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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Out of these painful discoveries, some Jewish women's groups (borrowing from the Movement for a New Society) have developed an approach to dialogue about money that may offer new possibilities for defining tzedakah and organizing tzedakah collectives. Their approach emerged out of questions about how to pay for small conferences of Jewish women. Should everyone be charged the same official amount, and the poor secretly negotiate to pay less? What about the rich? Should there be a formal sliding scale? Would some people feel so shamed by this process as not to attend at all?

Since this issue felt real and face-to-face, rather than abstract or "macro-social," since the groups' members shared a vision of shaping a new kind of Jewish community, and since they had come to know each other well and strongly valued dialogue and openness, they decided to explore a process of "cost-sharing," which required go-round dialogues to help each member decide what she could afford to pay.

As described by one of its initiators, Felice Yeskel, the process included a series of discussions. Some were conducted in a large group that looked at the social and economic contexts of members' differences, the overall needs of the conference, and similar comparatively cerebral issues; some were held in groups of two or four, in which the members discussed their own life situations, made initial judgments of what they could afford to contribute, and then reexamined their own situations in the light of others' pledges. The result, Yeskel reports, was not only a broad agreement on a fair way to pay the necessary conference costs, the participants had a much clearer understanding of their own financial situations and those of others and of society as a whole, as well as a strong sense of community.

The success of cost-sharing in these groups is probably based on two important elements: the overall sense of communal commitment that motivated the groups to explore this process in the first place, and the carefully worked-out details of how they did it. Where commitment already exists, or can be encouraged into being, in many different sorts of Jewish groups, it is important to take great care with the details of the process. The result could be a deepening of the sense of Jewish community and a greater willingness to see the tzedakah process as a part of spiritual growth.

Two additional steps would also encourage direct involvement in tzedakah:

One is face-to-face organizing by rabbis, Jewish educators, social workers, and similar Jewish community workers, to encourage groups of families to do tzedakah.

The other is providing these groups with information not only on tzedakah decisions that similar groups are making, but also on Jewish aspects of the everyday use of money for non-tzedakah purposes: for example, the eco-kosher use of money for investment, purchasing, taxes, and the workplace. If a packet of informational newsletters were made available every month or two, sent first to rabbis and other key organizers for distribution to "tzedakah activists" and then to tzedakah collectives, the chances would be much greater that Jewish values would be consciously applied to the use of money in many aspects of life.

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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.