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Teach Your Children Well: Tzedaka Restores Justice

The word tzedaka, often translated as “charity,” comes from the Hebrew root tzedek, meaning “justice.” Its current usage was developed by the early rabbis, who recognized that the distribution of resources that results from a free-market economy must be adjusted by other means to ensure a fair society. Tzedaka is an expression of justice rather than mercy; its purpose is to create a fairer distribution of resources. Doing tzedaka restores justice.

This attitude stems from the belief that we are stewards of the property we control rather than its owners. The real owner of the property is its Creator. “Ladonay ha’aretz umelo’o; the earth and all that is in it belong to God.” (Psalms 24:1) When we acknowledge God’s ownership, we become more grateful for what we have and more openhearted in our willingness to share our blessings with our fellow creatures. Anyone who produces worth in the world has a partner in the Creator, who owns the means of production. Furthermore, Jews have a commitment to community that stresses mutual obligation.

It is a huge challenge to pass these values on to the next generation. Teaching our children is a basic requirement of Jewish tradition that is reinforced every time we recite the first paragraph of the Shema, a central Jewish prayer. American culture strongly emphasizes individual autonomy, so passing on the value and practice of tzedaka is particularly challenging in our time. However, giving of what we have to alleviate suffering and improve our world is a precious part of our heritage. Strategies that teach tzedaka to the next generation deserve our attention.

A child learns much of Jewish practice by observing a parent and often by personally joining in the experience. In a bygone world where tzedaka boxes, schnorrers (beggars — a respected social role in pre-modern Jewish communities) and charity collectors were a common sight, children learned about giving in just that fashion. Today, giving more often takes the form of mailing a check, and many families unintentionally neglect to pass on their giving practices. To help in avoiding that failure, several suggestions for passing on tzedaka practices follow.

Regular discussion between parents and children should be scheduled to talk about where the parents are giving and why. These discussions should in part be values-based and should in part talk about the practicalities of the organizations being supported. Such discussion could happen at mealtimes, at family meetings or at other times when everyone will be attentive.

As much as possible, acts of tzedaka by parents should be visible to children. Tzedaka boxes (also known as pushkes) should be visible in the home. One time that often works well for this is before lighting Shabbat candles. Children can also be asked to count the money in the tzedaka box and to mail envelopes with tzedaka checks in them. Some families do this monthly, and others, just before major holidays.

Children should give tzedaka themselves. Some parents help by dividing children’s allowances into spending money, savings and tzedaka. When this is done, parents need to help children think through where they want to give their tzedaka. This might involve research on the computer or in the library, or talking to people who know about the options. Some of the money that comes as gifts (birthdays, graduations, bnei mitzvah) should be set aside for tzedaka. This will happen only with parental encouragement. An enclosure in an invitation asking that tzedaka go to places selected by the celebrant provides not only a model of giving, but also an opportunity for the children to become familiar with a range of projects and organizations. Marking birthdays, graduations, promotions and other simchas and life-cycle events with tzedaka not only broadens the celebration; it reminds us to give back in recognition that nothing we achieve is the result solely of our own efforts. (Similarly, giving in honor of teachers and others who help us along the way also concretizes our gratitude and tangibly passes it on to others in need.)

Groups of children can give together. Whenever possible, children should gain a more in-depth understanding of where they are giving. Volunteering in a soup kitchen or animal shelter, studying the need and its causes, and exploring strategies for helping are outstanding precursors to giving tzedaka to related causes. This can be an important activity for religious schools, day schools and youth groups. Money for tzedaka can be brought in by the students. Older children will have a much more powerful and lasting sense of accomplishment, however, if they have a role themselves in raising the money that is disbursed.

One form of fundraising that can profoundly affect young people is directly soliciting contributions. Our responses to young people who come to the door to ask for a small amount to support a project for their school or youth group are therefore important. These children will be affirmed as participants in the work of tzedaka if our responses to them reinforce their commitment, and our negative responses will have the opposite impact. We should train ourselves to give small amounts (how much that is depends upon one’s individual situation) without thought unless the situation involves danger to the giver. And we should coach our children to go to people for support who will respond to them positively.

As children get older, they should be invited to join in the decision-making about where at least some of the household tzedaka is given. As they become more aware of how much things cost and how money is earned, they will become more ready to hear specifics about how much their parents give and where.

Often people include charitable bequests in their wills. This form of giving allows larger amounts to be contributed since it alleviates possible concerns about whether resources will be adequate to support the givers for the entirety of their lives. For several reasons it is important that these bequests be reviewed with children when they are old enough. Doing so will create a conversation with children about the purposes of money. It will help to expose mature children to what their parents consider important, encouraging them to rethink their own values. It will reduce the possibility that the children will challenge the will later.

The suggestions above are meant to be indicative rather than exhaustive. A broad variety of efforts to pass on values and ethical action in regard to tzedaka and social justice can have a major role in shaping our children and continuing the work of improving our world.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch is the Wiener professor of contemporary Jewish civilization and director of the Levin-Lieber program in Jewish ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. This essay is adapted from his book, “A Guide to Jewish Practice: Tzedaka,” due for publication this month from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press.

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