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Welcome to Tzedakah Club, Sandy Grandson

Our youngest grandson will turn one year old this month. He was born last October as Hurricane Sandy swept up the East Coast.

He arrived in the world during a time of uncertainty, when the limits of human ingenuity were starkly visible. As his birthday approaches, I think back over the year. Despite the fact that his development mirrors that of millions of others who have come before him, it is still awe-inspiring to ponder his growth, from tiny newborn to delightful toddler, now able to walk and laugh and create his own havoc.
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I have always loved birthdays, and look forward to celebrating Jordan Micah’s first year. Surprisingly, in the Torah, the only birthday recounted is that of the Pharoah, the Egyptian monarch. In fact, birthdays aren’t particularly ritualized events in our Jewish tradition.

Instead, we are encouraged to commemorate the yahrzeit, the date of death of an individual, rather than their date of birth. We are taught to respect and aspire to what a person has done with their life, the sum and substance of what they accomplished over the course of their years here on earth.

And yet, birthdays can also be a time for celebrating within a Jewish perspective. For my husband and myself, as grandparents, the Jewish piece to the celebration will be our gift to the special club our grandson Jordan Micah joined at his birth. Our inspiration comes from Sharon Morton, Director Emeritus of Jewish Education at Am Shalom Synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois and founder of Grandparents for Social Action.

About 10 years ago, Sharon created the MIMAST Philanthropy Club, an acronym for the names of her three young grandsons, Michael, Matthew and Steven. A bank account was opened for the grandchildren, in which Grandma Sharon deposited money for philanthropic use by the boys. Upon joining, each club member had to raise a hand and pledge “to make the world a better place.” After seven-year-old Michael saw homeless people out on the street, he spoke with his grandmother and his brothers, and $100 was appropriated to buy mittens for the homeless.

And so, when our first grandchild was born, I knew what I wanted to do. I opened a checking account for our joint Grandparent-Grandchild Tzedakah (Philanthropy) Club. On the face of the check, it reads, “What one does, one becomes.”

We put in $180, and pledged to put in $100 each year on every birthday and for Chanukah. Now, seven years and three grandchildren later, several thousand dollars have accumulated in the account. This past month, as Rosh Hashanah approached, we had an important discussion with our oldest grandchild, Marc.

“We have $100 from our Tzedakah Club to give to people in need. Should we give it to a family here in town to buy school supplies, to a family who needs food for the holidays, or to a family in Africa to buy solar panels to have electricity in their home?”

It was a no brainer for our grandson, who loves food, all food, especially noodle pudding, sushi and chocolate rugelach.

“Buy them food,” he solemnly opined. And so we did.

As Jordan’s first birthday approaches, we are happy to welcome him to the Grandparent-Grandchild Tzedakah Club. Jordan’s namesakes would be pleased. His middle name, Micah, after his beloved great-grandmother Marlene, brings to mind the Biblical prophet who exhorts us to remember that ultimately all God wants is for us to “love mercy and do justice.”

One year after Hurricane Sandy, we look forward to the cake and the singing and the gathering of family and friends. We are so grateful for the precious gift of life we all share. And although it doesn’t last forever, it is our task to endow it with meaning.

Happy Birthday, JM. Welcome to the club.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author. Her award-winning children’s book, When the Hurricane Came, explores how giving to others builds resilience in the face of loss.

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