Arizona. California. Israel. Peru. Boston. No matter what state, country, time zone or zip code, I call my mother every day. And at 97, she still answers the phone with energy and excitement.
Calling home was a decision I made over two decades ago to intentionally stay connected to my parents who lived 3,000 miles away. I would call while fixing dinner, folding clothes or making lunches, just to chat and hear about their day. Sometimes I got advice, other times, a recipe or tidbit about a family member. I called because I missed them. But I also called because I wanted my own children to see that in order to stay close to family, you have to work at it.
Now, at 97, my mother lives alone, surrounded by loving caretakers. Her world has become restricted by age, physical limitations and the loss of much of what and whom she cherished all her life. Most of her friends are gone and my father, her husband of 68 years, died over four years ago. And while Mom is wheelchair bound, her mind is impressively agile. I marvel at her deep interest in politics, the two book clubs to which she belongs, her weekly bridge game and most of all, her constant contact with her ever growing family. And while she may be limited in movement, she is boundless in her capacity to offer guidance, inspiration and wisdom.
One such moment came the year after Dad died at Thanksgiving when a dozen family members came together to be with her. Amidst the turkey and cranberry sauce, Mom opened up conversation, sitting regally like a queen at the head of the table. She had something special in mind: she wanted to elevate the conversation beyond the incessant talk of national and global politics and sweet potato casserole recipes.
“What’s important to you now?” she turned and asked her 16-year-old great grandson.
After some serious blushing and stammering, he thoughtfully turned the conversation to the crisis of immigrants and refugees. He had been taught about it in school but he shared that he talked a lot about the situation with his friends, many of whom were concerned about what is happening in their “not-so-privileged” world.
Then his younger brother piped in, with thoughts about volunteering for underprivileged kids near the Philadelphia neighborhood where they live. And their uncle told of his work as a Big Brother in California while my mother continued to ask pointed questions getting them to share more of their thoughts and feelings.
I watched in amazement as she held counsel, guiding the conversation skillfully until it reached a natural conclusion – dessert. Then mom said: “I want to give more, too. It’s very human to want to give. And it’s important to figure out what means the most to you and why.”
Bingo! Mom had just made the elevator speech for philanthropic giving: it’s all about your priorities and the values upon which you base your need to give.
In my previous work as a Legacy Consultant for the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, I saw first-hand the impact of thoughtful philanthropic giving. I saw our Tucson community – both Jewish and non-Jewish – grow from the endowments and gifts of people who cared about issues from social justice and climate change to cancer, pet care and the arts.
But giving requires some soul searching and questions often asked include: How much should I give? How do I prioritize my gifts? Should I support Jewish organizations over secular ones? Should I give now or wait until I die?
The Jewish tradition doesn’t speak in terms of charity. Rather, we take our marching orders from the mitzvah of Tzedakah, or righteousness in Hebrew. Tzedakah is the handmaiden to Tikkun Olam, the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Together, they form a call to action, to consciously distribute a part of what we have to care for others. We don’t give because it feels good (although it does feel good.) We give because we’re Jews.
Jewish law prioritizes the poor of our own community over the poor living elsewhere, except priority is given to the poor in Israel. We give in concentric circles: starting with our own family and community and then expanding out into the larger world, which includes Jews and non-Jews alike. The Talmud specifically recognizes that any needy person who lives peacefully with us is worthy of charity.
Jewish law is fairly specific about how much we should give. Maimonides established actual parameters: Ten percent is average, 20 percent is ideal. Regardless, the goal is to give a meaningful gift but never so much that it would cause our own impoverishment.
During our lives we will have times when our ability to give may be limited. An unexpected tragedy, the loss of a job or an illness can dramatically change our ability to give to others. But tzedakah is an “equal opportunity mitzvah” and applies to everyone, no matter how much or how little we have. That is why our sages assured us that everyone is capable of giving when they said: “To the one who is eager to give, God provides the means.”
Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an award-winning author, nationally-syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, international public speaker and attorney. She has written more than 400 columns and essays that have been published nationwide, amyhirshberglederman.com.