March 18, 2019

A New Tzedakah Model for Just $5

From left, Alex Dardashty, Mason Eghbali, Aaron Shahmaram, Natan Hekmatjah and Leah Khoubian at a fundraiser to benefit Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp. Photo by Celine Torkan

Growing up in Beverlywood, Mahyar Asher Eghbali often witnessed grand gestures of monetary tzedakah, (charity) in his community, particularly in the synagogue. 

“I’ve always believed there has to be a way to give, even if you don’t have a lot of money,” Eghbali, 31, told the Journal. “What if you aren’t that religious and only come to synagogue on the High Holy Days? Tzedakah shouldn’t only happen in synagogue and it shouldn’t have anything to do with how religious, rich or poor, or how young or old you are.” 

So in 2013, together with some of his post-college friends, Eghbali proposed an idea: What if people donated just $5 each month? It sounded doable. That’s why Eghbali, a self-described “entrepreneur at heart,” co-founded Just5, a nonprofit whose fundraising method is all in the name. 

With its subscription-based model, people sign up on the website and register to become members, and $5 is withdrawn from their bank accounts every month. Since its inception, Just5 has since included options for members to donate more, but the minimum monthly commitment remains $5. At the end of the month, Just5’s volunteer board chooses a recipient for the accumulated funds, usually a Jewish individual or family in the community facing economic hardship. 

Once the funds are sent, members receive a newsletter via email or can view social media posts detailing the recipient while keeping them anonymous.  

“That helps each member feel a connection to who they’re helping,” Eghbali said. “From the beginning, I always said that this platform is going to be made and run with true love. This isn’t about writing a big check to put your name out there. None of that matters here. Everyone is equal here. Everyone can make a difference with just $5.” 

Just5 reviews applications through its website and chooses where to allocate funds based on need. Even though it doesn’t give exclusively to Jews, Eghbali said it’s mostly Jews who apply simply based on referrals. Over the years, Just5 has helped people deal with domestic abuse, expensive medical bills and rent struggles. It recently pitched in over $1,500 to support the rebuilding efforts of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, which were destroyed in the Woolsey fire. 

“Tzedakah shouldn’t only happen in synagogue and it shouldn’t have anything to do with how religious, rich or poor, or how young or old you are.” — Mahyar Asher Eghbali

Just5 is completely run by volunteers and has practically no overhead costs. Any overhead incurred is limited to website maintenance and credit card transaction service fees, which are funded by outside donors. That translates to 100 percent of members’ charged fees going straight to the designated recipients. 

“That type of model was always the goal,” Eghbali said. “My friends and I always just thought that aspect would really make the idea cool.” 

As life takes Eghbali, a licensed pharmacist who runs his own delivery-based pharmacy in downtown Los Angeles, in a different direction, he wants to keep Just5 running well and keep it in the family, too. 

“The truth is, a lot has changed since I started this,” Eghbali said. “I’m married, our third child is on the way and it’s very hard for me to put as much time into the organization as I’d like. So I turned to my brother and he has been amazing.” 

Last year, Mason Eghbali, 20, a student at UCLA, took over for his older brother. He runs Just5 with the help of his good friend and classmate Aaron Shahmaram, 20, and together they’ve injected new life into the organization. They established a new, younger, 12-person board mostly composed of UCLA students. They hold bimonthly meetings at UCLA Hillel in Westwood. 

“For college students, giving back isn’t always a priority,” Mason Eghbali said. “We’re busy much of the time, but charity is an important thing to have on our minds. It’s only $5 that you’re being charged monthly. It’s so easy and simple, so there’s really no excuse, even for college students.” 

To attract new members, they’ve held social events both on campus and in the community, including challah bakes, a Purim gift-basket-making event benefiting low-income families and Shabbat dinners in conjunction with UCLA Hillel, Moishe House, Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM) and GoSephardic, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring the next generation of Sephardic youth.  

“The events are so much fun and help spread the word,” Eghbali said. “We’re able to get a lot of new members that way.”

Shahmaram added that word of mouth is often the best method to entice new members. “It’s an easy sell,” he said. “I was just talking to a friend of mine on campus recently and realized I hadn’t told him about Just5 yet. I quickly explained it and got him to sign up that day.” 

Just5 currently has more than 360 members. But the new leadership isn’t satisfied. “Right now, we’re mainly helping people in our community,” Eghbali said. “But sometimes we get people reaching out from New York or Florida. It would be really wonderful if this was set up in other places.” 

“I know a lot of people my age who say that one day when I become successful I’m going to give back,” Shahmaram said. “Well, this organization is telling them, why wait? Do it right now. It’s such an easy, effective model and we know that there’s so much room to grow. There’s no reason not to get involved in this and help out the community.” 

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, campus director of UCLA’s Hillel, still remembers when Eghbali and Shahmaram sat down for coffee with him last year to explain Just5 and asked to hold a meeting in the sanctuary. Now that Kaplan has seen them in action for about a year, it’s pride he feels when thinking about his students making a difference in the community.  

“With this, you can change someone’s month or year or even life in the community,” Kaplan said. “It’s also just a good use of time. They’re college students, so even though they’re busy, it’s not like a full-time job. This is phenomenal and, in my mind, it’s true leadership. They are examples of true mensches, doing all of the types of things that we want our next generation to do.”