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Tzedakah in your own backyard

As a Southerner who has made Manhattan my home for the past several years, I often credit Central Park with maintaining my sanity in this frenetic metropolis. Its sprawling landscape offers a natural rebuttal to the confines of my one bedroom apartment and to relatives’ insistence on the superiority of the suburbs. It’s where I staged a close friend’s engagement, trained for a Hazon bike ride, spent many a lazy Shabbat afternoon, and fell in love with my husband. It’s fair to say that it is one of my favorite places in the world.

And yet it was only this past week that I realized that the park needs me as much as I need it. While googling local activities in honor of MLK Day, I stumbled upon the Central Park Conservancy website and discovered a walking tour of Seneca Village, Manhattan’s first known community of African-American property owners on land that later become part of Central Park. The hour long, volunteer led tour offered fascinating social, political, and domestic insights into Seneca Village’s inhabitants and the challenging conditions under which they worked to build lives and homes for themselves.

At the end of the tour, I learned that the Conservancy, a nonprofit founded in 1980, employs 90 percent of the park’s maintenance operations staff and provides 85 percent of Central Park’s annual budget. According to their website, “Conservancy crews care for 250 acres of lawns, 24,000 trees, 150 acres of lakes and streams and 130 acres of woodlands; maintain 9,000 benches, 26 ballfields and 21 playgrounds.”

I was floored to learn that the Conservancy provides such a huge percentage of the park’s budget and maintenance. I had known that the Conversancy existed but had somehow imagined that the park is supported by some magically abundant city coffers. (I guess I’m not alone there. The Conservancy website notes that there is widespread misconception that tax dollars pay for the preservation and upkeep of the park).

As a child, The Giving Tree was my least favorite of Shel Silverstein’s stories. It is about a tree who gives everything to the little boy she loves; her shade, her apples, even her trunk. It always disturbed me that the boy did not reciprocate. On my walk home from the tour, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like my least favorite protagonist.

Now that I know that the park is funded primarily by people who appreciate and cherish it, I’ve added the Conservancy to my tzedakah list. I’m reminded of the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslove, “know that each and every blade of grass has its own song…and from the song of the grasses the heart is filled and yearns.” I am proud to support an organization that preserves and conserves natural beauty, community, and history in my extended backyard.

To learn about upcoming events sponsored by the Conservancy see:

Photo courtesy of ZeroOne

Rachel Travis

Rachel Travis is currently the Curatorial Assistant for the Roman Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography. After earning a Masters in Jewish Art and Visual Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rachel has worked at a number of museums and Jewish institutions, exercising her belief that art can serve as a vehicle for social change. Born in Manhattan and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, she currently lives with her husband in the Upper West Side where they enjoy biking, baking and urban farming. Rachel can be reached at rachel.dvartzedek@gmail.com.

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