By Gheña Glijanksy Korn P’22, ’24 and Debra Wasserman P’21, ’23
RSS Connect had a chance to sit down with RSS Rabbi-in-Residence Ben Spratt and Director of Studies Laurie Piette to discuss how the Jewish value of Tzedakah is incorporated into the curriculum and culture of our school. Below is a summary of what we learned over the course of those conversations.
To begin to understand how the value of Tzedakah infuses daily life at RSS, it is helpful to give some context to what tzedakah means, and how it is practiced within the framework of the Reform Movement. Jewish belief holds that humans were created in God’s image (B’Tzelem Elohim). People are thus viewed as active participants in the work of creation, given both the power and the responsibility to serve as caretakers of this world. As such, one of our principal tasks is to strive for fairness and, in doing so, bring balance and justice to the world.
Though “tzedakah” is often used as a catchall phrase for “charity” or “good deeds,” its root, tzedek, means justice. It follows that we do not engage in tzedakah only because it is something charitable to do, or because we may often feel good when we act in a way that helps others. These both may be true, but, according to Jewish principles, we engage in acts of tzedakah because it is our mandate to strive to make the world better and, in so doing, we become aware of the godliness in the world. This framing of tzedakah aligns with a core principle of the Reform Movement: the purpose of engaging in Jewish ritual is to connect us with divinity and to inspire us to behave more ethically in a constant effort to lift the world towards balance and justice.
The thoughtful and multilayered way in which the value of tzedakah is incorporated into the RSS curriculum speaks directly to our School’s mission. Since our students range from toddlers to young teens, tzedakah is woven into their school experience in a manner appropriate to their intellectual and emotional development. The program moves from the concrete to the abstract—from the simple action of placing coins in a tzedakah box each week to the complex task of grappling with the root causes of some of our world’s most troubling issues, such as hunger and homelessness. As children move through the grades, they are exposed to increasingly challenging hands-on service learning projects. These projects, always connected to aspects of the overarching grade curriculum, provide them with opportunities for deeper understanding of the issues they are seeking to remedy through their service.
The arc of the RSS tzedakah program seeks to open children’s eyes to ever-increasing concentric circles—beginning with themselves and their classroom and moving outward to the larger world. Yet, at the same time that we seek to have children become aware and invested in the wider world, we must also ensure that a natural inclination to think big and grand—to be drawn to the dramatic global issues that are consistently represented in the media—doesn’t come at the expense of ignoring the needs of those who are much closer to home. The RSS tzedakah program encourages students to find ways to engage in tzedakah that are both particular and universal, large scale and small. The organizations with which the School’s tzedakah program is aligned are a mix of specifically Jewish organizations and broader, universal organizations. These organizations also incarnate the Jewish value of preserving people’s dignity and Rambam’s concept that the highest form of tzedakah is to help others become self-sufficient.
Several of the organizations our children are exposed to are ones that spiral through the curriculum, becoming touch points for multiple grades. Revisiting organizations over the course of their studies, as students grow and mature, enables children to gain greater insight into the issues that those particular organizations target. These experiences then translate to the children’s ability to explore and understand the work of other organizations, something they do in great depth over the course of the 7th Grade Philanthropy Project when they are responsible for selecting the organizations that will be the beneficiaries of their Philanthropy Fund.
As children move through the RSS tzedakah program, delving ever deeper into the issues, they are playing out a key principle of the RSS Jewish Studies curriculum: that of informed choice. The tzedakah program not only exposes students to service learning, it also provides them with the tools to make their own, thoughtful choices about what tzedakah means to them and how they will engage in the work of tikkun olam (repairing the world). The hope, reflecting our School’s mission to create “socially responsible leaders,” is to create young people who are, indeed, tzadikim—envoys of social justice.