As many of us know, tzedakah doesn’t actually mean “charity.” It means “righteousness.” But our family generally uses tzedakah to mean donating money or goods, and mitzvot to mean doing good deeds.
My desire to have my children engaged in acts of tikkun olam — repairing the world — is entirely selfish: If my children become entitled, self-absorbed little weenuses, I won’t want to hang out with them. And round-the-clock babysitting is expensive.
So we started involving Josie in tzedakah when she was a preschooler. Across the street from us is a homeless shelter, so I’d take Josie with me to donate her outgrown baby clothes. The first time Jojo came with me, a man who worked at the shelter called out, “Wait!” as we turned to go. He ran to the door and sweetly presented Josie with a giant tub of Magic Markers. Since she was about 3 and not allowed to use markers in our house (someone still lacked motor skills and self-control), she felt as if she’d just won the lottery. The next two times we made donations, she scowled when the expected payment of a giant tub of markers failed to appear. This was not the response to early tzedakah-giving I’d hoped for.
Eventually, Josie’s association of tzedakah with free art supplies dimmed. But we recently had another nice moment when we dropped off a bundle of Maxine’s outgrown baby clothes. “We’re not having any more babies!” Josie explained to the grizzled fellow who opened the door. “Oh, but I am!” he said, patting his round belly. “Mazel tov!” I told him. He looked quizzical as he took the bundle and the door swung closed. I could see his face, brow knitted in thought, behind the scratched Plexiglas. As we headed back down the block, I heard the door open and the man call out, joyfully, behind us, “Shalom! Shalom!”
There are a million ways to get small children involved in tzedakah: food drives, coat drives, book drives. Decorate a make-your-own-tzedakah box from a kit. Make tzedakah part of your Friday night ritual.
In our house, before we light candles, Josie and Max get their allowance and a quarter each for tzedakah. Maxine loves being picked up to drop a quarter into the chimney of the cream and navy ceramic house, the same tzedakah box my family used when I was a kid. She then puts the other quarter into her little fuchsia owl-shaped bank. But last week, when I picked her up and dangled her over the tzedakah house, her little fist stayed closed. “Put the money in,” I urged her. “I’m going to put it my owl,” she said. “One quarter is for your owl, and one is for tzedakah,” I reminded her. “We give the money in the tzedakah house to people who need help.” “I need help!” Maxine insisted. “I need help getting more quarters!”
It was then we knew we were raising a Republican. That’s why this summer we are sending her to a Greenpeace boat in the South Pacific to protest the U.S. Department of Defense’s destruction of the coral-reef habitat of the dugong, a relative of the manatee.
Truthfully, she’s still a bit young to understand the why of tzedakah; right now we can only teach her the motions, the how. At 6, though, Josie is old enough to understand tzedakah’s real impact on human lives. She’s fascinated by Rambam’s ladder of charity, obsessed with the general practice of ordering and ranking. The notion that some kinds of charity are better than others entices her. Her school stresses the wrongness of deliberately embarrassing a classmate, so she immediately understood that giving begrudgingly and making the recipient feel ashamed is the lowest kind of giving. She gets that helping someone “learn to fish” is the highest.
That’s why we often give birthday presents from Heifer International, the foundation that lets you donate animals to families around the world to help them become self-reliant. Josie loved “buying” Uncle Andy a flock of geese, chicks and ducks for his birthday, knowing that this would help a family in need and not require fastidious Uncle Neal to clean bird poop off their pristine carpets.
Books, too, have been huge in helping Jojo learn about the power of community and how good it can feel to help others out of a tight spot. We both love “What Zeesie Saw on Delancey Street” by Elsa Okon Rael, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Simon & Schuster, 1996). It tells the story of a 7-year-old girl on the Lower East Side in the early part of the century, attending her first grown-up fundraising party for fellow immigrants. The detail and illustrations are luscious, and Zeesie’s act of tzedakah — and dignity-preservation — is very moving. The fact that this book is out of print is a shande.
And currently, she’s adoring “One Hen” by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Eugenia Fernandes (Kids Can Press, 2008). At first I thought the book was too didactic to be a fun read. But Josie was spellbound, poring over it for hours. It’s the story of a Ghanaian boy named Kojo who uses a loan of a few coins from a village loan collective to buy one pretty hen. He sells the eggs and gradually earns enough to buy another hen, then more hens, and eventually, years later, ends up running a huge poultry farm. His business helps his whole country develop its infrastructure and allow children to stay in school. Kojo begins giving small loans of his own to his employees, perpetuating the cycle of help. The book is based on a true story.
Pleasingly oversized, it’s illustrated with beautiful folk-arty paintings and ends with a kid-friendly explanation of microloans. From the “One Hen” Web site, Josie and I discovered Kiva.org, a non-profit that lets you make loans of as little as $25 to vetted entrepreneurs in developing countries. You generally get your money back within six to 12 months, and receive e-mail about how the recipients of your loan are doing.
Josie wanted in. She hadn’t yet had the experience of giving away her own money. She had $41 saved up — allowance, tooth fairy money, gifts from grandparents. I suggested we split the $25 cost of helping someone. “I want to give the whole $25,” she told me. “Why don’t we each pick someone to help and you can give $25 of your money too?”
I agreed. Josie painstakingly removed 19 crumpled dollars, three dollar coins and 12 quarters from her Hello Kitty bank, and sat on my lap to click through profiles of potential loan recipients. She picked a group of 15 women in Peru who wanted a loan to buy cattle, sheep, grain and animal feed. Josie decided that animals, like the Heifer International animals and that first “One Hen” chicken, would earn money for their owners quickly and reliably. I chose a group of Samoan women in a fishing village. An organization called South Pacific Business Development taught them to write a business plan; they were seeking a loan for wooden canoes, fishing nets, swim shoes, a spear, a flashlight and goggles. I chose them because I liked their matching floral outfits and leis.
At 3, Maxie isn’t quite ready for this; we’re just trying to keep her from palming quarters on Shabbat. But one day, I hope, she’ll understand tzedakah too. And if she doesn’t, we will make her spend her 2nd grade year in an ancient redwood at risk of deforestation, singing folk songs in a reedy, nasal voice.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.