November 19, 2018

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.”