Teaching kids how to share is one of the first values that many parents convey to their children. The Jewish ethic of giving tzedakah is deeply rooted in this idea; it is about making sure that all of the world’s resources (food, water, clothing, education, shelter) are shared justly. Engaging kids with the idea of tzedakah is an extension of a values discussion most families already have.
Educating kids about tzedakah can also help them understand that what they do matters and that, in small ways, they can make a difference in this world.
Make Tzedakah a Part of Your Family’s Natural Rhythm
In addition to your personal giving, create regular opportunities to give both time and money, together with your kids. While your children might not have much money of their own to give, even donating your money will get them in the habit of financial giving.
Here are a few ideas.
Whenever you go to the grocery store, buy a couple extra cans of food. Deliver them to the local food pantry with your kids.
Before lighting Shabbat candles, make a point of putting a few dollar bills into a tzedakah box and give children a few bills to put in as well. Let them know that we mark the end of every week by sharing what we earned this week with others. If you give your kids a weekly allowance, suggest that they set aside 10% of it for tzedakah, in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Sit down with your kids once a month and ask them to pick a cause they would like to support. Help them think of things they can relate to, like toys or warm clothes for kids that don’t have them, or food for people in the community who are hungry.
Because giving money is only a symbolic gesture for young kids, it’s helpful to link the act of giving money with volunteering. Consider making your monthly donation to organizations where you can also volunteer for a few hours together. Food pantries often have repetitive, simple work that is easy for kids four years and older to do. Making sandwiches at a soup kitchen is also an easy way to get young kids involved.
Most Jewish holidays have an element of tzedakah built in. In the weeks leading up to Passover it is customary to give tzedakah to poor Jews to ensure that they have enough money to celebrate the holiday, and at the seder we say “let all who are hungry come and eat.” In keeping with these traditions, on or before Passover, consider volunteering with your kids to prepare and deliver a meal to a homebound elderly person.
On Shavuot, which commemorates bringing the first fruits of one’s harvest, we read in the Book of Ruth about the mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields for the poor. Shavuot falls at a great time of year to take your kids to a local farmer’s market and buy fruits and other produce to deliver to your local food pantry. On Purim, there is a mitzvah to give gifts to the poor; consider buying a meal for a homeless person as a way of fulfilling this obligation.
Any time your kids get money for a birthday or holiday, encourage them to give some of it (perhaps 10%) to tzedakah. And when you buy a gift for someone else (including your kids), in addition to a physical present, give them a gift card from an organization like Changing the Present or GlobalGiving. These allow the recipient to contribute the value of the gift card to a cause he or she cares about. On national holidays like Martin Luther King Day, take part in a social service day in your community. Many Jewish communities also plan special volunteer projects on Christmas Day.
Developing a regular tzedakah practice in your family, and talking openly about your decisions and research, will help your kids incorporate this Jewish ethic into their own lives. This will habituate the practice for them to build on in the future.