Tzedakah Collectives: Sharing the Mitzvah of Tzedakah and More

Making decisions about tzedakah in the context of a group can be a powerful force in both deepening our spiritual lives and building community.

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For some tzedakah collectives, sharing goes beyond money and Torah study. It might, for example, include decisions on time that members might spend working to assist groups that are healing the world.

For example, to deal with the problem of homelessness, the group might decide to give money to homeless beggars on the street, or volunteer together to help out at a local soup kitchen, or invite the homeless into their synagogue, or organize to create publicly subsidized housing, or join in building new houses with Habitat for Humanity, or support groups of squatters in moving into abandoned housing.

Participants in these tzedakah collectives report that their involvement feels inspiring and their field results seem good. Yet the number of collectives still appears to be much lower than the number of havurot. What would be ways of encouraging this process?

In American Jewish life (and perhaps among Americans generally) there seems to be a very strong taboo against the frank and open discussion of how much money people have, how much they make, how much they want to give to charity, and so on. If those with more and with less money try to talk together, strong suspicions and resentments come to the surface. The rich feel concerned that those with less money will resent them and/or hit them up; the poor feel embarrassed and humiliated, or angry and rebellious. At this historical moment, the taboo on talking about one's money is as strong as--perhaps stronger than--the taboo on talking about one's sexual life.

If money is to be part of a sacred and communal path of life, this taboo has to be ended. Only if people can talk about and celebrate together the important aspects of their lives can they become a community, or infuse those aspects with spiritual meaning. Indeed, turning a hidden secret into a communal ceremony is one of the most powerful spiritual events.

Breaking down the taboo on money talk becomes much easier if the participants have experienced sharing in other areas. People who pray together or who together study Torah in an engaged and passionate way are more likely to trust each other enough to talk freely about money.

So efforts to create tzedakah collectives are probably best advised to bring together households that have already been Jewishly involved together.

One of the sharpest and most difficult challenges to sharing the tzedakah process is that the membership of many Jewish groups may cut across lines of wealth and income. It would not be surprising, for example, for a group made up of Jewish feminists to include a single mother in her late thirties with two children, who has been struggling to keep afloat on a social worker's salary and has just lost her job because the state budget has been slashed; a prosperous professor or physician or lawyer; and a woman who has just inherited seven million dollars from a father who has done extremely well in real estate. Such gaps between the rich and the middle class, and between the middle class and the poor, often make it very hard to move beyond shame, guilt, fear, and rage. Even simple ignorance of what life is like for other people in different economic circumstances makes it difficult to have an honest discussion about what to do with money.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.