Friday, February 5, 2010

Haiti and Tzedakah

No one can be unmoved by the tragic outcomes of the recent earthquake in Haiti.  There is no questioning the hardships that exist and continue to affect the inhabitants of this country.  During the past few weeks millions of dollars have been collected from people all over the world who feel they want to help fellow human beings who are in trouble.

What guidance can we derive from Jewish wisdom?

Big Ideas:
  • Tzedakah is an obligation.
  • There is Jewish thinking that can help us decide when to give, to whom to give, what to give, how to give.
Essential Questions:
  • When should I give?
  • To whom should I give?
  • How much should I give?
  • What is my obligation to determine if the money I am giving is being put to good use?
Learning Activities:  Choose as many as you feel you have time for.  Or, divide your learners into groups and let each group select the aspect it wants to investigate, sharing results with the rest of the class.  Be sure to include at least one site describing Jewish wisdom about tzedakah and either or
  • Learners will make informed decisions about donating to disaster relief in Haiti
  • Learners will be able to explain how Jewish wisdom and thought guides decisions they make in their lives
  • Learners will use what they have learned in regard to Haiti to guide their tzedakah in other areas.
Note:  There are legitimate differences among Jewish authorities as to one's responsibility for determining if someone who asks is honestly needy.  Some say you give first to whomever asks, and investigate later.  According to Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Congregation Shomrei Torah, in Fairlawn, NJ, one gives first to whomever asks, since God is "rav hessed v'emet:, and the hessed of giving preceeds the emet of investigation (I heard this from a valued colleague, Emily Amie Witty, who shared the thoughts of her Rabbi with me as I was preparing this post).  Others say that one has the responsibility to be sure the tzedakah is going to a reliable cause.  In order to do this one should investigate the legitimacy of the recipient individual or group before giving. 
You may want to have this discussion with your students, and perhaps invite a member of the clergy in your school to participate in the conversation.
Part of our job as Jewish educators is to empower our students of all ages to make responsible decisions guided by Jewish thinking, and responding to the tragedy in Haiti can help us do just that.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Big Ideas:

  • A person's position often affects the way in which that person is perceived.
  • The way in which one understands the events at Sinai is fundamental to one's religious beliefs.
  • Mainstream Jewish thinkers understand Sinai differently.
Some Questions:
  • In chapter 18, almost every verse has a reference to Yitro.  In each case Yitro is identified as "Hoten Moshe", Moshe's father-in-law.  Do you have any thoughts about why this label is repeated over and over?  Wouldn't it be enough to identify him by name after the first time?
  • How do you understand the event that occurred at Sinai?  What Jewish thinker shares your understanding?
  • How does your understanding of Sinai affect the way you are Jewish? 
Learning Activities:
  • Read chapter 18 carefully.  How many times is Yitro referred to as "hoten Moshe"?  How do you understand this?
  • Find information that describes these Jewish thinkers' beliefs about revelation.
    • Joseph Soloveitchik
    • Abraham Joshua Heschel
    • Eugene Borowitz
    • Mordecai Kaplan
  • Choose one of the people you learned about and prepare a presentation for the rest of the group explaining why this understanding of revelation is meaningful for you.
  • Create a chart that compares and contrasts the various ways in which Jews understand the events at Sinai
  • Find evidence in the popular culture of the world around you that a person's position affects the way in which he or she is heard and understood.  Who do we listen to?  Who do we ignore?