On this beautiful Shabbat morning, instead of going to Tot Shabbat, I took my daughters on a long walk though our neighborhood. We were carrying (and thereby violating the Sabbath) fifty empty bags given to us by the local Survival Center, a food pantry for the many in our community who are in need. Our job was to leave the bags on people’s doorsteps; next Saturday our mailman will pick up bags that are, we hope, filled with non-perishable foods. (His turn to violate the Sabbath. Oh never mind, he’s Catholic.)
This felt like a wonderful, albeit non-traditional, way to spend shabbat – engaged in an act of tzedakah. Up to this point, I don’t think I’ve paid sufficient attention to teaching my children about the concept of tzedakah. While we have a beautiful tzedakah box (made by local potter and friend, Emmett Leader) where we put change on a regular basis, it’s not something we’ve built any kind of family ritual around. My husband and I regularly make modest contributions to various causes, but again, we haven’t included the girls in this practice, or even mentioned it to them. It’s not oversight so much as not knowing how to approach this issue in a developmentally appropriate way. After all, neither of my children has any real understanding of money. They see no difference between the large “savings coins” from the local supermarket (which, contrary to what the ad campaign might lead you to believe, are worth absolutely nothing), silver dollars, and the dish of international currency culled from my husband’s international travels. How can giving money be meaningful when money itself is meaningless?
So collecting food for the survival center felt like a tangible way to start our family on the path to a richer relationship to tzedakah. The girls loved running up to each house and finding a secure place to leave the bag, and we even met some of our neighbors for the first time. Still, I had a hard time figuring out how to frame what we were doing as a Jewish activity, even though I wanted to. Their non-Jewish preschool visits the same Survival Center each year, and engages the older children in a small fundraising program that emphasizes the importance helping those who are less fortunate. I’d like to help instill in them a connection to social justice that isn’t purely secular. Unfortunately, all I could come up with was (rather lamely) mentioning every now and then that they were doing a big mitzvah.
Later this week, we’ll go to the store to fill up our own bag, and perhaps I’ll think of a more sophisticated way to connect our giving to being Jewish. Or maybe the important thing is just to get them in the habit of giving, and not worry so much about what label we attach to the practice. I just don’t know. Add your comments and let me know what you think. Please?