“Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the mitzvot of the Torah.”
Jerusalem Talmud, Pe’ah 1:1
For the second time as a parent at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, I had the privilege and nachas of watching one of my daughters embark on what will, hopefully, be a lifetime of devotion to tzedakah, acts of righteousness, one of the key tenets of Judaism. This change did not happen on its own, but was part of a wonderful yearlong project at the school, the Tzedakah Project.
Tehiyah’s seventh-grade students spend the year in a hands-on study of the importance of tzedakah and philanthropy to Jewish values and culture. Parents initiated the program many years ago to reinforce the importance of giving and sharing during the year when many students become b’nai mitzvah and receive gifts and money. Funded by a former parent, the program has been coordinated since its inception by youth leadership and tzedakah program consultant Elana Isaacs, who developed the curriculum and teachers’ guide.
Initially, they spend time discussing the many difficult issues that exist in the world. The students then decide which ones they feel most passionate about and are divided into small groups, or mini-foundations, based on their mutual interests. Each group identifies a Jewish value upon which to focus their work. Students learn about creating a foundation name and mission statement, team building, establishing consensus and understanding financial versus nonfinancial ways to support causes.
Parents donate a small amount of seed money, which is divided equally among the mini-foundations as starting budgets. Students supplement through group and individual fundraising efforts, and they learn to write clear and compelling donation-request letters. Most students, including my daughters, are so moved by this process they donate their own money to the cause. This past school year, Tehiyah’s seventh-grade students raised more than $7,500 to donate — an extraordinary feat.
The students focused on a number of issues. My daughter, whose heart always goes out to people living on the streets, chose to work with others concerned about homelessness. Other mini-foundations focused on racism, protecting the oceans and the Bay, clean water for villages in Africa, ending harassment of LGBT teens, protection for animals, helping the elderly and treatment for drug addiction.
Each mini-foundation identified and researched local, national, Israeli and international nonprofits. Students evaluated and compared missions, business statements (when available) and activities. Some local organizations made presentations to the students about their organizations’ goals and work. If a grantee was determined to be worthy of a donation, the students then decided how much of their budget to allocate.
In June, the seventh-graders proudly presented the results of their yearlong work to the community. Representatives of many of the local nonprofits were on hand to receive their checks and thank the students personally. Donation recipients included the Mosaic Project, Jewish Heart for Africa–Project Sol, Beit T’shuvah, Ezrat Avot, Shalom Bayit, the Humane Society of the United States, Clean Ocean Action, San Francisco Baykeeper, the National Alliance to End Homelessness and others.
This year, all those attending were asked to turn to the next person and identify one thing they could do to help make a difference in the world. That motivated me to finally take the reusable cloth bags I had collected out of my house and put them into my car for grocery trips (I have now used them for five shopping excursions).
This annual program never fails to have a big impact on the students and the entire community. Many people feel a connection to a cause or organization, and all who attend this assembly walk away impressed at these young people, already hard at work making a difference in the world. You can see on the faces of younger students watching the presentations a new awareness about their own ability to make a difference on a large scale.
As a parent, watching each of my daughters find her passion and then research, fundraise and donate is, simply put, an incredible experience. This kind of out-of-the-ordinary experiential learning is the reason I chose to send my children to a Jewish day school.
The tagline “At Tehiyah, we live the curriculum” is more than just words. I decided to enroll my oldest daughter (now 17) at Tehiyah in 2000 when I was told that the school produces mensches; that truth couldn’t be more evident, and I couldn’t be more proud of my daughters’ acts of tzedakah.
Donna Sidel is communications director at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.