Global TV was at Richmond Jewish Day School last week to recognize the efforts of Grade 6 and 7 students who are selling flowers to fundraise for the Variety Club, Richmond Animal Protection Society and the Jewish Food Bank. To date, the students have raised $2,000 for these charities. Pictured, left to right, are Rachel Marliss, Shai Rubin and Nathan Brown. (photo by Lauren Kramer)
Vancouver-born writer and comedian Nathan Fielder has donated more than $150,000 US to the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre (VHEC). The funds represent the profits of the Summit Ice outdoor apparel line, founded by Fielder to raise awareness of the Holocaust and to support the education and remembrance mandate of the VHEC.
“We are honoured to be the recipient agency for Nathan Fielder’s Summit Ice initiative,” said Nina Krieger, executive director of the VHEC. “It is especially meaningful that Nathan appreciates the work our centre does to advance anti-racism education in his hometown.”
This significant contribution will help the VHEC deliver more programs to more people at a time when the centre’s work is as relevant as ever. This gift will strengthen the VHEC’s outreach programs, educational resources and exhibitions that engage students, teachers and the general public in British Columbia and beyond.
“We receive countless letters from students affirming that participating in a VHEC program, particularly when this features a Holocaust survivor speaker, is among the most meaningful and memorable experience of their school years,” said Phil Levinson, president of the VHEC board. “Nathan Fielder’s generosity will help advance the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre’s vision of a world free of antisemitism, discrimination and genocide, with social justice and human rights for all.”
The VHEC relies on the support of members of the community to fund education and remembrance programs.
Little Free Libraries are open 24/7 in cities across Canada. (photo by Josie Tonio McCarthy)
Have you heard of the Little Free Library movement? It’s a way for neighbours to exchange books. Throughout Winnipeg, Vancouver and other cities, there are little freestanding houses, a little bigger than a birdhouse. If you have a book you no longer want, you can leave it. If you’re looking for a book to read? You can take a book whenever you want. These Little Free Libraries are open 24/7.
Walking to our closest Little Free Library has become an important destination for me and my twins. It’s free, good exercise, and encourages our love of reading and learning. My twins often argue over which book to donate. Our house is overflowing with books. In order to take home a new storybook, we have an “even-exchange” policy.
Recently, I read on the National Public Radio (NPR) website about a similar U.S. movement, but, instead of books, the little house is a food pantry for the hungry. One family calls theirs a “blessing box.” Others call it a “little free pantry.” Sometimes, only one family stocks it with food, diapers or toothpaste. Sometimes, a whole neighbourhood takes part. The article mentioned that, in one neighbourhood, most of the food is taken between midnight and 7 a.m.; in another, the food comes and goes continuously. It’s a way of helping others anonymously. You don’t have to face someone at a food bank to admit your family is hungry and cannot afford food.
When I read this, I wanted to build one of these little food pantries right away, but then realized that, in a cold Canadian climate at this time of year, canned food or other stuff won’t do well outdoors. Even if that freestanding unheated food pantry doesn’t work out right away, the concept still made me want to do better than I’d been doing.
I thought about a worksheet I’d used to teach religious school, maybe 20 years ago. I can’t find that piece of paper anymore but I remembered the point. It was about Maimonides’ ladder of tzedakah (justice, or charity). Maimonides (Rambam), a great Jewish scholar and teacher in the 12th century, lived in Spain and Egypt. I borrowed the following summary from the Jewish Teen Funders Network website, to remember the details.
Maimonides believed that tzedakah is like a ladder. It has eight rungs, from bottom to top. Each step you climb brings you closer to heaven.
1. The person who gives reluctantly and with regret.
2. The person who gives graciously, but less than one should.
3. The person who gives what one should, but only after being asked.
4. The person who gives before being asked.
5. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.
6. The person who gives without making his or her identity known.
7. The person who gives without knowing to whom he or she gives. The recipient does not know from whom he or she receives.
8. The person who helps another to become self-supporting by a gift or a loan or by finding employment for the recipient.
To put this tzedakah approach into practice requires work. Many of us are stuck on the first five rungs of the ladder. I’m going to skip the first two rungs, because, while many of us may have only achieved this level, I’m going to act like we’re better than that. Right?
For instance, our membership dues to a synagogue or other Jewish organizations are acts of tzedakah, but usually of the third-rung kind. (If we could afford to donate more, we sink below No. 3.) We occasionally may get up to No. 7, when donating to a food bank. If you decide to “sponsor” something in the community and your name is pasted all over the event, that’s No. 5. It means, for instance, that while you do not know who ate the kiddush lunch you sponsored, everyone who is there knows your name. So, while some do this to celebrate a special event with their community, others do this named sponsorship because they like the attention. It’s tzedakah, sure, but it’s also about ego.
We could change the way we do our “tzedakah” business. We could push our Jewish community higher up Maimonides’ ladder. Here are some ideas.
Instead of “name in lights” sponsorship, we could donate anonymously to support a community meal, event or service. This could perhaps allow an organization to sponsor a free event. Maybe a congregation could have a nicer kiddush lunch on a Saturday or have an oneg on a more regular basis. It could boost the financial situation of an essential community function, like operational costs (heat, lights, water?), educational events, building renovation or maintenance. It could raise the salary of someone who works for the Jewish community. It could create new employment for someone in our community. It could offer a loan or gift to someone who needs a step-up to begin supporting himself or herself.
Ach! I hear you saying. I’m no moneybags. I can’t pay for someone’s salary. Fine.
If these sound too hard, lower your goals. Could you consistently offer a small amount of money or time when asked to help? Could you pay membership dues early? Could you donate food to the food bank every time you grocery shop? Maybe empty the change from your pockets every Friday afternoon to put in a pushke (collection box)?
Making a difference and working your way up that ladder can start small. It can be as simple as being gracious about donating. What about volunteering time or thanking others who donate? Many of us have the capacity to climb this metaphorical ladder. Shall we ascend those rungs together?
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
At FEDtalks, the campaign opening event, left to right: Ezra Shanken, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver chief executive officer; Neil Pollock, general chair, 2015 Federation annual campaign; Lisa Pullan, chair, women’s philanthropy, 2015 campaign; Stephen Gaerber, Federation board chair; Alex Cristall, co-chair, major gifts, 2015 campaign; and Andrew Merkur, co-chair, major gifts, 2015 campaign. (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
For the second year in a row, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver annual campaign has closed with a record achievement, this time totaling $8.3 million. This represents an increase of approximately $300,000 from the previous year. Funds will support programs and services on which thousands of community members rely.
“The true power of this record result goes well beyond the impressive numbers. We can make incredible changes in this world when we give from our hearts, and that’s just what our thousands of donors and hundreds of volunteer canvassers have done. I am truly moved by their incredible acts of chesed (kindness) and tzedakah (justice, charity),” said general chair of the campaign Neil Pollock.
“I have witnessed firsthand the challenges in our community and the profound reach of the Federation annual campaign,” said Stephen Gaerber, Federation’s board chair. “The high cost of living in Vancouver has made it difficult for many community members to connect with Jewish life, either because they cannot afford to live centrally or because they cannot afford to participate. The Federation annual campaign addresses issues like these, builds connections between our community and our partnership region in Israel, and helps Jews in need around the world. This record campaign result will provide the support we and our partners need to touch more lives than ever before.”
The face-to-face incentive was one of the keys to this year’s success. It encouraged donors to meet in person with their volunteer canvassers. The 608 face-to-face meetings that took place were an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about shared values and commitment to community.
Federation welcomed 75 new volunteer canvassers as well as 225 new donors to the campaign this year. And Federation chief executive officer Ezra Shanken listed several other statistics in his weekly email message Feb. 19:
- 1,007 donors increased their gifts
- 292 volunteer canvassers
- 1,459 community members attended campaign events
- 409 campaign volunteers
- 64 local programs and services supported
- 17 Israel and overseas programs and services supported
- 37 partner agencies supported
Rose’s Angels: Courtney Cohen, centre, is holding two bags, and Lynne Fader is to Cohen’s left. The two women created the group in honor of Rose Lewin, Cohen’s grandmother. (photo by Lianne Cohen)
Each Rose’s Angels contributor, supporter and volunteer has a story about why they give back to the community. With Rose’s Angels, it is not only to ensure that Rose Lewin’s legacy of love and generosity lives on, but also to support the many not-for-profit organizations in Richmond that desperately are in need of assistance.
Rose’s Angels was created by Richmond residents Lynne Fader and Courtney Cohen. Lewin, Cohen’s grandmother, was a well-respected and much-loved Holocaust survivor who believed in doing good for everyone she could.
Now in its third year, Rose’s Angels, which is supported and endorsed by the Richmond Kehila Society, just wrapped up its Feb. 14 Care Package Campaign. With the help of 40-plus volunteers, more than 400 toiletry and non-perishable-food care packages, along with 750 warmth bundles (toques, scarves, gloves and socks), were packaged and distributed to a variety of nonprofit organizations in Richmond servicing individuals living in poverty or well below low-income standards. Recipients included the St. Alban Drop-In Centre, Touchstone Family Services, Chimo Outreach, Richmond Multicultural Community Services, Richmond Food Bank, Jewish Food Bank, Turning Point Recovery, Richmond Family Place, Pathways Clubhouse and Light of Shabbat Program.
“It was very fitting to coordinate this event on Valentine’s Day,” said Cohen, “as this is a day when people go on dates and it’s supposed to be ‘extra-special,’ where people buy each other cards, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, roses, teddy bears and other stuff that basically tells them they love them…. We wanted to share our love within the Richmond community.”
Anyone wishing to make a donation to Rose’s Angels should contact the Richmond Kehila Society at 604-241-9270.
Areyvut, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to infuse the lives of Jewish youth and teens with the values of chesed (kindness), tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), has released its 2016 A Kindness a Day Calendar.
This flip calendar offers 366 suggestions (it’s a leap year!) for people of all ages to better themselves, their communities and the world at large. For example, Jan. 1’s entry suggests, “make a New Year’s resolution that will positively impact someone else’s life.” Other entries remind readers to “call and wish Shabbat Shalom to an out-of-town relative” or to “assist someone who is unemployed with writing a resumé and finding a job.” Beneath each act of kindness is a traditional Jewish text that explains from where the act of kindness is inspired.
Areyvut debuted A Kindness a Day in 2005 and continued to create calendars through 2009, the last year that the flip-book was published. Despite a six-year hiatus, the A Kindness a Day calendar is back with suggestions, sources and inspiration that will hopefully help readers to play a more active role in their families and communities.
“Charity, kindness and social justice must be an integral part of everyone’s day,” said Daniel Rothner, Areyvut’s founder and director. “The 2016 calendar allows for these core Jewish values to become more aligned to the context of people’s daily lives. A Kindness a Day is a great educational tool for children and adults alike; as well as homes, schools and other organizations, both as a guide to help instil Jewish values into one’s life and as a springboard for discussion and study.”
The 2016 calendar also includes a thematic index that categorizes the acts of kindness by theme (for example, loving your neighbor, tzedakah, tending to the sick, volunteering, prayer, etc.) and a glossary of terms. Calendars can be purchased on Areyvut’s website areyvut.org/shop. For sample pages, and additional information, email [email protected].
When Vancouver-based philanthropists Rosalie and Joe Segal announced a lead gift of $12 million towards a new centre for mental health, I felt deeply moved. I had had occasion to visit a loved one at the old facility a few years ago. By any measure, it was a depressing, dilapidated and lifeless space. The new facility promises the kind of physical atmosphere of compassion and dignity so necessary to recovery.
The planned $82 million centre is slated to open in 2017. In recent Globe and Mail coverage, a reporter asked Joe Segal what brought them to this latest philanthropic decision.
I’ll depart here for a moment to mention that there is a common journalistic convention whereby the writer introduces a quote by paraphrasing. In this case, the reporter said that the Segals’ decision “came from a place of empathy.” Then came the actual quote from Joe Segal: “You have an obligation, if you live in the community, to be sure that you do your duty.”
Are empathy and duty the same thing?
The two vantage points at first seem quite different. Empathy is about actually experiencing the plight of another. There is clearly an affective component. Duty somehow feels more legalistic, perhaps even at odds with emotion. As philosopher Immanuel Kant famously said, “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law.”
If empathy is more about feeling, experience and emotion, and if duty is more cognitive and legal, it seems we need to be concerned with how to summon both values across society. I turned to colleagues to help me better understand the relationship between the two concepts. For some, a viscerally emotional connection between the two is indeed present.
International theory scholar Daniel Levine points out that, for a sense of duty to function, citizens need to feel reverence for institutions, even those that we ourselves have created. Or, perhaps having created laws and ways of living for ourselves is precisely what motivates a sense of duty, “we revere it precisely because it’s ours; we are the sovereign,” Levine suggests. “We are free because we legislate and judge for ourselves.”
For professor of Jewish philosophy Zachary Braiterman, the cognitive and emotional elements are intertwined, “duty has an affective element, an excitement of the senses around a task at hand.”
And, for Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, “duty flows from empathy, in that moment when I connect the suffering of another to my own experience and that touches a kind of primal anger which motivates action.”
In Jewish tradition, philanthropy – or tzedakah – is considered a legal imperative. The Hebrew word itself shares a root with righteousness and justice, and it does not contain the affective aspects that the Greek-based word philanthropy does, meaning love of humankind.
Empathy in general seems to be less obviously discussed in Judaism, until one realizes that the Torah’s golden rule – “Love your neighbor as yourself” – is ultimately an empathy imperative.
When it comes to mental illness, it’s especially important to keep both duty and empathy in mind. Empathy can be extra hard to summon towards those who are in the throes of the disease. Some forms of mental illness cause sufferers to refuse treatment. Some victims act socially or otherwise inappropriately. Sometimes the sufferer no longer even seems like the actual person.
The Segals are clearly aware of how insidious and invisible mental illness can be, and the challenges around recognizing it and treating it. As Joe Segal told the Globe and Mail, “Mental health was under the rug, and we tried to lift the rug so it can become visible.”
It’s a powerful reminder of how empathy and duty are important elements in building a better society – both for helping those in personal crisis and for enabling us all to live the values of kindness, generosity and compassion.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.