Tzedakah Ain't Just for Jewish Millionaires

Regular Folks Can Do Serious Good Deeds on Modest Budget

Big-Hearted Macher: Steven Spielberg, shown with his wife Kate Capshaw in Cannes, France, is one of many philanthropically minded Jews. Their generosity doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t chip in.
getty images
Big-Hearted Macher: Steven Spielberg, shown with his wife Kate Capshaw in Cannes, France, is one of many philanthropically minded Jews. Their generosity doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t chip in.

By Jordana Horn

Published May 19, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Whether it was implicitly or explicitly taught to me, I don’t remember, but somehow, I always knew: The people who hold the Torahs during the reading of the Kol Nidre prayer are the congregation’s big machers.

A few years ago, as I stood at Kol Nidre, my eyes swept over the bimah. Even I, a comparative naif in such things, recognized a few faces as belonging to multimillionaires, if not billionaires. Obviously we were supposed to be looking at the Torah scrolls, and inward at our own souls. But there they were, on a stage before me, literally lifted above the rest of us.

Gross, I know. But even more so was my reaction when, within a half-hour, the rabbi began his Kol Nidre appeal speech, detailing the congregation’s financial needs. Any one of the people who had been on the bimah shortly before, I thought in silent response, could easily write a check that would resolve those needs — a check whose size I guarantee that I will never able to write in this lifetime.

We are fortunate, as a Jewish community, to have the Spielbergs, Bronfmans, Steinhardts, Perelmans, Lauders, etc., all of whom are paragons of both success and philanthropy. The underbelly of prominent philanthropy, however, not often discussed, is that those with $36 rather than $36 million to give may feel there is “no point” to their contribution. After all, their comparatively small drop in the bucket is not necessary when there are those who can and do fill buckets to overflowing.

Prominent wallets and donors within the Jewish community can sometimes have the unfortunate byproduct of absolving the “schlubs,” — the proletariat, us — from a financial obligation to tikkun olam and tzedakah. And this goes against everything we should stand for.

There is much to be said, then, for the good work done by ”micro-tzedakah” outlets like the Good People Fund, a Jewish micro-charity fund that looks to extend hands of financial support to smaller organizations that would otherwise be overlooked by big funders.

The Good People Fund’s executive director, Naomi Eisenberger, said that her organization’s very focus is the ability to allow people with all ranges of means to make a difference.” Why can’t the era of Kickstarter and Indiegogo — ways in which individuals can finance individuals and their projects — be applied to our modern tzedakah mentality, as well?

The Good People Fund finds “good people” — people doing great work on a comparatively personal, rather than institutional, scale — and matches them with donations and donors. The projects range widely in size, are based in America and Israel, and cover needs from hunger and elder care to kids, veterans and disabilities. One organization helped by the Good People Fund educates women in Israel who have opted to leave prostitution; another organization provides horseback riding therapy for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thirty-six dollars can be a significant gift when sent in the right direction. “Any amount,” Eisenberger said “is important and can change lives. It’s a very tangible thing.”

She cites examples of expenses — desalination pills, child care for women undergoing cancer treatments, graduation robe rental fees — that can be taken care of with minimal expenditure, and whose assumption by donors can make a tremendous difference in the life of a grantee. Last year these individual donations added up to almost $1 million.

The other good done by this micro-charity is perhaps less tangible: As an organization, it holds up its “good people” as beacons of light in a dark world, and as examples of how one person can, in fact, make a difference, even if he or she isn’t a billionaire.

Each funded project was started by people who saw a need and decided to attempt to fill it. One initiative, Down on the Block, helps suburban neighbors experiencing a sudden financial setback, whether through job loss or otherwise, by providing short-term anonymous assistance.

Another, Project Ezra, offers food, clubs, home health care and support to frail elderly people on the Lower East Side.

This is about the true potential of the individual to meet the needs of others. It exemplifies the maxim of the Jewish sage Hillel: “Where there is no one and someone is needed, strive to be that someone.”

Each one opens up a window of good, and a window into the possible. And in doing so, they give us a gift of their inspiration, and the ability to emulate them ourselves.

Jordana Horn is the former New York bureau chief of The Jerusalem Post and is a cont ributing editor to the parenting website Kveller.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.