by Robin Matthews, Jewish Learning Venture Program Administrator
I grew up in a Jewish family and although we celebrated the holidays, we didn’t belong to a synagogue and we rarely practiced regular rituals like Shabbat or keeping kosher. In fact, outside of some of the social customs like using Yiddish idioms, I was largely ignorant of a lot of what Judaism had to offer. When my son, Asher, was born, my wife (who is a Unitarian now, but was brought up Catholic) and I decided we would raise him as a Jew. At the time, that meant that he would get a Hebrew name, go to religious school, go to Temple on the High Holidays, and have a Bar Mitzvah. I didn’t think – nor did I really know to think – beyond that.
When Asher was about three, we started to look around for a synagogue to join and on our travels, stumbled across a PJ Library brochure and promptly signed up. And then just like that, books started arriving, we started to learn about holidays I never even knew existed (Tu B’Shevat? What’s that? Shavuot? That’s a thing?) And then, after a little bit, a tzedakah box arrived in the mail for Asher to decorate.
I have always known, albeit in a pretty nebulous way, that Jews were givers. My grandparents were incredibly philanthropic (as evidenced by the fat envelope of return address stickers that every organization to which they’d ever donated sent to them) and I grew up in a very socially liberal family that believed in equal opportunity and helping others. Perhaps it is because of that that I really clung to this decorate-your-own tzedakah box activity and why – over the next several years – tzedakah would become one of the primary ways that our family would connect to Judaism.
Asher started putting money in his box immediately. The joy of dropping coins into the slot and listening to the satisfying clink as they fell to the bottom was soon replaced by the empowerment of deciding where he would donate the sum when the box was full. The anticipation was palpable. That first box filled up quickly and as soon as it was too heavy to lift, we took it to the coin machine at the bank, turned it into a cashier’s check, and brought it to our local public library, a place very dear to Asher’s heart. There, he presented the check representing the money he had saved in his tzedakah box, explaining (in the way that a precocious 4-year-old does) to the librarian what tzedakah was and why we participated in the tradition, connecting it to his growing understanding of Judaism.
Over the coming months, as he continued to fill his tzedakah box, we continued to apply more Jewish traditions to the way we lived our lives. We ended up joining a synagogue close to our home and started to build a community there. At home, we implemented a weekly allowance for Asher, giving him $3 per week: $1 to save, $1 to spend, $1 to donate. His donation dollar got tucked into that same PJ Library tzedakah box and over time, it filled again. This time, his dollars turned into a check for the local fire station – another place that held a special place in Asher’s heart. Again and again, the box would fill and again and again, Asher would thoughtfully choose a new recipient. A café run by and for the homeless, a charity in memory of a friend’s older sister who had passed away, and most recently, children in Syria.
Now, at 8 years old, Asher gets a $5 weekly allowance, which he is entitled to divide up any way he chooses. Tzedakah is still an expectation, but the amount is up to him. Some weeks, when he is saving for a big purchase, it’ll just be one dollar out of five. Other weeks, when he is feeling more flush, he’ll put more in the box. But regardless of the amount, he understands tzedakah as a tenet of his faith. He embraces it, respects it, even enjoys it. The empowerment he feels when he chooses where to donate and sees his savings turned into a tangible amount is unmatched and although there are many elements of Judaism that my family now incorporates into our daily life, the tradition of Tzedakah is among the most cherished.
Donation Day! HOME Page Café (closed in 2016 after five years) in the Philadelphia Free Library, a program of Project HOME, a community that works to empower adults, children, and families to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.
Robin Fradkin Matthews is the Program Administrator for jkidphilly. She and her wife Marcia live in Media with their son, Asher (8). She loves photography, creative writing, and illustrating. During the school year, she teaches the K-1 Bonim class at Temple Sholom in Broomall where she and her family also belong.