This article appeared in the March 2, 2007 Jewish Advocate.

Giving becoming a popular gift option

By Susie Davidson

The Hebrew root word of the Jewish charitable tradition of Tzedakah, Tzade-Dalet-Qof, means righteousness or justice. It’s an obligation. Many Jewish sources also teach that it’s a pleasure, one being discovered by more and more birthday boys and girls of all ages, brides and grooms, anniversary couples, and their invited guests.

Is it tacky to ask others to give? Most people feel that the social benefits and character building aspects outweigh any such apprehension. They suggest creative ways to make the mitzvah as enjoyable as it is worthy.

“This year I gave little token gifts to kids for their birthdays,” says Amy Howell, a Randolph native living in Gaithersburg, Maryland . She then made a donation for each to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “I printed out an attractive receipt from their site, and decorated an envelope that I ordered on the Paper Source site.“ Howell rubber-stamped an old-fashioned skater on it, and then hand decorated it. “Also, I baked a friend’s chocolate-chip mandel-bread recipe, packed it in a food-safe brown box, and attached the receipt envelope on top, with a decorative twine,” she said.

Centerpieces and special baskets at functions are also becoming popular. “With the price of flowers, spending the money to do charity baskets is a great idea, says vendor Eileen Denberg, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. “I have seen food baskets with women’s gifts and products to be sent to a shelter, or stuffed animals to be given to children’s hospitals,“ she said. Denberg also creates poems for any occasion in charity themes. “A donation is made to appropriate charities, and I work that into the poems,” she said.

“It’s not tacky to encourage giving,” says Alana Joos of Entertainment Express in Encino, California . “Many of my clients ask us to prepare gift baskets, with a theme in mind.“ Joos places a note card on the gift basket/centerpiece that tells guests to whom the centerpiece is being donated.

“We have seen people asking their guests to help the community in lieu of gifts,” said Brigid Boyd, Senior Director of Communications for the United Way of Massachusetts Bay . “Last month, for example, Molly Walsh, a 16-year-old from Billerica, asked her friends and family to forego presents and donate to a fund for summer programs for youth in the Merrimac Valley . Boyd said that through their investment in Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the United Way helps fund the Jewish Family & Children's Services, Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Big Brother & Big Sister, Jewish Community Centers and the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Gina Place, Communications & Outreach Director for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts, said that they are also seeing donations coming in in lieu of gifts for events.

“Many nonprofits talk about how one person can make a difference,“ said Boyd of the United Way, “and in cases like these, individuals who choose generosity really bring these words to life.”

“As our children get to middle school, and as the party roster gets larger,“ says “Mrs. Money” of (“money-savvy generation: helping kids get smart about money), “it might be a great time to introduce your child to real-live philanthropy and the power of gathering others to benefit a cause,” she says. “Ask them what they would like to do to help others. Then tie it to an organized charity.”

Many sites, such as The Better Business Bureau‘s and’s Mitzvah Machine, where you plug in your interests and skills to generate an individualized Mitzvah Report, help spell out options. Our Voices, founded by 9/11 families and friends, promotes cross-cultural and interfaith understanding, and works to reduce terrorism by improving living standards worldwide.

"I always give to my synagogue, Temple Emeth," said Lillian Mamon, Senior Adults Program Coordinator at the Leventhal-Sidman JCC in Newton . "But if someone passes away, I give to a hospital they specify.”

Last October, she attended a 50th wedding anniversary. “It was at the Newton Marriott, and a like a repeat wedding.” The invitations had specified no gifts, please. The couple’s daughter happened to be a preschool teacher at the JCC, so Mamon donated to the preschool in the parents' name. As for events held at the JCC, the proceeds go to JCC operations. “We’re the charity,” she said.

Revere resident Judy Fiszel's, Brina Seidel, helped raise funds for a village in Kenya through a program called Kenya Connect. “Her personal prayer,” said her mother Dian Gaffen Seidel, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland, “interpreted the part where Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah as a burial site for Sarah and reflected on his insistence on buying the land rather than accepting it as a gift.” Brina then told the congregation that she and her classmates in Mr. (Scott) Hempling's 7th grade class at Temple Emanuel Religious School made penpal connections with students at the Ngomano Primary School in Kenya and raised over $3600 to help the community build a water tank, doors, and windows.

Brina made a presentation after the service in the social hall. She also worked with the Chevy Chase Climate Change Task Force to distribute energy-saving light bulbs and information to town residents. “She’s really growing to be a lovely, bright, talented, fun and independent young person,” said her mother. “This ages-old ritual is was a beautiful opportunity to appreciate the person she is.”

Tzedakah is integral at Purim time, says the Union for Reform Judaism’s Social Action Guide: “We cannot rejoice unless we make it possible for those less fortunate to join in the festivities.” The guide states that every Jew, no matter how rich or poor, is obliged to give at least two gifts to two poor persons. The lines between rich and poor should be blurred as well. “Instead of becoming so drunk on Purim that we cannot tell the difference between the hero and the villain of our story, let us make Purim a day on which we envision a world that does not know such vast differences between the wealthy and the needy, but, rather, sustains all of its inhabitants in security and comfort.”

“When the Jew contributes his money, time and resources to the needy, he is not being benevolent, generous or ‘charitable’, he is doing what is right and just,” agrees Yanki Tauber, the editor of Tauber calls the giving of Tzedakah a humbling experience. “Before us stands a human being less fortunate than ourselves. We know that G-d could have just as easily provided him with everything he requires, instead of sending him to us for his needs. Here is a person who is suffering poverty in order to provide us with the opportunity to do a G-dly deed!”

'It is important to celebrate a family Simcha in a festive atmosphere, and gifts are expressions of sharing joy, but I feel we have taken it too far," said Rabbi Mendel Gurkow of Shaloh House in Stoughton, who said that in the 'olden' days, one would share the joy of a personal simcha with the whole village. "From relatives and friends to the poor and the beggars, everyone was included in the Simcha, which would then justify a lavish celebration," he said.

When Sarah Friedberg and Max Krohn of Cambridge became engaged last year, they asked friends to consider donating to one of four charities from the Web site They are joined as well as famous celebrities: when Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones wed in November, 2000, they asked guests to donate money to the Dylan Michael Douglas fund, a charitable foundation that their son Dylan will oversee when he turns 21.

Moses Michael Hays set a good example for Jews in the U.S. The most prominent Jewish Bostonian in the 18th century, he operated the shipping and retail business of his father, Judah Hays, and married Rachel Myers, whose brother Myer Myers was a well-known silversmith. According to the American Jewish Historical Society, Louisa May Alcott’s grandfather Samuel May was a close friend who admired them: "If the children of my day were taught among other foolish things to dread, if not despise Jews, a very different lesson was impressed upon my young heart,” he wrote. “[The Hays'] house … was the abode of hospitality. … He and his truly good wife were hospitable, not to the rich alone, but also to the poor. … I witnessed their religious exercise, their fastings and their prayers. … [As a result] I grew up without prejudice against Jews - or any other religionists." Hays helped finance the beautification of Boston Common, established theaters and endowed Harvard College, and his descendants helped found the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts General Hospital . His nephew, Judah Touro, became America’s first great national philanthropist.

Many today are carrying this greatest of traditions. “Rebecca Yale became a benefactor for several different animals that were housed at an animal shelter in Utah,” said Joos. “We created customized bookmarks for her bat mitzvah seating cards.“ Each guest received a bookmark, with a picture of the sponsored animal on it. Rebecca then donated money to these animals.

“Last Thanksgiving, I send out notes to the friends with whom we usually exchange holiday gifts,“ says Howell, “and asked them to make a donation to their favorite charity instead. I don't know if anyone was insulted, but we felt like we had too much, and knew others were so needy.”

"In the words of our sages: 'More than the rich man does for the pauper, the pauper does for the rich man',” says Yanki Tauber.