Arizona. California. Israel. Peru. Boston. No matter what state, country, time zone, or zip code, I make it my business to call my mother every day. Yes, you read it right. Every day!
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 children to see that in order to stay close to family, you have to work at it.
Now, at 94, 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 a year 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 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 this past Thanksgiving when a dozen family members came together to be with her. Amidst the turkey and cranberry sauce, Mom opened up the 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 politics and 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 talked about the crisis of immigrants and refugees. He had been taught about it in school, but he shared that he spoke 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 each one of us to share more of our 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 you hold most dear.
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 exponentially 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. Instead, we take our marching orders from the mitzvah of tzedakah, or righteousness in Hebrew. Tzedakah is the hand-maiden 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. And we don’t give from the head; we give from the heart.
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: 10% is average, 20% 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 or expanded because of age, income, unexpected expenses, or changed circumstances. My mother’s conversation confirmed for me a beautiful fact about philanthropic giving: that regardless of age, we can be an agent and inspiration for positive change for the generations that we have created as well as for those that will come after us when we are gone.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide, amyhirshberglederman.com