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Reflections on Charity

I was in the den, involved in a good book when I saw my daughter Ahuva walking into the kitchen and pouring a drink. When I heard the clanging of coins being rustled around in our loose change container, I knew that someone was at the door, asking for charity. Our kids know that, first of all, when someone comes asking for donations, either for a charitable organization, or for himself and his needy family—you give. Even if it’s a handful of coins, 

you give. The Bible commands us, “You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy, in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) I’m proud that my children don’t look at these people who appear at our door (sometimes half a dozen of them in an evening) as beggars. Some are collecting funds for an institute of Bible study which has suffered financially. Some bring photographs of children born with birth disorders who need desperate medical care. Some are fathers, telling stories of lost jobs, sick wives, a houseful of hungry children and a daughter to marry off. My children offer them a cold drink, the use of our bathroom and a place to leave their bags as they continue down the street.

These are people in need, people who have suffered a bad break, and who are reaching out to their own people to help them out. We get to know some of them. There’s one man who visits regularly and comes in for a cup of tea with my husband and a scholarly discussion of the Torah Portion of the Week. One woman comes very often, and I invite her into the kitchen for a snack and a chance to sit down for a few minutes and talk about what’s going on in her life, her life of hardship and struggle. One man used to come and sell skullcaps that his wife crocheted. I would always try to buy one from him for one of my boys or my husband, even if we didn’t need any new ones. I appreciated that he was trying to support himself with honor and was proud not to take handouts.

The Bible repeatedly expresses the obligation to help those who, for whatever reason, cannot help themselves. The attitude behind charity in Judaism is that all possessions, lands, and goods ultimately belong to G-d, so if now someone is holding out his hand to you, share with them what you have been given without feeling any sense of superiority, because one day the tables could be turned. The Hebrew word for charity is “tzedaka” which means “righteousness” or “justice” and the Jewish people take the laws of charity very seriously. We are commanded to give, to give generously and to worry that those who live among us are taken care of. The Bible believes that charity begins at home and we are meant to look nearby before we send our charities far and wide. Relatives receive before strangers, and members of the local community before outsiders.

Our community of Karnei Shomron is a wonderful example of people taking care of their own. I’m so proud of where I live. Two friends of mine started a charity many years ago called “Help for your Neighbor”. They work with Social Services and the local medical clinics, revealing cases of need and getting strict referrals. These families receive generous food packages of basic food essentials. The baskets tide them over just until they get back on their feet. All the donations come from the people of the community who are thrilled at the chance to help their own, thrilled to know that no one is being allowed to fall through the cracks. It’s very beautifully done. The organizers work with the local supermarket which in turn brings the food to the needy families as a regular delivery, avoiding any embarrassment on the part of the recipient. Even our local bakery gets involved in charity. Every Friday the owners give away trays and trays of unsold breads and cakes to families who can use this food to help celebrate their Shabbat.

When my son Avraham was in sixth grade, he was involved in a charity another friend of mine started. He and his friends would split up the blocks of the neighborhood and go door to door, delivering empty aluminum foil pans. At the same time, the boys picked up the filled pans from the week before— food cooked fresh for the good deed or perhaps leftovers from the Shabbat meal. At that point, the mother on call took the dozens of food pans and a prepared list of families, many of them elderly couples living alone, and drove the children around to these families who wait at home for their weeks’ worth of dinners, ready to be heated in their ovens. Avraham looked forward to Tuesdays, to the three hours he spent helping others.

There are built-in laws in the Bible to help the poor. From the time of the Bible there was a commandment in rural communities to leave the gleanings of the grain in the corners of the fields, purposefully “forgotten produce” for the needy to come and take. Many Jewish festivals like Passover and Purim have specific commandments of charity incorporated along with the other directives of the day. For weeks before these holidays, the local rabbis collect cash contributions from the community and make sure to deliver them to the needy families, sometimes driving around themselves to their homes in order to ensure that everyone will be able to celebrate the holiday seasons with honor.

I get dozens of letters a week from assorted charities in Israel, asking their fellow Jews for help. Just last week, hours before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, began, I took a chair so I could reach the top of the refrigerator where I sometimes allow the envelopes to collect dust for a few weeks. I gathered them into a pile and sat down at the kitchen table with my checkbook. The variety of needs is staggering. Institutions of Bible learning which are struggling, either because of students needing financial aid or because of their locations in Shechem or Eastern Jerusalem. Brides and grooms whose families have nothing to give them, no way to help them start off their lives together. Group homes for retarded young adults, soup kitchens for the elderly, seeing eye- dogs for the blind, victims of terror attacks, medical equipment for the crippled, research for Cancer patients, day camps for children with cystic fibrosis, new homes for Gush Katif refugees… The needs are great and many and I try to give to them all, even if it’s a small amount.

Jewish people very often give sums of money that are divisible by or multiples of the number eighteen which in Hebrew letters spell “Chai”- life. Charity, after all, is a way of giving our fellow man another chance, a better grasp at life. I like to involve my kids in the deed. I find it so important for them to try and understand that they should not take their good fortune for granted. I call Netanel over and as I write out the checks, Netanel folds them and puts them in the self-addressed envelopes and licks them closed. Then, not wanting to push off finishing the good deed, he walks over to the post office and mails them all. We declare in our prayers on Rosh Hashana that Repentance, Prayer and Charity have the power to cancel any evil decree and it soothes me to fulfill this commandment right before the holiday. I want G-d to remember me and my family for good things; I want to be worthy by remembering others.

Charity is built into the education of our children. I remember, all through elementary school, as I left the house for the school bus, I’d walk into the kitchen to say good-bye to my mother. And there, laid out next to the three brown paper bags holding mine and my sisters’ lunches, were three quarters for each of us to put into our charity box, on the teachers’ desks in each classroom. Every day. And every Friday, the table in our house would be set for the festive Shabbat meal, and at the edge of the crisp, white tablecloth there would be three piles of coins and a charity box so we can give charity right before Shabbat enters our home.

Elitzur, even though he is only five years old, is already being taught to give charity. Every day I put a few coins in his lunch bag and he brings it with him to kindergarten. As the children come to the circle of chairs for prayer time, they run to their school bags to grab their charity money. They sit there, clutching the coins in their sweet, sweaty hands, waiting for the charity box to be passed around and for the chance to allow their coins to drop through the slot. Every month the teacher discusses with the children which charity will get the sum they collected and when the chosen organization sends a receipt and a thank you, the teacher makes sure to show it to them so they can understand how their generosity and consistency can make a difference in the lives of others.

Just this morning I opened my e-mails and my heart gave a little flutter when I saw the one titled “Help Save Gili- update”. Gili was a little girl from a neighboring community of Kedumim, who was brought into our hearts and homes only a couple of weeks ago. She was born with a rare breathing disorder and a grave diagnosis for survival. When she was only six weeks old her parents were told that there may be hope if she could get a procedure done in London. They needed $300,000. Immediately. That’s all her friends and neighbors needed to hear. They set up portable tables and chairs, grabbed lists of the thousands of Kedumim residents, everyone took a phone, and an emergency center was in position. Money started pouring in and soon word spread outside of Kedumim, the picture of the heartbroken mother and helpless baby pulling at our minds and hearts.

The money was raised—all of it– in one week– and Gili was flown to London for the operation. I opened the e-mail and read that the surgery was successful and please G-d, her life will no longer be in danger and she can live a normal life.

This is what it means when the Sages say “All Israel is responsible for one another.” The concept of charity in the Jewish world is ingrained on our hearts and our souls. To give—not till it hurts, but till it feels good.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities