This article appeared in the Sept. 22, 2006 Jewish Advocate.


Synagogues practice tzedakah in charity drives

By Susie Davidson

When Jews feel their homeland is under siege, their philanthropic instincts kick into high gear,” says Ronny Drapkin, President of The Adams Street Synagogue in Newton, echoing sentiments being expressed throughout the area during this High Holiday season. Many synagogues are posting appeals on their Web sites. Kehillath Israel in Brookline steers congregants toward the CJP Israel in Crisis campaign, accessible at Kadimah Toras-Moshe is sending inquirers to the Orthodox Union drive, accessible at Temple Reyim of Newton includes an entire list of agencies that support Israel, including AMIT’s Emergency campaign, the American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Galila Emergency Fund, Friends of the IDF, and others. Temple Emanu-el of Marblehead links to the Union of Reform Judaism drive, accessible at And if you don’t receive information from your synagogue on how and where to help out Israel, you are certain to receive emails from community members that link to causes ranging from writing letters to the editor, to sending chocolate to Israeli soldiers, to aiding and relocating victims of the current crisis.

On Aug. 7, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called for a $300 million campaign among American Jews to help rebuild northern Israel after the war. The United Jewish Communities (UJC), which includes 150 federations and 400 communities across the United States, is spearheading the campaign, and local synagogues are rising up for the challenge.

“Magen David Adom in Israel is in need of a number of ambulances, each of which costs $104,000,” said Linda Katz, Administrator of Temple Sinai in Brookline. Since that amount is beyond the means of many single congregations, Temple Sinai is partnering with 19 other Reform congregations around the country this year. “Each of those congregations is attempting the raise $5,200 to contribute to this effort,” she said. The combined total would account for the full amount, and as is the custom in Israel, contributing synagogues will be listed on the side of the delivered ambulance. Sinai’s Education/Action Committee is spearheading the effort, and the campaign will continue through Rosh Hashanah.

Congregation Shirat HaYam is a seasonal congregation on Nantucket, said Susan Hockwald, outgoing President (Leslie Shriberg takes over before Rosh HaShanah). “As such, we welcome people from all over the world,” she said. (Quite a few arrive on boats, making the High Holy Day season their last "summer" outing.) “Rabbi Rachel Sabath beit Halachmi, who has served our congregation for 11 years, is an American living in Jerusalem and is a teacher-fellow at the Hartman Institute,” she said. Sabath’s husband, Ofer Halachmi, is a rabbi at a small reform congregation, and a teacher of Talmud at Haifa University. The synagogue is in continuing contact with them as they struggle to support the flow of refugees from the north, and the congregation is briefed at Friday evening services. “Members of our congregation are financially supporting these efforts independently, and others contribute through their mainland affiliations,” said Hockwald. “When Rabbi Sabath and Cantor Moshe Silberschein arrive from Israel to conduct High Holy Day services,” she said, “the synagogue will conduct a fund drive at the mid-holiday supper we traditionally have for our annual Israel update.”

This year, according to Drapkin, the Adams Street Synagogue will be repeating its past efforts to help safeguard Israel’s future. “In addition to donations that were made by the shul to the CJP Israel in Crisis Fund, Friends of the IDF, and American Friends of Magen David Adom,” he said, “the shul is continuing its tradition of raising money for Israel through our annual High Holiday Israel Bond Appeal.” On Sept. 23 after the Torah reading, Drapkin will deliver a special verbal appeal for this year. The Israel Bond office will then mail out a pledge card and a copy of the appeal letter to everyone on the shul directory by the week before the holidays. “This has been a very successful campaign in past years,” he said. “We look forward to a large response this year as well.”

Individual drives, however, are also continuing this year. Beth Avodah of Newton steers readers to the ongoing Darfur crisis. Beth El Temple Center in Belmont is conducting a Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger drive, and also passes out paper bags to collect food for area food pantries. Last year, they collected toiletries for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But Israel remains on the forefront. “Currently, we also refer people to the URJ drive,” said synagogue secretary Lindsay Bullock. “We advocate going to the pro-Israel rallies, and stress other Israeli causes among our congregants as well.”

For the past five years, Temple B’nai Israel in Laconia, New Hampshire has held a Yom Kippur food drive. “We collect about 50 bags of groceries each year,” said Social Action Chair Joyce Selig. The synagogue brings the food to St. Vincent de Paul, which distributes it to the needy in the area. “We always feel like it’s a day when we’re giving up food, so this is an opportunity to help people in the community,” added Selig.

Whenever a fifth Tuesday falls in any month, B’nai Israel members prepare and serve lunch at the local Salvation Army. On Sept. 9, said Selig, the City of Laconia holds a “diversity day” in the downtown area, and the synagogue has a booth there as well. “The synagogue, along with the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire, brought in the Wholesale Klezmer Band this year,” she said. At B’nai Israel, a teenager from a recent youth trip to Israel will be addressing a High Holiday service.

For the last fifteen years, Temple Sinai of Brookline has collected food at the high holidays for the Grow Clinic for Children at the Boston Medical Center. Congregants are asked to bring in grocery bags containing nonperishable items or baby diapers on Erev Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur day. Each year, said Katz, the generous contributions fill an entire room at Sinai. The collected food is then donated to help treat Boston's hungry and malnourished children.

“Formerly called the Failure to Thrive Clinic,“ Katz explained, “the Grow Clinic for Children serves more than 5,000 people in a given year, the majority of whom are children and pregnant women.” The Clinic has come to depend on the annual appeal, as the fall is often a season when donations decrease. “Temple Sinai was the first of many Reform congregations in the Greater Boston area,“ said Katz, “to join a nationwide Union for Reform Judaism annual effort to collect much needed food for the homeless and hungry during the High Holy Day season.”

The food drive is coordinated by Bob Ullmann and his wife, Patty Wen. “This is our third year,” said Ullman, who is an attorney at Nutter, McLennan & Fish, LLP. Patty, who is a reporter for the Boston Globe, did all the work the first year. Last year, their older daughter Stephanie helped and also volunteered at the Clinic; this year, younger daughter Katie will pitch in. “The Grow Clinic food drive has been a meaningful way of helping others as a family,” said Ullman. “It's also an important reminder that not only on other continents but also close to home there are many much less fortunate children.”

“We do our major Annual Appeal for our Shul on Yom Kippur,” said Avrom Herbster, Ritual Director at Sons of Israel in Peabody. “This time of year is good, because High Holiday dues are, amazingly, $50 for a family; $35 for singles, and seats are $30,” he said. Last year, the synagogue also reached out to the Community and made a special appeal for supplies for newborns in need at North Shore Children's Hospital. They also raised money for a bookcart for the Hospital. “We may do this again,“ he said, “but with the crisis in Israel, we have to weigh our priorities.”

“Tzedakah begins the moment we decide to think about other people besides ourselves,“ says Rabbi Robert N. Levine, of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York. “Tzedakah and philanthropy are at the heart of Judaism.” According to the United Jewish Communities (UJC)’s National Jewish Population Survey for 2000-01, philanthropy is related to region, age and organizational affiliations, as well as income. Giving is sensitive to age, with steady declines registered from older to younger age groups. Most American Jews (62%) give to non-Jewish causes, while 41% donate to Jewish causes other than local federations.

Tzedakah, according to Maimonidies, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, Chapter 10, states the following:

The Highest Degree is giving assistance to a someone who has fallen on hard times by presenting a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with the person, or finding them work, thereby helping that person to become self supporting. The Second Degree is giving assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. The Third Degree covers when the giver knows the recipient but the recipient is unaware of the giver. The Fourth Degree is when recipient knows the giver but the giver is unaware of the recipient. The Fifth Degree is when the giver puts the charity into the hands of the poor without being asked. The Sixth Degree is when the giver puts the charity into the hands of the poor only after being asked. The Seventh Degree is when the giver gives less then he should but does so cheerfully. The Eighth Degree is when the giver gives less then he should and does so begrudgingly.

Although Tzedakah can be practiced in many forms, it begins with each individual act. Chag Sameach!