Hassidic rabbi Solomon ben Meir ha-Levi of Karlin, who lived in the 18th century, taught:
“If you want to raise a man from mud and filth, do not think it is enough to keep standing on top and reaching down to him a helping hand.
You must go all the way down yourself, down into the mud and filth. Then take hold of him with strong hands and pull him and yourself out into the light.”
How apt this image is to the work done in the past two weeks on the ground in Haiti by search, rescue and medical teams – and even by TV news crews who have helped dig people out of the rubble.
But what about the rest of us who remain at arm’s length, unwilling or unable to stop everything and make our way to the devastated island nation to literally lend a hand? Rather than throw up our hands in the face of the enormity of the calamity and thinking that there is nothing we as individuals could possibly do to help, we have joined hands globally to fight the destruction and despair. We are bucking the tendency to think that only those of colossal means, either private individuals or public institutions, can make a difference. We are “donning victory like a coat of mail” (Isaiah 59:17), which means, according to the Talmud, that “just as in a coat of mail, every small scale joins with the others to form a piece of armor, so every little sum of money given to charity combines with the rest to form a large sum” (Bava Batra 9b).
Not everyone is in a position to sell their house and donate half the proceeds to charity, nor are any of us George Clooney or Sandra Bullock (who each generously gave $1 million to Haiti relief), but most of us can contribute small amounts – and do so more than once. The advances of technology, combined with some tried and true fundraising techniques, have made it easy and convenient to give in this way. Just in the last week, many of us have given an online gift, texted a $5 or $10 donation, baked for and bought at a school bake sale, dropped some cash into the collection plate, bought the Hope For Haiti Now album on iTunes, and scrounged around the house for a Penny Power drive – all for Haiti.
A teacher and her young students count the tzeddakh collected in their homemade pushkes.
The pushke is a physical reminder of how every little bit helps, and it’s high time we brought it back into the classroom and home. So many of us have fond memories of going to Jewish day school or Hebrew school with coins jangling in our pockets (usually on Friday for Kabbalat Shabbat) to drop into the tzeddakah box either placed on the corner of the teacher’s desk or passed from chubby little hand to chubby little hand as we sat in a circle on the classroom rug. I remember how seriously I took the responsibility of reminding my parents every Friday morning to give me some change to take to school. My boys used to remind me, myself now the parent, when they were in nursery school and kindergarten. How many of us with older kids still uphold the custom of putting a little something into the pushke at home before we light the Shabbat candles? Getting back into this habit will remind our children that giving tzeddakah involves not only check writing by mom and dad, but also philanthropic action they can take on their own by tithing their allowance or babysitting money.
Wyclef Jean's foundation's logo features hands, as does the Hope for Haiti Now one.
Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that pushke-philanthropy and the amount raised from donations from individuals will be all that Haiti needs (an international conference is taking place today in Montreal to assess the financial needs of Haiti – in the billions of dollars- as it rebuilds), but it does make a significant difference in the the ability of those on the ground to respond, and ultimately in the lives of the recovering victims.
We can compare the role of this micro-philanthropy for Haiti l’havdil (there is a qualitative difference between saving a life and saving a Jewish website) to an approach taken by not-for-profit entrepreneurs to keep Jewish educational ventures afloat. Some start-ups and websites are creating and benefiting from a renewed pushke effect by turning to their users and readers for very small donations. They are still looking to the Steinhardts, Bronfmans and Schustermans of the Jewish community for major seed money, but they are also realizing that a few bucks from each of hundreds or thousands of website users can add up to a lot. Dan Septimus, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of MyJewishLearning.com, reported in an article published on ejewishphilanthropy.com on the positive impact of very small donors – and the use of technology to interface with them – on his organization’s recent fundraising efforts.
There’s a reason why so many fundraising logos feature hands. Even when we cannot use our feet to take us directly to those in need, we can use our hands to help. We have many choices today. We can use them to drop a coin in a charity box, grip a pen to write a check, click a donation link on a website, or text a message to a philanthropic phone app. We should just never choose to let them be idle.
© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.