Changes in North American Tzedakah

sduncan post on February 5th, 2013
Posted in Diaspora communities Tags:

By Miriam A

When I was a child, I visited my maternal grandparents regularly. In the kitchen was a small blue metal box with Hebrew writing on it. I liked to shake the box to see if it was full of coins or almost empty. I knew if it was full I could help to count the money, which my grandfather would then take to the synagogue. It was not clear to me then but that was Tzedakah. That little metal box established a clear link between a Jewish duty and its consequence.

Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word Tzedek which means justice, what is right. It goes beyond charity. Jews are required to care and to give. As a paper entitled “Tzedakah” by Krishna Mistry, published in Global Giving Resource indicates, there are guidelines for giving, including amount and to which organizations or groups.

The rigid nature of the giving, as well as the highly organized Jewish philanthropic structures and organizations in North America are anathema to many young Jews brought up in the mainstream of North American society. In addition to this philosophical debate, a more political one has arisen since one of the guidelines for tzedakah is to give to community before giving to strangers. Many define “community” for Jews as including Israel; others do not. Since some North American Jews feel very uncomfortable about Israel’s dealings with Palestinians, this debate can be heated.

In the past few decades some North American Jews have expanded their practice of tzedakah to embrace the concept of Tikkun Olam, which literally means “world repair”. An ancient concept, it has been interpreted in North America in the past half century to mean social justice. That has strengthened a focus on civil liberties, eradication of poverty and support of development in impoverished nations. That philosophical debate has been the subject of a lot of discussion, if one pays attention to some of the writings of Danny Siegel. Siegel is an American thinker and poet who has written and lectured extensively on the principle of tzedakah. He admonishes that tikkun olam is more than strategy and theory. He says that it really comes down to the doing. He stresses that discussing and planning for tikkun olam, the over-arching philosophical concept, does not replace the giving of charity and the doing of good deeds and acts of kindness.

While tikkun olam is not a new concept, it has gained a lot more force with younger American and Canadian Jews. In an article posted in eJewish Philanthropy, Rabbi Kenneth Brander refers to a new organization called “Repair the World”. It was created with a significant philanthropic grant to discover, co-ordinate and fund service opportunities by Gen-Y Jews. Many of them crave different models within the Jewish tradition to give to Jews and non-Jews in their own communities and around the world.

What traditional Jewish philanthropy is wrestling with is how to engage young Jews in the ancient giving tradition of tzedakah in a way that speaks to their modern needs for commitment and action.

Works Cited

Tzedakah, by Krishna Mistry, Global Giving Resource

Tikkun Olam: Repairing the World,

Danny Siegel’s Principles of Tzedakah, by Danny Siegel, In

Charity Begins at Home, But Should Not End There, by Shloni Ravid, eJewishphilanthropy in

Gen-Y is Hungry by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, ejewishphilanthropy in

Debate Over the Purpose of Jewish Philanthropy, by Ian Wilhelm, The Chronicle of Philanthropy in

Repair the World responds to Wertheimer’s criticism, by Jack Berkman,

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