The Conspiracy

“Spare Some Change:” How would you do it?

At Limmud NY every year, there are some panels that really just serve as an excuse for some smart people to talk to each other, rendering the supposed topic of the panel irrelevant. The “‘Just’ Giving” panel was not one of those. It was a panel with some smart, interesting people, but the topic was stayed relevant the whole way.

It was moderated by Shai Held, Rosh Yeshiva at Mechon Hadar, who was pinch-hitting for someone else who couldn’t make it. On the panel with him were:

  • Simon Greer (CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice)
  • Elizabeth Richman (Program Director and Rabbi in Residence at Jews United for Justice)
  • Sam “Bodi” Bodenheimer (it’s unclear to me exactly what he does, but it has something to do with producing big benefit events and concerts–I think)

At one point, Shai asked the panel what they would say to a college student who was very little money to spend, but wants to give Tzedakah. Essentially, where will their $10 or so be best used?

One answer, though I can’t recall whose answer it was: “Keep it.” The idea was that the hypothetical $10 is such a drop in the bucket that it’s irrelevant.

This seemed totally absurd to me. It is obvious to me that the $10 is only a drop in the bucket if you run a large organization that deals with charitable funds an order of magnitude greater than the hypothetical $10. Give it to several different homeless people and you just bought a group of hungry people a hot slice of pizza and an evening with a full stomach.

This answer is also unsatisfactory from the point of view of our tradition. Jewish tradition is clear: Even the poor should give to the poorer — and every beggar asking for help has a moral imperative written on his or her cardboard sign. About the Talmud’s view of this issue, there can be no mistakes.

Greer provided another answer, a much more interesting answer. Greer said that it is his firm belief that there is a communal responsibility — for him, this includes a governmental responsibility — for the poor. If you have only $10, give it to an organization that works toward ensuring that the government and the broad community live up to their responsibilities.

Again, this is a much more interesting answer, but it’s not entirely satisfactory because it does not account for the everyday moral imperative, “Spare some change?”

Elizabeth had an answer I found more satisfying. What she said reminded me that there is a venerable tradition of giving Tzedakah in the form of material goods like food — or even in the form of a kind word to a downtrodden person — rather than in the form of money. Later, we chatted in the lobby. Elizabeth said, “You can take a dollar and buy six bananas and give those out.”

So, fellow college students, how do you give?

I was at Limmud NY 2011 last weekend. It was great. I wrote a lot of posts about it. Here’s and index of all of them.

One Older Response to ““Spare Some Change:” How would you do it?”

  1. ben goldberg
    January 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    i think of the change i get when i buy something as the modern day equivalent of the forgotten produce that the Torah commands be left for the poor. after all, my spare change ends up in a bowl on my shelf and i rarely use it. so i usually give it to a homeless person (there are plenty on the streets in my otherwise affluent college town). not much, but it adds up, and i’ve noticed that the people i give too rarely care how much you give them, but just that somebody cares enough to give means a lot to them.

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