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.
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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.
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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


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