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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.)
Rain spattered meals in the sukkah are commonplace. Roof collapses, gapes in walls, the rehanging of fallen decorations- these frequent occurences delight children. For them, there is something reassuringly Lego-like in the sukkah; we build it and then we build it again.
But the paradox of Sukkot mixes a dose of anxiety with this delight. My kids are old enough (9 and 4 years old) to understand that there are some other New Yorkers (we live in Brooklyn), who “really live like this.” While the rainy meals and cool evenings of outdoor singing may be entertainment to them, there are current-day wanderers. Real people, real families live on the streets or in substandard housing in neighborhoods we can walk to from our home. The sukkah is both a door to a conversation about a narrowly defined Jewish past and much broader contemporary struggles. In those three walls, using the safety and comfort of this Lego we have built, we have begun to talk with our kids about this difficult topic.
Much of discussion on Tzedakah and children centers around the “what do we give” question. Direct service? Money and in what denomination? Advocacy? The sukkah’s example gets to a more compelling question. Why do we give tzedakah? Why do we care? I know that obligation and duty bind many Jews to acts of Tzedakah. And we do talk about obligations with our kids. But facing issues like poverty and illness, I think that the cultivation of empathy is critical. And at this time of the year, the problem of homelessness can be something shared and discussed without real threat. Our sukkot can be the safe space to connect with and personalize vulnerability.
How do you present Tzedakah? As an obligated act of Jewish tradition? As an outgrowth of empathy? Both? Other ideas? And how have you used Jewish tradition to connect your children to those needy around them?
My kids, ages 7 and 5, have recently insisted that they are old enough to get an allowance. They were very persuasive – and committed to doing the requisite chores – so my husband and I agreed, but also wanted to instill some financial lessons through the process.
After listing the chores to be completed in order to earn the allowance each week, including first and foremost showing respect for other family members, we talked aboutthe four things that people do with money:
- Spend it. There is a continuing conversation in our home revolving around “need” vs “want.” And in my better moments we also discuss the values that we consider – who made this and how, is it “worth” theprice, can we get it used, etc. – when making a purchase.
- Save it. Each child has a wallet that, at the moment, serves as a savings account. I’m researching local banks so they can have their own passbooks (do banksstill do that?), earn interest, and physically get in the habit of depositing a portion oftheir gifts and earnings.
- Invest it. This I have yet to explain fully. Some of our family investments are in socially responsible mutual funds and I’ll encourage my kids to make thoughtful decisions. Any advice would be much appreciated!
- Give it to tzedakah. Each Shabbat before we light candles,we put money in our tzedakah boxes. Come Chanukah we set aside one night for tzedakah and decide together where our family’s box proceeds will go. Now we’ll encourage the kids to take a portion of their own money as part of our weekly tzedakah deposit.
Of course, as with many families, sometimes the above is more aspirational than actual. I’d love to hear about your own practices and goals.
Lisa Sacks 1994-95
I always found spare change annoying—nickels, dimes and pennies weighing down my wallet, not really useful for anything. Often, when paying cash for a purchase, I would rummage through the change pocket in my wallet, trying to find exact change to unload on the cashier and lighten my wallet.
But my relationship to spare change totally changed this winter, when I was the “mystery visitor” in my daughter’s preschool class. Since a significant part of my job this year has been the development of a tzedakah curriculum for middle school students, I figured that it would be easy enough to teach the class about tzedakah. And so I read them The Very Best Place for a Penny, a charming story about a penny that gets put in all the wrong places until it finally ends up in the very best place for a penny—the tzedakah box, where it can be used to help people. After the story, we decorated tzedakah boxes, and then I gave each child each a penny to start off their tzedakah collections.
My daughter loved my visit to the class, and for the next few days, in order to reinforce the lesson of the story, I found myself looking for any opportunity to create spare change. I paid in cash at the grocery story in order to give the change to my daughter, so that we could say, “Where’s the very best place for a penny?” and then put the coins in the tzedakah box she had decorated. I even picked pennies up off the street in order to give us more opportunities to give tzedakah.
A few months have passed since my visit to her class, and I’m not as vigilant anymore about making spare change, but I do collect coins all week long so that on Friday afternoon, when we give tzedakah before Shabbat, I have ample coins to distribute to my daughters (the younger one likes to get in on the action too) to put in their tzedakah boxes.
Right now, the girls’ boxes are still filling up and we haven’t gotten to the question that occupies me about my own tzedakah practice—where should the money go? But I’m enjoying being with my daughters in this stage—eagerly collecting money, not because they think they need it for themselves, but because they can use it to help others. And I hope that their experience of enthusiastically putting coins in their boxes serves as a foundation for generous and joyful giving throughout their lives.
Parenting is the New Dieting Politics
Parenting is the new dieting. Tiger moms of last year, morphed into French moms of this year. And now French parenting policy is gracing the pages of the Gray Lady’s book review section. So perhaps its poignant that the French moms version of the parenting ideal seemed to reduce good parenting to teaching your child to pass the marshmallow test. The American middle class, at least from the view across the Atlantic, has given their children the keys to the house, the pantry, their lives it seems, even before they’re out of diapers, let alone eating solids. But at home, the book David Brooks pronounced as the most influential of the year, not even a full six week into 2012, argues that we need a broader class-inflected prism to understand how this all really works. Successful rearing isn’t part of a national culture, it’s part of a class culture. The key insight is that the top quintile of parents (socio-economically speaking) get it – they know the values (“marriage, industriousness, community and faith”) that build success and pass them along. The lower third doesn’t seem to be exhibiting them and is falling behind.
What to make of all this? Is it all about values that somehow can get condensed into a small rectangle of white, fluffy, sugary goodness? Or ones that fall into red state/blue state accounting? With less fanfare, one story-line that trickles through (and a mea culpa in advance for riffing off reviews) is the role of community and solidarity. No one in these narratives of perfect parenting does it alone. Parents letting their children cry to sleep at ten weeks know their neighbors are doing the same. The class-based version implies not only that the upper-educated are following the same script, but that they’re sharing pointers as well.
The unsung hero of community is sustained through the anonymous work of solidarity. It is far easier to set meal times for your child, as French parenting purports, when someone at the daycare center is doing it during much of the day. And it’s easier to send your child to daycare when it’s affordable. Murray’s ‘founding virtues’ of America are closely linked: marriage, industriousness, community and faith unravel when jobs are scarce and insecure. It’s hard to be industrious without a job, and it’s likely harder still to maintain marital bliss, and communal ties. Countries that do more to secure jobs and cushion the fall from one to another (or none) pay a price by having a less flexible workforce and higher welfare expenses. Yet, they make life easier for those caught in the lurch.
Less turbulence makes the often invisible framework in which our communities and families operate more stable and easier to sustain. The much praised values of the French middle class and highly-educated cut of Americans flourish in such arrangements. And they are likely far more susceptible when the world around them, of jobs, daycare, housing, you name it, looks like the washing machine on spin cycle. Perhaps most powerfully is that solidarity is itself a value – one that occurs not only on a policy level, but one we practice everyday in how we parent, care and tend for children in our lives.
Zooming from the macro to micro and from policy to parenting confuses us as adults, parents, citizens, and in the coming year, as voters as well. How then to relate it to kids? How do we think about everyday of parenting and caring for children as related to decisions we make as individuals, communities, and societies? Is there a moment in our day and routine that we can point to that is wholly decided by us? and one that is not? Can we share those moments with the children in our lives?
Having two preschool-aged children and living in the Jewish community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has raised many questions for me related to money and tzedakah: How can I teach my daughters some of the values that are important to me – humility, gratitude, a sense of wonder? How can I help them to feel responsible for those who do not have many of the privileges that we do, to feel both the joy and obligation of giving, and to not feel entitled?
As my older daughter’s 5th birthday approached, and for the first time, we planned a party for her with more than a few family friends, these questions were front and center for me. Twelve friends would come to her party, and each of them would want to bring a gift – which would be in addition to the many gifts she would have already received from family and caregivers and family friends.
Could her birthday party be a moment for us to talk about the joys of giving, “having enough,” and the importance of helping others?
I spoke with my daughter, T, suggesting that perhaps she could ask her friends to bring tzedakah for Room To Grow, a non-profit that focuses on helping children ages 0-3 and their parents, rather than bringing her a gift. I reminded her of how hard it had been to choose toys to give away to make room for those we had received for Chanukah. And I reminded her of how good she had felt the one night of Chanukah when we had counted the money from her tzedakah box and she had decided to give it to Room to Grow – how she had drawn a picture for Room to Grow that we had sent with the money, noting how she chose Room to Grow because they help grown-ups and children. I suggested that perhaps instead of tzedakah money, we could ask her friends to bring a gift appropriate for children ages 0-3 – and perhaps she and I could together then take those gifts to Room to Grow and deliver them ourselves.
When I finished speaking, T paused for a moment and said, “But I want presents.”
“Of course you do!” I said. “How many would you like?”
“Four,” she replied, thoughtfully.
I said, “Perfect. How about if I make sure that between Daddy and me and your grandparents and some others, you receive at least four gifts? Then should we ask your friends to bring gifts for the children at Room to Grow?”
“Yes!” she said, enthusiastically.
So we included the following with the birthday party invitation:
T decided that, based on space in our apartment, she would prefer to not receive any gifts, but rather to collect toys/books to donate to Room to Grow. So in lieu of a gift for T, we would be grateful for an unwrapped, small, gently used or new gift – appropriate for a newborn to three year old. You can learn more about the organization at roomtogrow.org
I received a few interesting reactions. One mom told me that it was a topic of conversation in her house for a full day, talking about gifts and birthdays and giving. Another parent thought it was a wonderful idea and hoped others would do similarly.
Another parent said that he thinks it’s important that children receive presents on their birthdays – asking for no presents seemed “un-childhood-like” to him – and that the value of gratitude can be taught from the child spending time on each individual thank-you note as the gifts are opened slowly during the weeks following the party.
A couple of parents couldn’t hold themselves back and brought gifts for T, which led to interesting conversations because T was very excited to receive a gift (of course!), but also confused as to why this friend had brought her something when she had asked him not to. And led me to wonder to myself – why couldn’t these parents respect our wishes for T’s birthday party? Or should I instead push myself to view this as a form of generosity that also conveys important values?
What creative methods have you used to teach the values of the joy of giving, generosity, responsibility and tzedakah to your children? What do you think about birthday parties and gifts? Is there something to the idea that asking people not to bring gifts denies kids a “right of childhood”? Or is it a great opportunity for teaching about tzedakah?
I thought the article bearing this title by Marcella Kanfer Rolnick in Sh’ma was very powerful and a great read. Perhaps, we can engage with and build on the important questions that she asks not only herself but her family as well!
Eager to hear what you think.
When winter hits, ten homeless women spend the night at a synagogue in my neighborhood. Shuttled there in the evening by a city service, these women receive a hot meal, a bed, a shower, breakfast and then return to the city system in East New York in the morning. One night this fall, my daughter (8 yo), son (5 yo) and I prepared dinner for this group. I know that poverty and homelessness scares them; I guess it scares all of us. I figured that bringing a meal and preparing the shelter for the women’s visit would be a safe way to approach the scariness.
When we arrived, my kids quickly busied themselves with table setting. And then we walked into the sleeping room which doubled as a preschool classroom by day. Other volunteers had already opened the cots, set out the linen and opened a folding chair for each guest. We’d done our job, I thought, I was ready to go. But my five year old asked “what’s the chair for?” And I stopped short. I explained that many of these women had no place to sit- literally. They were out all day, looking for shelter, looking for health care, looking for a safe life. And the folding chair was a special effort to offer them rest, not just a place of sleep.
By asking about the chair, my son took the experience to another level. I came to see how that empty chair characterized homelessness’ fatigue so profoundly, something that without the chair would have been very abstract. I am so grateful for the insight that comes through how my children see the world, the questions that they ask, and the challenge it offers me as I reach for meaningful answers.
I’d love to hear what have been some of your “empty chair” moments. How have the children in your lives helped you to see the reality around you differently and understand things more deeply? To see things beyond how you’ve become adjusted to relating to them?
Here’s to moving together as a community toward increasing awakeness and supporting the children in our lives to be fully awake as well.
With warm regards,
We’re excited to share the results of a survey of those interested in the new Hekdesh initiative focused on Family & Tzedakah. Below you’ll find some ‘data points’ as well as a few tentative conclusions. We’re going to continue the discussion we started at the retreat on the Hekdesh blog, so you’re welcome to join us! You can email your thoughts to us now – and we’ll be opening it up to an online discussion on the blog in a week or so. See details below.
–Twenty-four Dorot alumni or spouses/partners completed the survey. Cumulatively, they have 35 children in their households, though it’s important to note that not all who completed the survey have kids. And that’s great – this initiative is intended for anyone with children in their lives, as parents, aunts or uncles, teachers or other roles we play in kids lives.
–About three-quarters of the children of those responding are under 6 years of age, with the vast majority babies and toddlers. That said, the quarter of homes with children ages 7 and up typically also included younger siblings.
–There’s a real mix in the schools kids represented in the survey are going to: public school, as well Jewish and non-Jewish private schools. These are at times complemented by supplementary schools and Jewish and non-Jewish summer camps.
–In terms of tzedakah-related issues, poverty topped the list, as did local and Jewishly-focused issues.
–Three-quarters of those responding say they’d be interested in an online initiative, and half said they’d be up for sharing resources or commenting on posts and the sort.
–The group was split on frequency of ntroducing online content, with about half saying once or twice a month would work well for them, while the rest saying less frequently was desirable (with every six months being popular).
–Again, about three-quarters were interested in gathering for events for adults and youth. Service projects and music-related events were most popular, though there was again little consensus on a desired frequency.
–About a quarter of those completing the survey are in the NYC-metro area, and another handful are in the LA-area. The rest are spread out domestically and internationally.
Note: These figures are not intended to ‘represent’ the Dorot community. It’s not a survey that represents the ‘population’ of Dorotnik with children in their lives. Rather it’s the feedback we gathered from 24 respondents and is intended as a launching pad for discussion and activity around family and tzedakah.
We’re a diverse group! From age of children to schooling to geography, we’ve got different needs among the families of Dorotniks completing the survey. That’s also reflected in the desired frequency of either online or in-person events. We’re excited about the prospect of working on different levels, in different places, with different foci and tempos, but that means that one size probably won’t fit all. We’re confident, however, that with the flexibility of technology and the creativity, resources and resourcefulness of our group, this initiative will be able to enrich our understanding and practice of tzedakah for ourselves and the children in our lives.
The conversation continues online! Feel free to read the comments or comment yourself on the survey results.
Thanks for reading! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas!
Hekdesh Learning Committee- Family and Tzedakah Sub-Committee
Jenny Breznay DFI ’91
Karen Abrams Gerber DFI ’92
Koby Oppenheim DFI ‘03
Dear Dorot Fellows!
Please take a few minutes to complete a brief survey on families and tzedakah by clicking here. We also encourage you to invite your spouse or partner (who may not be a Dorot alum/na) to take part. All your ideas, opinions and input are important to us!
We hope you will join us. Wishing you and your family a new year filled with health, happiness and success.
Hekdesh Learning Committee- Family and Tzedakah Sub-Committee
Jenny Breznay DFI ’91
Karen Abrams Gerber DFI ’92
Koby Oppenheim DFI ‘03