders of the school, Rabbi Gabriel Elias and Rabbi Moises Benzaquen, and its director, longtime local educator Rebecca Coen, speak about the blended model as a “new paradigm” that will give them a sustainable model of Jewish education for years to come. Rabbi Benzaquen will lead the Jewish studies program, which will follow Orthodox tradition with an emphasis on Jewish values and interactive learning.

The new school has already created a buzz. I went to its open house last week — the school will be located at Congregation Mogen David on West Pico Boulevard — and the place was packed.

Will the school succeed? No one can say until we see results, but I can tell you this: There’s something very Jewish — and very brave — about trying all kinds of approaches in order to tackle chronic problems.

For those who need immediate relief, there is the refreshing hands-on approach of Rechnitz, who meets people face-to-face in his own dining room, feels their pain and never says no.

And for those desperate for a more affordable Jewish education, there is now an alternative school that uses new technology in a way our grandparents would never have dreamed possible.

Either way, this is what it means to be Jewish. We are restless, we feel others’ pain, we try to improve things any way we can, and we all want our kids to become the first Jewish Doctor-Mensch-President of the United States.

Whether we have money or not.

Turkey earthquake: How you can help

If your organization is involved in helping victims of the Turkish earthquake and you would like it included in our list, please email pertinent information to webmaster@jewishjournal.com.


In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in eastern Turkey on Oct. 23, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has begun collecting funds for relief efforts. Responding to initial reports of hundreds of deaths and wide-spread building collapse, JDC is working with its local partners—including Turkey’s Jewish community—to ensure the victims’ immediate needs are addressed. JDC’s past humanitarian interventions in Turkey have included the provision of aid and training after earthquakes in 2010 and 1999. JDC’s staff experts are currently determining what next steps are necessary, especially in the hardest-hit Van Province.

To Make a Contribution:

Online: www.jdc.org/turkeyrelief
By Phone: 212-687-6200
By Mail: check payable to:

Attn: JDC
P.O. Box 4124
New York, NY 10163

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters. To learn more, visit www.JDC.org

Balancing resources and lives — being Jewish and ‘green’

I entered the classroom, where more than 30 Jewish adults who had been studying together for the past semester buzzed in conversation. I began class by asking my students a simple question: “Are you concerned about what is happening to our environment and worried about what the future will be for your children and grandchildren?”

Without a single exception, everyone in the room said yes.

Read any newspaper today and you will find stories about the problems that are being created by global warming: water, air and soil pollution; destruction of ecosystems and rain forests, and, of course, our dependency on oil. However, human abuse of our earth is not a new issue or one that has developed solely as a result of technology. Sadly, man’s instinct to destroy the natural world dates back to biblical times.

It seems that we have always needed guidance in how to treat the earth. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we are commanded not to cut down fruit-bearing trees during a siege against a city, although we can cut down nonfruit-bearing ones for building materials. This prohibition on destroying (bal tashchit) teaches us two very important lessons: restraint in how we act upon the earth and the value of humility.

What better time could there be to limit the human tendency to act without concern for the earth than in a time of conquest, when we are easily carried away by our own sense of power? Even more significant is the idea of our responsibility for and to future generations. Bal tashchit prohibits us from destroying a source of food that will one day feed the people who survived the battles that are being fought.

Judaism has a lot to say about how to create a balance between using the resources we have and abusing or destroying them. The rabbis and sages greatly expanded the concept of bal tashchit to prohibit the wasting of everyday goods and materials, as well as clogging of wells, release of toxic fumes and chemicals and killing of animals for convenience.

The basic principle they established bears repeating today: While man may use the earth for his needs, he may not use any resource needlessly. But how do we weigh our needs against our excesses? Who decides what is a legitimate use and what is wasteful?

In attempting to answer these questions, we need to look at the purposes for which man was created in the first place. Our first answers are found in Genesis 1: 28, where we learn that man was put on the earth to “fill it and conquer/subdue it,” and in Genesis 2:15, where our Divine purpose is “to work it [the Garden of Eden] and to guard it.” Our marching orders seem clear, or do they?

From the beginning of time, we have had to face the challenge of balancing our obligation to use the environment for our own needs with the responsibility to preserve and protect it. Jewish tradition is rich with ideas, rituals and holidays that enable us to develop a sound Jewish environmental ethic keeping this tension in mind.

Every day, each time we eat, the Jewish menu of kashrut reminds us that the world is ours to use, but that there are limitations on how we can use it. The concept of restricted foods is incrementally introduced in the Torah — first, when God permits Adam to eat only fruits and vegetables and then, later in the Torah, when the Israelites are given a long list of animals, birds and fish that they are no longer permitted to eat — reinforcing the idea that we do not have unrestricted use of the world in which we live.

Jews have a special weekly reminder to help us balance our need to control the environment with caring for it. Shabbat is the original Earth Day: It celebrates the majesty of creation and tells us in no uncertain terms that the earth is for us to enjoy, but that we have a weekly obligation to let it rest, just as we are commanded to rest. On Shabbat, we relinquish our own work in order to pause and reflect on the wonder of creation, rather than to dominate and control it.

The concept of the sabbatical year, or shmita in Hebrew, also helps us develop a continuing environmental awareness by requiring us to refrain from agricultural activity, such as planting, plowing and harvesting during the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah. Once again, we are required to limit our use of the earth, which is on loan to us, in order to fulfill our role as stewards.

Recently, much has been written about the concept of ecokashrut, which is the practice of using environmentally friendly, ecocertified kosher foods, goods and materials as a way of sanctifying individual use and consumption. Ecokashrut looks for Jewish solutions to contemporary environmental problems in traditional texts and ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world), chesed (compassion) and tzedek (justice). It encompasses more than just the food we eat, but the clothing we wear, the cars we drive and the products we use to sustain us.

A Web site sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (

Can we help?

My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”

The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

They never run out of patients

An Iranian Jewish girl was going through chemotherapy treatment — which tends to suppress your appetite — but one day, she got this craving for a lamb stew with carrots. Within an hour, someone was headed to the nearest Persian restaurant to get the dish and bring it to the girl.

Another young patient was in Minnesota for a special medical procedure. She was used to getting challah delivered to her every Friday afternoon while she was in Los Angeles. Again, just like magic, a FedEx package arrived before Shabbat with her favorite challah.

A mother and father decided, at the last minute, that they both wanted to spend the night at the hospital with their young child, who had a serious illness. No problem: a babysitter immediately showed up at their house to take care of their other children, including helping them with homework and serving them dinner.

Where did all this magic come from? Not from the Magic Castle, but from a little Jewish organization called Chai Lifeline.

For many years, because of its highly visible banner on the corner above Pat’s Restaurant, where it rented office space, Chai Lifeline was a fixture in the heart of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

They recently moved to a less visible but larger location a few blocks west, where they can now accommodate their growing list of volunteers. I went by there the other day and met one of these volunteers, a mother of four named Helena Usdan.

Usdan fell in love with Chai Lifeline 18 years ago when she was a counselor at their Camp Simcha back East, and helped open the West Coast office nine years ago. She told me that one the best decisions they made was seven years ago when they brought in executive director Randi Grossman, who had worked for many years at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Grossman runs a cause that’s all schmaltz, but she’s all business. Perfect manners. Perfect tone of voice. Perfect answers. Still, behind the professional demeanor, she’ll choke up at a video of someone Chai Lifeline has helped.

Like little Chana Bogatz, who was born with a rare renal disease and received a kidney transplant before turning 1. When the new kidney began to fail, the doctors told Chana’s parents that she would need another kidney to survive, but the high percentage of antibodies in her system made finding a compatible donor almost impossible. So they needed to get the word out to as many people as possible.

Grossman and her staff had already become an extension of the Bogatz family, so they put on their PR hats, and in partnership with Chana’s parents, helped get three stories over several months onto the evening news about the urgent need for a kidney. By the third, a donor was found, and Chana made it.

But not every story has a happy ending.

A few weeks ago, Grossman had to cancel a breakfast meeting because one of their kids “didn’t make it.”

It doesn’t happen often, she says, but death is not something she’s comfortable talking about. That’s why they never use the word “terminal”; they say “serious” or “life-threatening.” They let God and the doctors worry about things like “terminal.”

Grossman and her group worry about the “life” part — adding joy to the life of the children and doing whatever it takes to ease the lives of their families.

Many of these seriously ill children and their families were present last week at Chai Lifeline’s annual signature event: A community-wide carnival at the Scandia amusement park in Pomona during the Sukkot festival. I was there, but I couldn’t really tell who the seriously ill children were.

I guess when kids are having a ball, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Having a ball is one of Chai Lifeline’s basic services. When I hung out in their office, at one point it felt like being in one of those creative brainstorming sessions in an advertising agency. They’re always bouncing ideas around to come up with creative ways of helping their “patients.”

A young boy with a serious illness was a big football fan. So Grossman, Usdan and the staff made some calls and found someone to donate two Super Bowl tickets, and someone else to sponsor the trip. When the boy found out about the trip, his parents said it was “the first time he smiled since getting his diagnosis.”

Over the years, they’ve used their creativity to develop a slew of different programs, like KidShops (art therapy for patients and siblings), Wish at the Wall (trips to Israel), Chanukah Angels (adopting a child for Chanukah), Seasons of Respite (separate retreats for mothers and fathers of patients), and ChaiLink (individual tutors and Web cam-based connections between classrooms and homebound or hospitalized children).

One of the best things I heard, though, was a lot more mundane: They have a team of professional advocates who help parents navigate the complex bureaucracy of insurance coverage for serious and long-term illnesses. (That comes in handy when you have an insurance company that covers an electric wheelchair but won’t cover the electric wheels.)

I couldn’t leave without asking Grossman what it was like to spend so much of her waking hours dealing with seriously ill children and their families. Isn’t it draining? Isn’t there a burnout point, when it gets just a little too heavy?

“It’s the good news,” she says. “The little moments of joy, the recoveries, the smiles on the kids’ faces, the gratitude of the parents, the generosity of all the volunteers, all those things help.”

I thought of something else that probably helps: The unspoken gratitude any of us would have to be in the position of helping people with a life-threatening illness, rather than being the person needing that help.

When I brought that up, Grossman — all choked up again — just nodded quietly.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

We can continue to make a difference in Darfur

The beginning of a new year is always filled with hope, potential and opportunity for growth and change. The year we are putting behind us has not been an easy one. Our economy has entered perilous waters, with many people losing their jobs — and their homes. The war in Iraq is now in its fifth year. A series of hurricanes have ravaged our coasts. In our own lives, each of us has faced personal challenges that have tested our strength and resolve.

Amid all these issues, from the local to the global, it’s understandable that we should feel a sense of vertigo. We tell ourselves the situation is too complex. We ask ourselves if our efforts truly make a difference. We question which issues deserve the most attention.

Some have called this feeling “compassion fatigue.”

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve spoken about Darfur for five years straight now, and sometimes I get tired of talking about the genocide that has claimed 450,000 lives, just as I’m sure people get tired of listening to me talk about it. Yet for me, as for many other Jews, there is simply no choice in the matter. This is because as Jews, we know what it is like to have the world forget and to have the world fail to act.

But if we choose to not to raise our voices about Darfur now, what will our children and grandchildren say about us? The approaching High Holy Days draw questions like these to the forefront.

Many of us have answered by taking action on Darfur. Yet, now in the fifth year of this grueling genocide, some are also asking, “Did the letter I wrote to my senator help? Did taking part in that rally have an impact?”

The answer is yes. We may not be able to place a precise number on the lives saved as a result of our efforts. But we can say our activism has contributed to 27 states adopting divestment policies for Sudan. We know that we have made Darfur a foreign policy priority for elected officials, as well as the presidential candidates. And we have ensured that humanitarian aid continues to go where it is most needed.

Here’s what we can do now to help end the bloodshed: Push for expanding and enforcing an arms embargo to the region and pressure China, the biggest small arms dealer to Sudan, to stop the flow of weapons there. Let your senators know that you want the United States to support the embargo as a member of the U.N. Security Council. Tell them you want the U.S. government to use its influence to pressure China to stop underwriting the genocide with arms sales.

Now is not the time to diminish our resolve. Khartoum continues to deploy deadly air attacks. Last month, more than 30 civilians were killed when Sudanese government forces, armed with machine guns and automatic weapons of the kind sent by China, attacked one of Darfur’s largest camps for displaced people.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I am mindful of this passage from the Book of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast I look for? To unlock the shackles of injustice? To undo the fetters of bondage? To let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?”

Nowhere have I been brought more closely in touch with the meaning of these words than when I sat with Darfuris in a refugee camp in eastern Chad, welcoming the new year. The High Holy Day is meant to stir us, to shake us to our core. It is meant to reconfirm our values and strengthen our resolve to live by them. Because at the heart of the holiday experience is this enduring ethic: We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to inaction. For Jews, life is about deeds.

When the shofar is sounded on the new year, it is to awaken us from our slumber to the need in this world. Let the shofar’s blast be a clarion call for each of us to remember that we can make a difference, and that each of us has a role to play to stop the killing in Darfur.

The action you take today or tomorrow on behalf of this cause likely won’t be the last. But it will be the right act, the necessary act at this moment in time. The people of Darfur are waiting for the world to hear their cries.

We must answer their call.

Rabbi Lee T. Bycel is executive director of the American Jewish World Service Western Region.

Liturgy reminds us what we can do to avert evil

Sept. 11, 2001, occurred just six days before Rosh Hashanah. It was the tail end of what had been a difficult 12 months on the Jewish calendar: violence in Israel, a presidential election arbitrated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Enron scandal.

Then, on a particularly gorgeous morning, terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C. Rabbis who had worked hard on their High Holy Days sermons all August rushed to rewrite them.

The liturgy seemed stunningly relevant. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water? We acknowledge our vulnerability in light of death, the harsh decree. But, the liturgy tells us, teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous deeds) will avert — not nullify, but avert — the evilness of the decree.

In other words, we cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

So here we are seven years later, about to enter the Jewish year 5769. The deaths of Sept. 11 have been compounded by more deaths in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. In many ways our world is more violent and certainly more fearful than it had been. Evidence of evilness abounds.

But this is also the time to take stock of the ways in which our liturgy speaks to a universal human theme. Many Americans, Jews and non-Jews, in the face of tragedy have chosen to move forward in these seven years — to engage in teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.

Teshuvah: For some Americans, the first step of repentance was to say, “I don’t know enough; let me repair my ignorance.” Since early 1992, groups of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women have been joining together in living rooms to discuss books about their respective faiths. The Daughters of Abraham book groups began in Cambridge, Mass., when one Christian woman realized she didn’t personally know any Muslims. Now there are 14 such groups in the Boston area alone. We just began one in Philadelphia and already there is a waiting list.

Tefillah: In 2001, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb of Albuquerque decided she wanted to pray for peace alongside Muslims. So she called the local mosque, where she knew no one, and found herself on the phone with a scientist and peace activist named Abdul Rauf Marqetti. They came up with the idea of a peace walk — a meditative, prayer-in-motion march for Jews and Muslims together.

In 2003, a group of Philadelphians decided to emulate them, and with no institutional backing, an ad hoc collection of Jews, Christians and Muslims began meeting monthly at the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Kensington section of the city. The first walk began at the mosque, stopped for prayer at two churches and culminated at a synagogue. It drew 400 people. Plans are under way for the sixth annual Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace this coming spring.

Philadelphians are not the only ones praying with others. In 2000, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducted a survey to find out how many congregations, if any, had participated in an interfaith service in the past year. The answer was 7 percent. By 2005, the number had grown more than threefold to 23 percent.

Tzedakah: The Hartford study had even more striking news. When it asked about community services, the institute learned that 8 percent of congregations had joined with those of other faiths to improve conditions in their communities. Five years later it found 37 percent — a nearly fivefold increase.

Which brings us to Eboo Patel, a young Muslim born in India and raised in the American Midwest. In 2001, he was in England completing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. When he returned to the United States, he had a big idea. The way Patel saw it, young people want to change the world, and extremists are expert at giving them a cause to believe in, an exciting and dramatic movement to be part of. But what about moderate, pluralistic, liberal men and women, he wondered, those who saw religion as a way to work across faiths to make the world a better place? Could they offer young people a compelling counterpart to what the extremists offered?

Patel thought so. He founded the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago to bring together young men and women of different faiths to serve their communities. Since 2001, his staff has grown to 20; Jewish teenagers and college students throughout the country are joining with Muslim and Christian peers to create a national interfaith youth movement.

Something is happening out there, something good. It does not eradicate the very troubling developments precipitated by the Sept. 11 attacks, but in small ways it is helping our society achieve what Jews worldwide seek to achieve at this time of year — to avert the severity of the decree.

That’s worth remembering as we mark another anniversary of that beautiful and horrible September morning — and another Rosh Hashanah. This year our anxiety — who will live and who will die? — must be matched by our belief in our ability to make a difference.

We cannot always prevent the worst from happening, but we can choose to wrest some meaning from it.

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer directs the religious studies program at Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

åArticle courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Moving beyond charity

One of the biggest misnomers in the Jewish vocabulary is the translation of tzedakah as “charity.” This mistranslation has gone on for so long in the American< Jewish community that it's a hard habit to break. Most Hebrew school kids will give this answer when asked, much as they will say that mitzvah means "good deed" (another misnomer, for another column).

Tzedakah is much more than charity since it comes from the word tzedek, which means “justice.” When looked at in this light, the giving of tzedakah is so much more than charity; charity seems to indicate something we give voluntarily and only to those who are less fortunate than we. Tzedakah, while it might come in the form of monetary giving, is a commandment that calls us to a much more profound level of interaction with the world than just writing a check to a worthy organization.

Don’t get me wrong — there is nothing wrong with writing checks. It’s just that this is not the end of — nor the essence of — tzedakah. Rather, as a commentator reminds us in regard to this week’s parshah, Shoftim, tzedakah is intimately connected to creating a meaningful and just legal system.

This parshah is the call to justice par excellence in the Torah, for it includes the famous verse, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue), which, according to Chasidic master Simcha Bunem, reminds us that justice is to be pursued by just means, unlike many of the false, doublespeak pursuits of justice that we have witnessed throughout history (and in our own day, where so-called justice is pursued for selfish ends).

But I am most interested in the opening line, where the Torah calls on us to “appoint judges and magistrates in all our gates, the places that God gives to you, and you shall judge the people with righteous justice (mishpat tzedek)” (Deuteronomy 16:18).

What does “righteous justice” mean?

Commenting on this verse, the great 19th century master, Chatam Sofer, says it relates to a verse from the prophet Hosea, “v’erastich li b’tzedek uv’mishpat, uv’chesed uv’rachamim,” a line about God betrothing us with justice (tzedek), law (mishpat), kindness (chesed) and compassion (rachamim), which we say while putting on tefillin in the morning. According to a midrash, God provides the world with kindness and compassion, and we provide justice and law, thereby creating a balanced and holy alliance. It’s a tangible and beautiful way of conceptualizing the covenant between divinity and humanity. Chatam Sofer goes on to say that “God gives us space to create homes, societies and communities, out of love and compassion, and it is up to us to create them with justice and righteousness, by creating laws that are fair and just for all members.”

This is the true meaning of tzedakah: not charity, but justice.

And in a fascinating connection, another commentator, in the 20th century collection of teachings Likutei Yehudah, says that it is precisely for this reason that Shoftim follows last week’s parshah, Re’eh, which mentions the mitzvah of tzedakah; without justice, there is no tzedakah, and without tzedakah, there is no justice. This is a powerful and profoundly relevant teaching for our time.

In envisioning a world where the interaction between justice and tzedakah is a reality, we are blessed in today’s age to have amazing organizations in our community, like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has helped to redefine what giving means. Not only do they collect money, but they distribute it in a way that helps people achieve sustainable development; they bring people — young people especially — to work in developing nations, offering participants a firsthand look at true poverty and a hands-on way to help alleviate it. They seek to reshape the global landscape with just solutions for systemic problems. AJWS and its volunteers do this because the Torah calls on us to be just in our ways. They are living the words of the Chatam Sofer, leading us in our part of the covenant.

I believe that our nation as a whole can learn a great deal from AJWS, as we seek to recapture a sense of justice and righteousness in our country, for one could argue that we are taking God’s compassion and kindness for granted.

Mishpat tzedek, just laws, must seek ways to be as inclusive as possible, bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Until we work together as a human family to guarantee tzedek — true justice and not just charity — we will not be fully living up to the potential that Parshat Shoftim calls us towards. Americans are a very generous people in regard to charity, and Jewish Americans especially. Let us turn our efforts now with as much vigor toward justice, fashioning an even more holy society based on mishpat tzedek, the great confluence of law and righteousness. True tzedakah can change our world in a way that charity alone cannot.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (www.pjtc.net). He also serves as national secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, corresponding secretary of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and on the board of Jewish World Watch. He welcomes your comments at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Bark mitzvah goes to dogs in unique tzedakah project

In honor of their bar mitzvahs, friends Jonah Resnick, Zachary Miller and Harris Girocco wanted to do a tzedakah (charitable giving) project that wasn’t all bark and no bite.

When the boys decided to raise funds for developmentally disabled children in Israel, they made an effort to involve their families, their community and even their four-legged friends.

“All three of us have dogs and love dogs,” said Jonah, 13, who shares his Tarzana home with a white Labradoodle named Ringo. “We thought if there was a way to connect fundraising with our dogs, it would be fun.”

The answer? A bark mitzvah.

Friends and family members gathered at Serrania Park in Woodland Hills on March 30 to walk their dogs, bid on pooch-themed raffle items and donate to Beit Issie Shapiro, a school and therapy center for disabled Israeli residents in Ra’anana. By the end of the day, Jonah, Zach and Harris had raised $5,600 for the cause — and not only from invited guests.

“People who were just there walking their dogs came over out of curiosity, and they would donate $10,” said Bess Resnick, Jonah’s mother. “This became more of a community event that expanded beyond just our little circle.”

After they hold a joint bar mitzvah service at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in early July, the three boys and their families will visit Beit Issie Shapiro to meet the children they are helping to support. There, they will “twin” with a classroom and share their coming-of-age celebration with kids who might not have had the experience on their own.

“We feel, as parents, that our children are so fortunate,” said Laura Miller of Sherman Oaks, Zach’s mother. “Part of becoming a bar mitzvah and being part of the Jewish community is learning to help take care of others.”

The concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is not new to the boys. They’ve been friends since kindergarten — when their parents enrolled them in Hebrew school at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom — and are now seventh-graders together at Milken Community High School’s middle school.

When they started thinking about their bar mitzvahs last year, they knew tzedakah would have to play a role. At first, the boys didn’t know where to start. Then Bess Resnick suggested Beit Issie Shapiro, and the center’s mission struck a nerve.

“They’re kids in need, and we wanted to help,” said Harris, 12, of Sherman Oaks.

According to Amy Slater-Ovadia, Beit Issie Shapiro’s regional director, a little help goes a long way for the center’s children, many of whom live with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders.

Of the 45 bar and bat mitzvot across the United States who have collected funds for the center so far, most simply send the money they raise and don’t visit the children in person. “These three boys are willing to do both pieces of the puzzle, which is phenomenal for us,” Slater-Ovadia said.

When she first spoke to the boys about the project, she recalled, they were a little hesitant.

“Dealing with people with special needs — especially for those who aren’t familiar at all with them — it’s strange, it’s different,” Slater-Ovadia said. “It’s not run of the mill.”

Jonah admitted that he initially didn’t know what to think about going to meet the children in Israel. “In the beginning, I was kind of nervous, but now I’m getting excited. It’s going to be a fun time for us, and a fun time for them,” he said.

Joining a classroom of children ages 10 to 12, the boys and their families will take part in a morning bar and bat mitzvah ceremony with blessings and a Kiddush. Then the whole group will head out to the playground to play games and interact.

“The families will get to see Beit Issie, and the children will get to know them,” Slater-Ovadia said.

But the experience will also endow the boys with life lessons that won’t end when they receive their program certificates, she added.

“The boys will learn something along the way about special needs,” Slater-Ovadia explained. “Whatever they become in their lives — whether they become actors or lawyers or dentists or garbage men — they will have room in their hearts for someone different in their community. Raising that awareness at this age is so important.”

Zach, 12, already has an inkling of what he might take away from the kids at Beit Issie Shapiro.

“I think I might learn how lucky I am to have the abilities that I have, and I’d want to help them in any way I can,” he said.

That’s the philosophy that spurred the center’s establishment 27 years ago in memory of South African special-needs services pioneer Issie Shapiro. The philanthropist’s work has special meaning for Bess Resnick, who is a distant relative of Shapiro.

“When he arrived in Israel 30 years ago, there weren’t many places to help these children. They were sort of hidden,” she said.

Beit Issie Shapiro now provides treatment and a socially inclusive environment for about 20,000 children and adults each year.

The $5,600 the three families raised will fund services such as hydrotherapy, physical therapy and education for the children, Slater-Ovadia said. But the act of donation fosters a connection that transcends the monetary realm.

“A lot of families with special-needs children feel very locked up and alone,” she said. “The fact that they are meeting friends and making relationships allows them to feel that they are part of the community.”

Until they head to Israel in late June, the three boys are “having a blast” preparing for their joint bar mitzvah, said Julie Girocco, mother of Harris and owner of a Boston terrier named Rocko the Rocket.

Keith Miller, Zach’s father and longtime cantor at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica, has been prepping the friends on trope, their parsha and their speeches at the Miller’s home — shared by a brown Labradoodle named Samson — every Monday after school.

After the success of the bark mitzvah, will the boys undertake more tzedakah projects in the future?

“Definitely,” Jonah said. “Raising that money felt so good, because it’s going to help support those children.”

I found unity, friendship and tzedakah in Anaheim

Imagine walking into a room full of 1,000 Jewish teenagers from all over North America who are singing in unity and celebration of their Jewish heritage.

This was the sight at the 2007 United Synagogue Youth (USY) International Convention. From Dec. 23-27, the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim became the center for teens from all over North American attending an amazing weeklong convention packed with social action projects, Jewish studies and most importantly, a focus on tzedakah.

What made this one of the most unbelievable experiences of my life wasn’t just the location, or even the number of people, but rather the friendships I made and the social action projects that we as a group helped bring to the world.

USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, is made up of 17 regions that span the United States and Canada. Every year at the convention, the 17 regions enter the grand ballroom of the hotel in an epic opening ceremony full of ruach (spirit) and regional USY pride. The roar from the crowd was intense, and it was clear that these Jewish teens were ready for what would be the most amazing week of their life. After the USY regional presidents introduced their regions, 2007 USY International President Aaron Jacobs banged the gavel, a roar of excitement swept through the crowd, and the convention began.

Since this year’s theme was tzedakah, we spent much of our time focusing on the many different mitzvah projects that we can do to help the world. Every day, USYers gathered in limmud (class sessions) in which we studied what Judaism said about the many different situations involving the giving of tzedakah. How much should we give? And to whom do we decide to give it? In addition to the discussions, we took part in helping make more than 1,000 tzedakah boxes.

The most extraordinary experience at this year’s International Convention was the walk to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur. On the morning of Dec. 26, all 1,000 convention delegates walked out of the Marriott Hotel for a three-mile march around the Anaheim Convention center. It was the first time I had participated in any kind of protest to fight for a cause, and, most importantly, it is a cause I feel connected to. Thousands in Darfur have been killed, left homeless and brutally injured. This is a national issue that needs to be addressed and stopped today! As Jews, we have been victims of genocide, and we promised we would never let something such as the killing of the Six Million Jews take place again. Yet a very similar situation is taking place in Darfur. We as a Jewish people need to unite and stand up to the rest of the world to help these victims.

At the end of the march, something amazing happened. Every single USYer started screaming, “One more time!” over and over. Without any warning at all, everyone rushed back outside the hotel in an attempt to do the march again. No one was satisfied with just one march. We felt there was much more that needed to be done and that there was so much more that we could accomplish. Soon everyone started joining in chorus of the song: “We’re not going to take it any more.” Unfortunately, we were forced back inside the hotel vicinity by the professional staff, but this situation showed me that when we as a Jewish people unite, we can accomplish anything.

Finally on Dec. 27 at 11:55 p.m., newly elected 2008 USY International President Adam Berman banged the Presidential gavel, thus officially ending the convention. Through all the activities and excitement, what I will always remember in addition to the march for Darfur are all the people I met and the friendships I made. The true beauty of USY International Convention lies within the people themselves. It’s hard to think that some of your best friends could live more than 1,000 miles away. But USY is a place where teens come together from all over the continent and form friendships based on the common ground of their Judaism and a desire to change the world for the better.

In the words of Far West USY President Kesha Dorsey, “an international convention exemplifies the reason why over 1,000 Jewish teens give up their individual winter vacations to gather; USY provides for opportunities beyond the educational and religious aspects. The sense of young Jewish unity carries so much weight that makes us determined to show the world that we are the next generation of Jews, and that a wave of passion will keep us strong!”

Matt Sackman is a senior at Hamilton High School Academy of Music in Los Angeles and the vice president of communications for the Far West region of USY.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15; deadline for the April issue is March 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Key questions can answer donation motivations

I opened my mailbox to find several letters, a few bills and a host of requests for donations from various organizations that I have supported over the years. Because I am a stickler for organization, I sort the letters, place the bills in a folder marked “Look at me soon!” and the appeals for donations in one marked “Save the World.” Between the needs of my local community, the Jewish community, our country and the world at large, I am seriously thinking about renting a storage unit for the hundreds of requests I receive annually.

I don’t know how others consider charitable giving, but I am honestly confused about it. Year after year, questions continue to gnaw at me like: What is the right amount for a gift? Should I support Jewish organizations first and then donate to other charities, like my alma mater, only after I have made my Jewish gifts? Why am I giving in the first place? Does it need to hurt for my gift to be meaningful? Am I willing to give up something — a dinner out, theater tickets, a trip — to make a more substantial contribution this year?

Tzedakah, the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of Jewish time. The Torah teaches: “If there is a needy person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities in the land that God has given you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Tzedakah is the counterpart to tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Both affirm our responsibility to distribute a part of what we have in order to take care of others who are less fortunate. Both are grounded in the idea that individual wealth is neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged, as agents of God, to care for the world in which we live.

These obligations operate in concentric circles — originating within our own home and family, extending out into the Jewish community and then the world. Jewish law specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives in peaceful coexistence with us is a worthy charitable recipient. The Talmud teaches that we should help support the poor, even outside our own community, because of the “ways of peace” (Gittin 59 b).

Jewish law is fairly specific in its answer to the question of what we should give. Ideally, we are expected to give what is needed to help restore a poor person to his or her former position. If a man has lost all of his clothing in a fire, we should help him purchase clothes. If he has lost his job, we should provide him with employment either directly or indirectly by helping him find work.

The Jewish sage Maimonides established specific parameters for giving, with the average acceptable gift as 10 percent and the ideal gift as 20 percent of our possessions. Jewish law is both practical and realistic in its demands, because it never requires us to become lacking or poor ourselves as a result of giving.

The critical questions we each need to answer are: Why do I give? What makes me want to give? Is it because of peer or professional pressure, social recognition or a genuine commitment to the cause?

I am inspired by the words of Moses when he told the Israelites to bring gifts to build the Tabernacle, saying: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord: everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them….” (Exodus 35:5). When we give, Jewish tradition asks that we open, rather than harden, our hearts — because it is from our hearts, not our heads, that we are more inclined to see the needs of others and give willingly, meaningfully and generously.

During our lives we will have times when our resources and income may be limited. Some of us will struggle more than others. An unexpected tragedy or illness can make it nearly impossible to give. But Tzedakah is an equal opportunity mitzvah and applies to everyone, no matter how great or small our portion.

If we are unable to give of our money, we can give of our time, talents and wisdom. Our sages assured us that we are all capable of giving, even one who receives tzedakah, when they said: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

Eight Degrees of Charity 101

Rabbi, physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides (aka the Rambam, 1135-1204) laid down rules for charity that have guided Jews through the centuries.Here they are, in simple English — a good foundation for our Annual Giving Issue.

The Hebrew word tzedakah, unlike “charity” (from Greek karitas, “love”), is the Jewish legal requirement to do rightly with your fellow person — that is, to support him when he is in need.

We are required to take more care about the commandment of tzedakah than any other. For tzadakah is the sign of the righteous descendents of Abraham our father, as “God has made known to him Abraham, so that he shall command his sons to do tzedakah.”

There are eight levels of tzedakah, each greater than the next.

  1. The greatest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or making a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to strengthen his hand until he needs no longer beg from people. For it is said, “You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him” (Leviticus XXV:35), that is to say, strengthen him until he needs no longer fall [upon the mercy of the community] or be in need.
  2. Below this is the one who gives tzedakah to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzvah for the sake of heaven. This is like the Secret (Anonymous) Office in the Temple. There the righteous gave secretly, and the good poor drew sustenance anonymously. This is much like giving tzedakah through a tzedakah box. One should not put into the box unless he knows that the one responsible for the box is faithful and wise and a proper leader like Rabbi Hananya ben Teradyon.
  3. Below this is one who knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to walk about in secret and put coins into the doors of the poor. It is worthy and truly good to do this if those who are responsible for collecting tzedakah are not trustworthy.
  4. Below this is one who does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor. The greatest sages used to pack coins into their scarves and roll them up over their backs, and the poor would come and pick [the coins out of the scarves] so that they would not be ashamed.
  5. Below this is one who gives to the poor person before being asked.
  6. Below this is one who gives to the poor person after being asked.
  7. Below this is one who gives to the poor person gladly and with a smile.
  8. Below this is one who gives to the poor person unwillingly.

Adapted from Maimonides, Hilchot Mat’not Ani’im 10:1, 7-14 (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts [that belong to] the Poor).
Translated and copyright 1990, 2003 by Jonathan J. Baker.

Teaching our kids how to give

As a child, I hated having my birthday fall in the middle of December because it meant that no matter when Chanukah began, my birthday gifts were somehow expected to count for Chanukah, too. It just didn’t seem fair that I had to give up some of my gifts because of a glitch in the calendar.

I never told anyone about my frustration, except perhaps a therapist or two along the way. But recently, I heard a story from my friend Rachel about her daughter, Hannah, who also shares the December birthday dilemma that gave me a new insight about birthday gifts and giving.

After Hannah’s third birthday party, Rachel surveyed the room and realized that among the decorations and leftover cake were enough presents to fill a small toy store. And it bothered her that her own child should have so much when there were so many others who have so little. So she came up with a plan that was both ingenious and Jewish-minded to the core.

She told Hannah about all of the children who didn’t have any toys for their birthdays or for Chanukah and asked her what she thought they could do to help. With some “gentle parental maneuvering,” it didn’t take long for Hannah to suggest that she give up a present from the pile on the floor. Hannah chose a Care Bear, a talking doll and a child’s tea set, and together mother and daughter re-wrapped the gifts.

A few days later, Rachel drove Hannah to Jewish Family Service with the presents. When Rachel arrived, she asked a staff person if she would tell Hannah about the families who needed the presents and how much it would mean to the children who received them. A few weeks later when Rachel drove past Jewish Family Service, Hannah looked up in recognition and asked her mom, “Do you think the kids are playing with my Care Bear right now?” Rachel nodded and smiled. It was one of those rare and precious moments when being the parent of a toddler seems like the easiest thing in the world to do.

Tzedakah, or the Jewish commandment to give, has been a quintessential Jewish value since the beginning of time. The Torah teaches: “If there is a needy person among you … you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against him. Rather, you shall open your hand and lend him whatever he is lacking” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

Giving tzedakah is one way to achieve tikkun olam, or the Jewish obligation to repair what is broken and lacking in the world. Both affirm our responsibility to give a part of what we have to take care of others who are less fortunate. We do this because Judaism views individual wealth as neither a right nor a privilege but a form of stewardship for which we are charged to care for the world.

Rachel’s family began to put money in a tzedakah box every Friday night before Shabbat and Hannah knew that the box was for the people who didn’t have toys or food or a place to live. When Hannah was 5, she saw pictures of the victims of Hurricane Katrina on television and came running into the kitchen to find Rachel.

“Mommy,” she asked in a worried voice, “don’t we need to give our money to the children in the hurricane?”

Rachel emptied out the tzedakah box and took Hannah to the Jewish Federation with more than $80 in change.

It is difficult, almost impossible, to convey to our children how horrible it is for others who live in poverty, and don’t have families, friends or resources to turn to for help. Not only is the concept foreign to their lives, but it runs counter to contemporary expectations in today’s youth culture of buying more, owning more and having more.

But we can start at an early age like Rachel did with Hannah, by modeling our values and teaching our children the responsibility we have as Jews to care for those in need. And in doing so, we will empower our children with the awareness that they, too, can do something, even at a young age, to make the world a better place.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

On Thanksgiving, open your hand to the poor and needy

n 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, “I do therefore invite my fellow … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving…. And I recommend to them that … they do also … commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Thanksgiving is the holiday to which most American Jews fully relate. It’s based on the biblical Sukkot, and it’s the American holiday most associated with family gatherings and food.

yet, there is much more to the holiday than stuffing and pumpkin pie.

As Lincoln hoped, it is a celebration of gratitude and an acknowledgement of good fortune. Our Jewish tradition is reflected in Lincoln’s words commanding us to care for those who cannot care for themselves: our society’s widows, orphans, mourners and sufferers.

Among the sufferers, Judaism includes the poor and the hungry. Scattered generously throughout our texts are guidelines for offering support to the less fortunate. We are instructed to leave the corners of our fields for the poor, to maintain the poor and to give according to our means. One cannot think about Judaism without thinking about charity and tzedakah.

Charity and tzedakah are different. While charity is almost exclusively monetary generosity, tzedakah includes the idea of the pursuit of justice — tzedek. Maimonides speaks of the eight steps of tzedakah — that some acts of giving are higher than others.

The ultimate goal, the highest form of tzedakah, is that which ensures that there will no longer be a need for charity. The old adage about giving a person a fish vs. teaching him to fish comes directly from Rambam’s theory.

In the meantime, however, we must not forget that the person still needs to eat.

Thanksgiving is a holiday about appreciating what we have. By acknowledging our blessings, we become aware of our vulnerability. We realize that our own abundance is tempered by the paucity that surrounds us. We live in one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, our communities are still filled with the impoverished and hungry.

Lincoln called upon all Americans to observe a day of Thanksgiving each year to thank God for what they had and to pray for those people who were suffering.

But, Judaism calls upon us to do more than just pray. We are commanded to alleviate suffering. Deuteronomy, Chapter 15, says, “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for what he needs.”

In addition to the commandment to care for our own, our tradition repeatedly reminds us of how we have often been strangers. In this way, the texts demand that we care for all of the strangers in our midst, and that we open our hands and our hearts to every human being.

We can change the state of hunger in America. We need not be discouraged. No matter how small the step, if we make it, we are on our way to stamping out hunger.

For more than 20 years, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger has done just that, taking large and small steps to provide for hungry families on Thanksgiving and every day. From its beginning, MAZON has brought a message to the Jewish community that obligation should lead to action. This action, in turn, takes the shape of measurable steps that can make a real and lasting difference in hungry people’s lives.

In September of 2000, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, a set of global improvement aims with a target end date of 2015. The first goal was to cut extreme poverty and hunger around the world in half.

Studies show that if every American pitched in, it would cost each of us less than 10 cents per day, or $36 per year, to halve hunger by 2015.

What is $36? Double chai — a new life for the poor and a new consciousness for us. An end to hunger is possible.

Almost 150 years ago, Thanksgiving was established, in large part, to recognize the severe poverty created in the wake of the Civil War and to give people a special time to help each other. This year, as part of our Thanksgiving celebrations, let’s help others have a reason to give thanks.

Remember the commandment to open your hand to the poor and needy. This year, let’s acknowledge our civil responsibility and Jewish obligations. Let’s open our hearts and hands.

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, spiritual leader of University Synagogue in Irvine, is chairman of MAZON. Dr. H. Eric Schockman is MAZON’s president. For more information, go to Temple Beth Am

The magic Spend/Save/Tzedakah Plan keeps kids thinking

“I know what I want for my birthday,” my first-grader announced upon returning from school today. “A PSP [PlayStation Portable].”

“Jake” I replied, intent on giving my son perspective on how much his request would cost. “Do you realize that you could go to the dollar store and buy 300 toys for the price of one PSP?”

“Really?” Jake asked, clearly pondering this revelation. “I guess I’ll just do that instead!”

It’s not that my son is inherently greedy. On the contrary, he’s compassionate and generous. It’s just that he is in a developmental place where it’s difficult for him to grasp the concept and value of money. In fact, the vast majority of grade-schoolers (up to age 11) are what cognitive psychologists call concrete thinkers. That means they have a tough time conceptualizing anything they can’t physically see or touch. Money — thanks to credit cards, checks, Internet PayPal accounts and the like — is a hugely abstract concept.

Through the eyes of my soon to be 7- year-old, the difference between $300, $30 and $3 is largely inconsequential. I know it seems hard to believe that this could be so, but that’s only because we adults have the ability to think abstractly. Trust me, after a decade and a half as an elementary school teacher, I can tell you that, with rare exception, the only way an early elementary-aged child is going to truly understand the quantitative distinction between these amounts is if he actually sees 300 $1 bills piled next to 30 $1 bills piled next to three $1 bills.

So how do we enlighten our concrete-thinking kiddies to the fact that — despite popular playground belief — money doesn’t grow in ATM machines? With the Spend/Save/Tzedakah plan, of course! A superconcrete, positively priceless program that helps children the grasp the value of money, empowers them with financial smarts and encourages them to give back to their community, all in one fell swoop.

Here’s what you need to know to get it working for your little spenders.

Three Little Piggies

The basic premise of the Spend/Save/Tzedakah plan is to have our kids regularly divide their allowance into three distinct sections — one for personal spending, one for saving and one for giving. Deciding how to allocate the money (i.e. 60 percent spending, 30 percent savings and 10 percent tzedakah) is a personal family choice, but it’s important to make sure kids stick to their designated amounts every week.


For the Spend/Save/Tzedakah plan to work its magic, children should be required to use their personal spending money for all nonessential purchases other than birthday and Chanukah gifts. That means our kids pay for their own popcorn at the movies, Power Ranger popsicles from the ice cream man and fruitless attempts on the “try-to-pick-up-a-stuffed-animal-with-a-metal-claw” machine.

Still doubtful? Consider the following scenarios:

Shopping at Target without the Spend/Save/Tzedakah Plan:
Child: “Can I get that Hot Wheels car?”
Parent: “No”
Child: “Please? It’s only $1.29, and I’ve really been wanting that one.”
Parent: “I said NO.”
Child: “But, it’s a Hummer Hot Wheels — with real monster truck wheels!”
Parent: “How many times do I have to tell you? No means no!”
Child: “Please? PLEASE? PLEEEEASE?”
Parent: “OK, fine. Just put it in the cart and stop whining.”

(Epilogue: The same scene plays out the next day only this time the kid wants a pair of $70 Heelys roller sneakers.)

Shopping at Target with the Spend/Save/Tzedakah plan:
Child: “Can I get that Hot Wheels car?”
Parent: “Sure. You can use your spending money any way you’d like.”
Child: “Well, I don’t really need it. I’d rather save my money for those Heelys roller sneakers.”

On Saving

Just to clarify. The kind of savings we’re talking about here is the kind you put away for a long-term goal — like going to college or spending a high school semester in Israel — not an exorbitantly priced toy or an overpriced outfit. The key here is to help our children move beyond the instant gratification mentality toward understanding that some things cost so much money it takes years to save and pay for them.

Finally, it’s important for children to have a concrete representation of their savings progress. Have them place a sticker on a chart each time they surpass a $10 increment, or enroll them in a kiddie savings program that requires no minimum balance and provides monthly statements. We parents will be as excited as our kids to see how much money they are putting away for their future!


Our kids’ lives largely exist within a vacuum. They have their families, their friends, their schools, their neighborhoods and their material possessions. They often don’t consider the needs of those less fortunate, not because they don’t care but because they are not used to thinking outside their familiar worlds.

By putting a small portion of their allowance toward tzedakah each week, our children will begin to appreciate their responsibility as Jews and human beings to share their resources with the community.

They’ll come to recognize that many of life’s most precious gifts come without a barcode. And that — in the scheme of things — a PlayStation Portable isn’t really that important after all.

For a piggy bank perfectly designed to fit the Spend/Save/Tzedakah plan, check out the Learning Cents bank at