Ever hear of Heifer International? No? Until recently, I’d never heard of it either. I was talking to my grandsons, ages 7 and 3, via the webcam perched atop my computer screen. The boys were telling me about their Shabbat observances. They wear kippahs, they have a special dinner with challah and wine, Mommy lights candles and Daddy says brachas. And their job is to put money into the tzedakah boxes, the pushkes, they made at Hebrew school. They held the boxes up to the screen so I could see them.
“What do you do with the money when the boxes are filled?” I asked.
“We give it to people who don’t have as much food or money as we have,” the older boy said.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“We send it to this place called Heifer International.”
Intrigued, I looked it up. To my surprise, it’s actually a well-known charity started by a Midwestern farmer named Dan West who was ladling out rations of milk to hungry kids during the Spanish Civil War. He realized that simply doling out food does not solve the problem of hunger.
“These children don’t need a cup; they need a cow,” he said.
He formed Heifers for Relief, dedicated to ending hunger by providing livestock and training, as well. The first shipment of 17 heifers left Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico in 1944. Why heifers? Because they are cows who have not yet given birth. These young cows would supply milk and would also be a continuous source of more cows. Families receiving a heifer agreed to donate female offspring to another family, thus continuing the process.
Today, donors to this organization get to choose which animal they would like to donate: a cow, a goat, chickens, rabbits or geese. In concept, this way of using what my grandmother called “pushke money” is far beyond the pushke concept of her time. The website’s online visual association makes the process more real and less abstract for the kids.
The globalization of the 21st century influences our thinking in many ways, including the choices we can make for charitable contributions. We can think not only of local charities or Israel, but also of the victims of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and wars around the world. We are aware of the needs of children, refugees, the hungry and the sick in every country. This is as it should be.
However, charity is more than just giving a donation to a faceless organization. It really involves the feelings of the recipients, too.
Many years ago, I wrote a children’s story that was published in Young Judean magazine. Two boys, Jason and Marty, liked to go together for ice cream every Sunday until Jason stopped going for lack of money. For a while, Marty treats him, but Jason feels uncomfortable with this on a permanent basis. When Jason stops going for ice cream, Marty’s grandfather refers Marty to Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity in an effort to get Marty to figure out a solution. Marty does. He gets Jason a job walking a dog so that Jason can buy ice cream with his own money, thus allowing him to maintain his dignity.
Here is the Ladder of Charity conceived by Maimonides. The levels are ranked in order of preference, from the lowest to the highest.
1. Giving sadly and begrudgingly.
2. Giving less than is fitting but with good cheer.
3. Giving only after having been asked.
4. Giving before being asked.
5. Giving to a recipient whose identity the giver does not know.
6. Giving so that the recipient of the tzedakah does not know the identity of the giver.
7. Giving so that neither the giver nor the recipient knows the identity of the other.
8. In place of giving money, taking the sort of action that will help people to no longer be poor.
An example of level eight would be helping a poor person find a job, or lending money to finance an education for someone in poverty. For example, friends of mine wanted to help a married child who was in financial trouble. They gave the couple a car instead of cash, thus enabling them to have access to jobs in their rural area that did not have public transportation.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It is interesting to note how close in concept this proverb is to level eight of Maimonides’ ladder. You can see that the highest level of charity helps a person become independent and self-reliant, and human dignity is also taken into full account.
We might all do well to assess what we do with our pushke money and other donations. My little grandsons are already learning that there are those less fortunate than themselves. I am proud of my son and daughter-in-law for teaching this to their children at so young an age. I have faith that these boys will grow up to be caring citizens of the world.
Toby Rosenstrauch is an award-winning columnist and a resident of Florida. Her first novel, Knifepoint, was recently published.