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Hoping to Help

Thursday, December 27, 2012
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Dear Miriam,

I'd love to be more involved with social justice in Philadelphia, but I'm really busy! Any ideas?

Hoping to Help

Dear Hoping,

You can (and should!) be involved in your community even with limited time. There are distinctions between direct service, advocacy and social justice, but in Judaism they're all often lumped together as "tzedakah," which takes its root from the word tzedek, meaning justice. Define your terms in whatever way works for you and do what feels right. The alternative to giving time is often giving money, and vice versa, but even if your resources are strapped on both fronts, 1) you can still make a difference, and 2) it's not really an excuse. There's a Talmudic quote that I like to share with grad students who are pressed for both time and money that says, "Even a poor man who himself survives on charity should give charity."  
Even without a lot of time, you can give a little time in impactful ways. Cook for a Friend is a wonderful program in the Philadelphia area that provides frozen meals to homebound elderly. Many different organizations participate in Cook for a Friend since it's a way to socialize and learn some cooking skills while also giving back. Hillel's Jewish Graduate Student Network organizes monthly Cook for a Friend opportunities right in Center City in space generously donated by Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. For a couple of hours of your time, you see the tangible products that will feed people in need. (Full disclosure: I'm the director of the Grad Network.) 
If you really don't have any time to give at all, then donating money is probably the way to go. The lay-led Minyan Tikvah, which holds monthly traditional egalitarian Shabbat morning services in Center City, has a "Kiddush for Kiva" program that enables donors to make one gift work on two fronts. (Full disclosure: I am a founding member of Minyan Tikvah). When someone sponsors kiddush for the Minyan Tikvah community, the money is invested through Kiva in a microloan to support an entrepreneur in a developing nation. As that entrepreneur pays back the loan, the money comes back to Tikvah to support its ongoing operations. Even if a kiddush sponsorship isn't your thing, consider giving to Kiva so you can make an impact on someone's ability to support him or herself and even get the money repaid to you in the end.
When it comes to giving money in deeply meaningful ways, I also turn to my friend Shoshanah, who has mastered this skill and turned it into an inspiring (and fun!) prospect. Shoshana believes strongly in tithing, or giving away 10 percent of her income. In response to an email asking for her perspective, she wrote, "I like the idea that that money isn't really mine to begin with, but that G-d has given me extra, and given me the opportunity to direct where it goes . . . It's fun both because I get to make the world a better place according to MY definition of a better place, and because the act of giving feels good." She debates exactly how to calculate the 10 percent (pre-tax, post-tax, etc), but actually keeps a budget to make sure she tithes the full amount.

She goes on to say, "Since I usually haven't reached 10 percent at the end of the year, I sit down on New Year's Eve (sometimes even bringing my laptop to a party!) and give away whatever amount is left to reach my goal . . . It's like a shopping spree of good feelings and world-improvement.  I usually call it Give-Money-Away-Day." To help you on your way, Shoshanah recommends visiting Charity Navigator and Give Well.

If none of these ideas work for you, then start even smaller and figure out what changes you can make in your daily routine that will help the world around you. Make eye contact with the homeless guy you pass every day — tell him to take care and mean it. Pick up trash when you cut through the park on the way to work so that a parent doesn't have to worry what her child might find. Pay attention to the causes your friends are championing on Facebook and click to support the online petitions you feel strongly about that might actually reach an elected official's desk. Consider forwarding this post to 10 friends with a note that says, "Food for thought in the New Year. Happy 2013."
Be well,

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