The disappearance of landsmannschaften [societies of individuals from the same town or country in Eastern Europe] and the flattening out of the kibbutz movement have left the Jewish community almost bereft of face-to-face sharing of money and decisions about money. Even in the arena of tzedakah (translated as “charity,” but rooted in the Hebrew word for justice), most giving is organized like a modern corporation.
Yet there are a few groups that may point the way to a renewed and revitalized process of pooling money and deciding together how to spend it, in the light of Jewish values.
In the past, the giving of tzedakah was a face-to-face action. Groups, called in Yiddish khevres, would gather within a congregation to visit the sick, bury the dead, or gather money for the poor.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s in North America, people who were dissatisfied with synagogues and other Jewish organizations began to form havurot (small, intimate, egalitarian, and participatory fellowships for prayer and Torah study). Then in the mid-seventies, some of these havurot encouraged the creation of tzedakah collectives, intended to bring to charitable money-giving the same kind of intimacy, participation, and equality.
These groups meet together, face-to-face, to discuss possible recipients of tzedakah. The participants agree in advance on what proportion of their incomes they will give–typically about 2 percent–and on a more or less collective process for deciding how to give it. The group may, for example, agree to vote on a list of acceptable recipients, and then permit individuals to give as much as they choose out of their overall donation to whichever groups they choose from the agreed-upon list. Or they may vote on collective amounts to be given from a general pool of all the donated money, leaving no funds for purely individual decision. Or they may balance the two modes, using the one and the other for different categories of giving.
Typically, the participants divide up responsibility for checking on projects that could be tzedakah recipients, and reporting their findings to the group as a whole. One member or another will lead a group discussion of a Jewish text or teaching about tzedakah, and then the group will discuss how to apply these teachings to the choices before them. The ambience is very different from writing checks to a national tzedakah organization such as the United Jewish Appeal [in North America; now called “United Jewish Communities”] or the Jewish Fund for Justice. Most of the participants plunge much deeper into learning both about the social problems that call for help through tzedakah, and what Jewish tradition teaches on tzedakah.
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