Where Do You Give?

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Checkout Charity

    I glanced nervously at the woman behind me.  Poor thing had a kid with her.  I said an impromptu prayer of thanks that I’d be spared that, at least.  How would I have explained to my children what I was about to do?  I steeled myself, averted my eyes and waited for the inevitable question.

“Would you like to help by giving a donation to our checkout charity?”  The slight edge in the cashier’s otherwise bored voice gave it away.  She wasn’t enjoying her forced fundraiser role any more than I liked saying, “No, thanks.” 

I dashed off my signature, the scrawling indecipherable one I used when making a quick escape.  I shoved my receipt into the bag and made my get-a-way.  At least the kids weren’t there, especially my daughter.  Eva gave all her money away.  She gave away her lunch money, my extra change, and all the cash presents she’d ever received. 

      The other day, Eva asked my son, “How did you get so much money?”  Noah’s been stockpiling ever since his love affair with Monopoly when he was four years old.  He’s incredibly generous, too, but Noah gives of his time.  He’s always willing to lend a hand, especially taking care of little kids.  Noah answered his sister without missing a beat. “I kept the money people gave me.  You gave all yours away.”

    “Oh,” she responded, sounding somewhat surprised.

Eva even started her own fund for a little-known endangered wild Japanese cat, the Iriomote.  After months of raising money, we couldn’t locate a place accepting funds to help them.  We turned to Charity Navigator.  There, she found a small, four-star animal advocacy group with high transparency and accountability scores and low administrative costs.  She emptied her Iriomote fund and added in a birthday present from her grandparents for good measure.

That’s why I was grateful I was standing in the checkout line alone.  I know it would have presented an excellent “teaching moment” for the kids, but I wasn’t in the mood.  Sometimes parenting is like that: you just don’t want to be bothered.  You don’t feel like looking callous, uncaring, and selfish in front of the kids.  At least I hadn’t had to explain myself, not like that poor woman in line behind me. 

Even though I opposed that type of pressured, random checkout giving, I still felt bad.  The times I had said yes and donated, I was left a shameful morning-after feel.  When I had said no, it still felt bad, because no matter what the checkout charity actually was, in my head it always sounded a little like “starving, neglected kids with cancer in a war zone.”  Did I want to help?  Of course I did!  I wanted to help them all, but my tzedakah was planned.  I did careful giving to specific pre-researched organizations, with which I had an on-going relationship.  Still, saying no was woefully unpleasant, especially in public, when I was captive at the check out line.  Hit and run guerilla fund-raising was not a spiritually uplifting adventure.

I did, however, allow myself some planned random giving. Every year before Thanksgiving, my local grocery store put out donation cards for the New Jersey Community Food Bank.  Brightly colored cards, of varying small amounts, patiently perched in an open plastic container.  No one asked, and they spoke for themselves.  I made myself a promise that every time I checked out, I would grab one of these donation cards and add it to my bill.  I chose the amount according to the size of my purchase, reverse tithing.  The more I spent, the more I gave.  I loved the surprised “thanks” from the cashier. 

Though I knew where the money was going, this was still reckless and financially unsound giving.  I had no idea how much I gave over the season, had no record, and could not use the donations as a write-off.  I also ignored the fact that I could not control what was purchased with this money.  A devout vegetarian, I said a silent prayer that no animals would be harmed with of my donation.  My money paid for heat and light, infrastructure costs, I decided.  That way, I always left the check out line smiling. Then I went straight home to brag to my kids. 

Photo courtesy of juicyrai

Rabbi Erica S Lebovitz

Rabbi Erica S. Lebovitz, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a stay-at-home Rabbi. She is currently collaborating on a children’s book with her generous daughter, Eva.

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