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Apr 8 / Julie

Balancing Awareness, Empathy, and Safety

T is in kindergarten at a Jewish Day School.  Each Friday, the children throughout the school bring tzedakah, and in the spring, each class becomes a giving circle – deciding, as a group, where the money should go.   (Maybe we should think about having a children’s version of HEKDESH.  Hmmm…  But that’s for another post.  If you have ideas, please email to [email protected])

To facilitate the giving circle process, the school sent home a list of the organizations that every class in the school would be discussing (the same list for the whole school) and asked the parents to spend 30 minutes with our children discussing the various organizations.  The “homework assignment” was to discuss and then write down T’s top three choices, including a “reason” for why she chose the organization she’d listed as number one.

As someone who is involved in HEKDESH leadership, you can imagine that I was very excited by this assignment!  I eagerly talked with T about when we would sit down to discuss and what it meant to be a giving circle.  I printed out the materials from the school and thought I was all ready.

Thursday afternoon, T and I sat down for our discussion. I turned the page of the packet to the first organization and began reading.  All of a sudden I realized that this was more complicated than I’d thought.  In the past, when each Chanukah we had set aside an evening for her to decide where her tzedakah money should go, I had chosen organizations I thought she could relate to relatively easily – helping parents and babies living in poverty;  helping animals;  helping feed the hungry.

As I started reading the descriptions of organizations from her school, all of a sudden I was reading about orphans, widows, war veterans, cancer.

My first reaction was to shield her – I immediately started reading more slowly so I could “edit” as I read.  I changed some words, and explained some things in general terms, trying to avoid talking about parents dying or war and guns or people getting deathly ill.

But then I realized that perhaps now is the time to start talking with T about these things. This year she’s learning to read, which opens up a whole new world to her that she can access without me as a filter.  And she’s now in school full days, interacting with her classmates and older children who may tell her all kinds of things.  Isn’t it better if I introduce some of these concepts to her, rather than her hearing them from elsewhere?

What’s your experience been?  At what age did you talk with your child about things like orphans and widows and war veterans and cancer?  What was the context?  Did you use tzedakah for introducing uncomfortable topics?  Or did you try to make tzedakah meaningful to your kids by helping them address problems that speak to them?  And how do you find the right words and the best “way in” so that your child gains awareness, develops empathy, and feels safe?

(As a postscript, T’s teachers told me that they only shared a few of the organizations with her class.  The full list was shared with older classes.)

Julie S.


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  1. Jeff / Apr 8 2013

    Thanks, Julie, for the fascinating and provocative post! Our kids are younger than T, and we too haven’t yet broached many of the world’s sadnesses and horrors. But what strikes me aout your post is that it’s another data point that tzedakah is not easy. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has engaged in HEKDESH’s grantmaking process, and yet there’s a persistent sense that giving is simple.

    Of course tzedakah is a wonderful value to instill at an early age (our daughter’s pre-school class for 3 year olds also collects tzedakah on Fridays), but it’s far simpler to make collecting change on Friday into a habit than it is to figure out what to do with the money collected. Presumably the goal is to distribute the money among causes that both interest the kids and really help the world. But, as you point out, addressing the world’s ills requires acknowledging and explaining those ills, which is something that every family may want to handle a little differently and on their own timeline.

    You’ve written before about using charities that help animals as an entry point to tzedakah for kids, and I love that idea. But when our kids want to consider helping people too, how do we start the conversations that lead to the transition? And once we do so and our kids start considering a broader set of possible giving priorities, how do we help them weigh various pressing needs against one another? And how, without overstepping our bounds, do we help our kids’ teachers fully consider the complexity of tzedakah–for the families, as well as the students–as they seek to integrate tzedakah into the classroom?

  2. Elizabeth / Apr 10 2013

    Julie, thank you so much for raising this important subject. As a New Yorker, I struggle every day with how to talk to my daughters (6, 3.5 and 9 months — the baby is off the hook for now) about homelessness, poverty, economic justice, racism and classism. And those are just the issues that come up walking down the street. What are my kids prepared to hear? What are my priorities, and how can I articulate them to my children? How can I move from words to action with them at this young age?

  3. Sara / Apr 12 2013

    Julie, thanks so much for sharing this.
    I really think that it is not too early to start talking about this stuff, especially since our kids are growing up aware of those in our neighborhood who are different from us and in need of our help (here in NYC). It’s hard, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about. My feeling is that we can talk on a simple level about people who need our help, and when our kids have questions, we answer just what they’ve asked in a simple way without endless explanations. This goes for tzedakah like it goes for where babies come from and the Shoah too.
    I am often really concerned when I hear about my colleagues (Jewish educators) who are engaging kids in conversations about “tzedakah” that is about things that are not really tzedakah (not to minimize their import, but it’s not within the bounds of tzedakah from a halachic perspective). It seems important to me that even from an early age, kids are able to distinguish between giving that is mandated because we’re a Jew and giving that is important and good to do (like, perhaps, giving to your college scholarship fund). I think that most conversations are appropriate for kids of all ages and honestly, if we don’t start on a simple level when our kids are young, we may miss the opportunity when they’re older and stop listening.

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