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Time for Tzedakah, Now More Than Ever

Charity (or tzedakah, if you prefer) is as December a phenomenon as Hanukkah, Christmas and (since 1966) Kwanzaa. The reason is not the jollity of the season so much as it is the imminent end of the calendar year and the tax-deductibility of charitable contributions. And perhaps, as well, our heightened awareness, in the dead of winter, of the needs of others less snug than we.

This December, in the midst of awful financial crisis, those needs have ballooned. Growing unemployment and increasing home foreclosures leave gaps, and sometimes chasms, in the most basic needs of people — food, shelter, health care. At the same time, corporate charity will likely be substantially less generous as corporate profits tumble, foundations will have less to give because their endowments have taken such a beating, state and local governments will have to cut social services as tax revenues decline.

The need: Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic social entrepreneur who is president of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, likens the social service crisis in New York to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. In Massachusetts, which last year was forced to house 27 homeless families in undesirable motels — far from schools, from grocery stores, from public transportation — this year the number of such families has increased more than twenty-fold, to 570.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a board meeting of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, where we pondered how to assess what we’d be able to disburse in our grant-making next year. Last year, our grant-making amounted to nearly $5.5 million. This year, who knows? Yet many first responders to the problem of hunger depend on Mazon grants, and there have been huge increases in demand faced by the agencies we support. Visits to local food pantries are already up by 20% to 100% over the past six months. Food stamps? To qualify for the food stamp program, recipients must have an income of less than $27,564 for a family of four. The benefits average $109.93 a month per person. Do the math, compare it to your own budget for food. What to do? How to plan? (Disclosure: I founded Mazon some $50 million in grants ago, and continue proudly to serve on its board of directors.)

This is not meant as a plug for Mazon in particular, or even for targeting your response to the crisis in food, whether here in America or, more dramatically, around much of the world. It is meant as a reminder of the fierce urgency of now.

So here is my proposal: Those of us who can — and, as you will see, I believe that includes most of us — must this year increase our charitable giving.

I realize that with all the economic and financial stress that there’s almost no one who hasn’t experienced losses this year. But: Unless personal circumstances render us truly strapped, strapped beyond having suffered paper losses, this is exactly the wrong time to cut back. Instead, it is a time to review our contributions of last year, to select from among them the most compelling, and to do what we can to help make up for the certain losses they will experience in government and foundation support as well as from donors too preoccupied with the recession to focus on the awesome and urgent needs of millions of people.

Consider: The Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago has just provided $93,000 in immediate food, rent and utility assistance to aid the escalating number of people seeking help from its agencies. That’s just a down payment; much, much more will be needed. The largest portion of the initial allocation will go to services providing short-term rent or utility assistance, one-time emergency payments and other types of financial assistance. (Jewish Child & Family Services in Chicago has already received more requests for financial assistance in the first nine months of 2008 than in all of 2007.) The stories of need and of response from all around the country are essentially the same.

There are special needs, as well. The Union for Reform Judaism has launched a campaign entitled “Nothing But Nets,” an effort to provide insecticide-treated bed nets to the impoverished in Africa. Such bed nets, which cost $10 each, are the surest defense against malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes and which in 2006 killed 881,000 people, most of them children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda, “home” to some 18,000 people, including growing numbers of Congolese refugees, is infested with mosquitoes, so malaria is easily spread — but the refugees can’t afford mosquito nets and bedding. The Reform movement campaign plans to provide every person in the Nakivale camp a proper bed net, and then to move on to other locations. It has set a goal of $500,000, enough to distribute 50,000 nets. Why not make a point, during Hanukkah, of gathering the family just after the candle-lighting to make an online contribution to Nothing But Nets? Just click on to and send $10 — or, better yet, $18. (It can be such a compelling ritual that you might want to send $10 a night on each of the eight nights.) The kids at Nakivale can’t wait until the recession’s over and things are back to “normal.”

You don’t have to be Bill Gates, who’s putting $169 million into the effort to find an anti-malaria vaccine, or even Ted Turner, who’s giving $2 million to beat malaria. All you have to be is a mensch.

It’s not easy, I know. I actually was trying to figure out where I could cut my giving this year before I realized that I’d rather gamble with my future solvency than with other people’s lives. There is a reason, after all, we do not call it charity but tzedakah — righteousness.

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