19 July 2011

Tzedakah

About a week ago, I met a wonderful family visiting our local library from the South Side of Chicago.  We began talking about the local libraries, schools by us, work, the usual conversations parents of the "working class"* talk about. 

For several years, on the East Coast I had heard about the economic and social situations of the South Side of Chicago.  How schools were being closed, police stations being closed, high rises where residents lived being torn down and slowly replaced with more expensive (and priced out of the reach of the current residents price range) housing.

It was heartbreaking listening to this family's story.  They wanted better for their children.  You could tell.  Their children were clean, intelligent, well mannered, and like other children.  There was nothing about them that made me feel they deserved less than my children deserve, nothing about them that made me feel they deserved less than the children in the (extravagently wealthy) village near me deserve. 

Their parents sounded level headed and trying to figure out where in the US to move to in order to provide a better future for their children.  When I told them about the town I had left, which was a decent neighborhood and had it's typical problems, they were concerned if there was gang activity, drug activity, how the schools performed, how expensive it was to live there, how difficult was it to find work.  Not, as some might think, to see if it was a place worth going to in order to spread crime, as I had heard from more affluent and wealthy people about South Side residents.  But, to find out if it was a better place for their kids.

In other words, they were human and wanting better for their children.

I left them, having heard from first hand about the situations in the South Side.  Hearing about how schools were being closed and not replaced for children to attend, how buildings where students studied were unacceptably maintained in a substandard manner (no child should have to study with drop ceilings collapsing on their desks ), how this would never be accepted in suburbia.  I asked whether CPS was funded by the whole of Chicago (including the wealthy neighborhoods), whether funds were supposed to be evenly distributed, whether new schools were being built. 

The same with police stations.  I was told that in the most crime ridden areas, the stations were being closed.  I am not sure how that is supposed to help with crime.  It's nauseating to imagine my child living in such situations.  Could this all possibly be true?

Could what is highlighted in documentaries such as "The One Percent" be true?  In this country?  Where all men are created equal and should be given the same opportunity for success or failure? In my beloved America?

I felt feeling more determined in my belief in Tzedakah.

I skipped taking my children to McDonald's, deciding instead on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and went to our local Salvation Army.  I spent about $2 and a few cents on a jumper for the local school and put it in my daughter's closet.  When the school year begins, I will be donating it, as I did last year, to the local school.

I remember how confused the secretary was when I presented several pieces to them.  "I bought this and wanted it to be given to a student who can't afford a uniform, please."

"Thank you!  I know a student who could use all this.  But... why?  You don't need this?  For your daughter?", she asked, gesturing to my own school age daughter, as though this was such a strange thing to do.

"Not as much as some other child would need it," I said and walked away.

What, in the end, is $10 for us, versus a family struggling to eat?  Even with our own financial situations?

If you feel you would like to help the less fortunate but think you don't have the money, here are some ideas:

  • If you can afford Starbucks every day, perhaps you could instead bring coffee from home and take that money to buy school supplies for a child in need.  Donate it to your local underfunded school.  The staff will know who is in need.  Or contact your local school board to see if they have a school supply drive going on.
  • If you can afford a manicure weekly, you could instead skip it for a month to buy some uniforms for a child in need.  Again, see the first suggestion where to donate.
  • If you can afford a pedicure, you could instead purchase some winter jackets and either donate to the Burlington Coat drive or to your local school or daycare.
  • If you can afford to eat out every week, you could instead use that money to feed an underprivileged family for a week.
  • If you can afford to buy your child a toy every week just because, you could instead go with your child and drop off some toys (new or used) at the doorstep of a less fortunate child.  If you aren't sure what house, pay attention around your neighborhood and look where children live and it looks as though "ends are not being met" or donate to Toys for Tots
  • If you can afford a new pair of shoes to make yourself feel better, perhaps instead buy new shoes for a child at a shelter.
  • We don't need new bathing suits every single year.  Perhaps instead this year, donate some books to your local library or underprivilegeled school.
  • Instead of buying steaks for dinner, you could buy dry and non perishable items and donate to your local food bank, soup kitchen, church, shelter.
  • Instead of buying lobster, you could buy the ingredients to bake cookies with your children and drop them off at a local nursing home
If you can't afford any such luxuries, sometimes it takes a moment of reflection.  Look around.  We are so lucky.  Flat screen tvs, our children own video games, some own their own computers, brand name clothing, nice relatively new SUVs.  There is no need to feel guilty to have such things.  We should instead feel inspired.  Couldn't we take a couple of dollars out of our obviously fortunate lives to give to a child who is hungry? 

Whether you feel an adult is responsible for their situations in life, children never are.  We can take care of them.  It takes a village to raise a child.  And in the United States of America, where many of us are fortunate enough to be able to afford cable television, no child should live in hunger and cold.

This idea has nothing to do with being Jewish only.  Christians and Muslims and other religions, such as Buddhists, are also called to do this in their religions.  And whether you are Atheist, or whatever, I think it's not a terrible thing to say that it can be called our duty as humans to do this.  To care for the less fortunate.



*I say "working class" not in the way politicians use it, as a way to pretend to candor to "blue collar" voters, but the real sense of the word, we are the workers of America.