You’re walking home from an extra shift you picked up to cover this month’s rent and pass a homeless person burrowed into a tarnished blanket. It’s the same person you’ve seen occupying the block for the last few months. Out of habit, you throw $5 into the person’s cup — knowing you’ll have one less item for dinner and hoping the person will have one more thing to eat.
The Mishneh Torah describes tzedakah as a personal duty in which we give 5 percent to 10 percent of our income to sustain our community and to help those in need. Meaning “righteousness” in Hebrew, tzedakah is neither a charge nor charity. It’s a mitzvah, or commandment, that all Jews are obliged to follow. Even the poor are required to give tzedakah, according to their means.
That being said, tzedakah isn’t meant to be burdensome or run your personal finances into the ground. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, a traditional time to make charitable donations, here are some options that are both good by the book and good for the checkbook:
- Fund or start a kosher food pantry in your city. Many people seek to uphold their religious principles during trying times, so why not make that a little easier for them?
- Get in touch with a local Hillel and help fund a scholastic trip for Jewish college students.
- Donate to an organization in Israel. Consider groups like Migdal Ohr, which provides education and social guidance to children from underprivileged and rough homes in northern Israel, with issues including overcrowded apartments, one-parent families, drug problems, poverty and crime within the family. Table to Table harvests excess fresh food from caterers, cafeterias, manufacturers, grocers and farmers to feed Israel’s hungry. Paamonim helps Israeli families in financial distress regain their footing.
- Start two tzedakah boxes for your family: one for loose change and one for collecting names of organizations to donate to. At the end of every month, draw a name from the second box and donate all the money from the change box to it.
- Incorporate tzedakah into your Shabbat meals. Declare one meal a month a “potluck” where guests bring canned goods and non-perishables to be donated to the local food pantry or soup kitchen.
- Donate to a larger organization that benefits the hungry like Bread for the World, USA or Mazon. The recipient of your tzedakah does not necessarily have to know who you are.
- Go through old clothes and see what you don’t need. Take all of what you find and bring it to the shelter in your city that has the highest demand. Shelters often have wish lists on their websites.
- Give a homeless person you pass on the street a few more dollars than you would regularly.
- If you spend too much time working on a menial project at work or at home, put up a temp job ad. Hiring someone for that position will both help you finish the project and give work experience to someone who needs it.
- Give a donation in honor of a friend or family member as a gift. This works best for those who seem to “have it all,” making it difficult to come up with original gift ideas for them. Instead of giving them another material object that’s likely to gather dust, help them contribute to a meaningful cause.