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Partnership ,Tzedakah and the Universality of Giving

Today’s participant blog post comes from Adrienne Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Adrienne’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Lod, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Adrienne’s personal blog, which can be found here.

Ahhh the Holidays!

The days are merry and bright, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is inescapable and everything smells like potpourri.

And I’ll be honest; I miss the holidays at home. I miss the ridiculously elaborate light displays and store windows. I miss Chinese food and a movie on Christmas with my family. Heck, I even miss the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack!

But being away from my hometown of Toronto, Canada this year, I’ve had some time to observe the holiday season in Israel which, like #StarbucksChristmasCups2015, is a little more low-key on the whole Christmas spirit thing. Think Mensch on a Bench, not Elf on a Shelf.

Being away from the holiday hustle and bustle has also given me some time to think about giving and charity. Perhaps being in a country without the onslaught of Christmas charity commercials, which usually make me more frustrated than charitable, has left my mind clear to think about the topic.

In fact, now that I’m a third of the way into the Yahel Social Change program, I’ve found myself contemplating charity quite often. More so, I’ve found myself questioning my own role as a participant in a social change program several times, specifically the harrowing query: am I an effective advocate for change in the communities I’m working in?

I had the opportunity to consider this exact question during last Thursday’s learning session. This past week’s topic was tzedakah. Roughly translated to “justice,” tzedakah is the Jewish value of charity – specifically, giving money to the poor. In our group learning session we read Jewish texts and commentaries to guide our discussion and interpretation of what tzedakah entails.

One commentary from 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides piqued my interest. In theMishne Torah, Maimonides lists eight different levels of tzedakah, like a ladder, from most righteous to least. At the top of the ladder is the charitable act of giving someone in need a loan and entering into a business partnership with them. Through this process, the donor helps the receiver build the skills necessary to become self-reliant and, eventually, the receiver is able to give tzedakah to another person. At the bottom of the ladder is giving money begrudgingly. Interesting to note, giving money when asked occupies the third rung from the bottom of the ladder.

I found this organized list so interesting for two reasons. First, I’m always amazed when I can relate to a text almost 1,000 years old. Wisdom, like all things ancient, was seriously made to last. The second reason I was attracted to the “tzedakah ladder” was the suggestion that not all charity is created equally.

It reminded me of the International Development Studies courses I took in university where we examined aid organizations and campaigns. One charity model that was almost unanimously praised for effectiveness and sustainability was microcredit, with pioneering organizations like the Grameen Bank, or the Kiva Fund, which establish a connection between individual donors and loan recipients and boasts a 98.44% repayment rate. I remember admiring these organizations because they didn’t just give money to “countries like India or Africa”; they worked to ensure that recipients could become financially sustainable to the point where they could repay their loan, better their communities, and through it all, gain a sense of pride and accomplishment. But more than anything, these organizations treat recipients as business partners and recognize their capacity to make change for themselves, as well as their communities. Even though there are so many different charity models, the financial and holistic benefits of these microcredit organizations made this model a very convincing option.

Maimonides put forward the tzedakah ladder concept about 900 years ago. But it still seems like a relatively novel, even controversial concept that some forms of charity are more effective or “just” than others.

I personally learned this lesson the hard way.

Growing up in Toronto, charity was a regular institution at my public school. It seemed as though every month there was a spare change drive, dance-a-thon, jump rope-a-thon, recess for MS and all other organized activities aimed at raising money for some cause, but the cause itself never seemed too important.

But the importance of contributing to charity caught on stayed with me when I was 17 and logically assumed that with good intentions, I could save the world. I used all my money from after school jobs for a four week volunteer trip to build schools and wells in northern Thailand, providing Thai villages with better school buildings and increase access to clean drinking water. Unfortunately, my altruistic mission to make a difference was rudely interrupted by the realization that I completely lacked any experience or expertise to make the vague “difference” that I was promised. This realization was further punctuated while I crawled up a muddy hill carrying a small bag of rocks and sand, and watched as very capable local Thai women half my size, carrying twice the amount of sand and rocks, with a small child on their backs, ran past me up the hill.

Thai woman – 1, Hill – 0. Adrienne – 0, Hill – 1

When I came back to Canada, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t done all the good I set out to do four weeks earlier. I returned with a wealth of knowledge. Unfortunately this knowledge came in the form of a reality check about a lack of effective and responsible practice in the “voluntourism” industry. If I really wanted to provide northern Thai communities with wells, then I should have donated to the cause directly. Better still, I could have found a sustainable not-for-profit organization of NGO dedicated to providing clean drinking water in northern Thailand, in partnership with residents of local communities. I just never took the time to find this option.

Six years later, I decided to give the volunteering thing another shot, except this time I was doing it a little differently.

I chose to participate on the Yahel Social Change Program because of its emphasis on learning. I was initially attracted to the program because it honestly and openly stated that its participants don’t know all the answers, nor possess all the skills to assist the needs of the communities we works in. But it provides a means of developing the knowledge and skillset we do have so that we can meet these needs most effectively. As participants, we are always challenged to keep long-lasting change in mind and think about making our work in the community as sustainable as possible. Essentially, we are working ourselves out of a job.

Another aspect of Yahel I have come to appreciate is its emphasis on community partnerships. Throughout the week I offer my experience with journalism to enhance a not-for-profit organization’s website, I try to use my native language to help students learn conversational English and, so far, my passion for all things green has come in handy when getting down and dirty in the community garden. But in all these capacities, I never once think of the people I am working with as needy or unable. In fact I rely on the people I work with to teach me how to enhance a city through affordable housing and space-making, education, urban agriculture and an engaged youth population. Even when I teach English at school once a week, I always walk away knowing a handful of Hebrew words or phrases my students have dutifully taught me throughout the day. If the time I commit to initiatives in Lod was a loan, the people I work with have already returned it ten-fold.

Helping Lia, manager of the community garden, plant the first tree of the year!

This past Sunday, I had another unique partnership experience. All the Lod Yahelnikim were invited to participate in a language and culture exchange with Arab students from Lod. The premise was that we would help them practice their English and they would teach us basic Arabic. We would tell them about being young Jewish people from North America and, in return, they would help us start to understand what it’s like being young Arab Israelis.

Since I’ve been in Israel, and living in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod, I’ve constantly heard about the difficulties Arab citizens face on a daily basis as a minority group within Israel. As a white Jewish woman, I recognize how I experience fewer barriers in my daily life within Israel as a part of the majority. I also grew up with the notion that privilege somehow equates with an inherent ability to help others. But as I spoke to these incredibly smart, funny and kind students, all I could think about was the tremendous capacity we all had to teach each other about our respective languages and heritages.

Walking back home from the first exchange meeting, I was so excited to have the chance to participate in such an initiative. I know that English is a valuable tool here in Israel, so I’m glad I can be of help for students to whom English is a second – and sometimes third – language. Conversely, I have so much to learn about Arab society and culture here in Israel, and now I have a tremendous resource through this partnership.

Yahelnikim and Arab students at the first language and culture exchange.

Reflecting back on Maimonides’ ladder, I think the greatest value of giving tzedakah in the form of a loan, exchange or partnership is the fact that it blurs the line between the donor and the recipient. Who is first on the giving end or the receiving end almost becomes irrelevant when the return or exchange is empowering and helpful to both parties. It illuminates giving as a universal value: one that precludes certain classes, races, heritages or any other arbitrary qualities that are so often associated with the ability to give.

So, as the New Year fast approaches and I routinely set my intentions and resolutions for 2016, I’ll try taking a highest rung on the tzedakah ladder approach to volunteering in Lod. Hopefully this resolution goes better than my usual attempts to stop eating potato chips. I think it will, and for two reasons: firstly, my potato chip craving has already largely been replaced by Israeli Bissli snacks, which are deep fried whole grain twists instead of potatoes (and whole grain=healthy). But secondly, and more importantly, the nature of a partnership or exchange implies a partner: someone who is also engaged and invested in the same goal. And these partners – even though I initially thought of them only as recipients of my time, charity and tzedakah – are an integral part of the initiatives I get to be involved with for making a difference in their communities here in Lod.

900 years later, Maimonides still had it right.

Happy New Year!

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