“Tzedakah Project: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” you’ll see on a sign greeting you as you walk into our synagogue.
“It’s part of a new initiative by our Religious School to teach our students about the concept of tzedakah, which means righteousness,” explains Rabbi Rena Rifkin. “We want to connect our students with people who are doing the work of tzedekah, and also be thoughtful about where we donate.”
“Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” God tells Moses and the Israelites in Deuteronomy 16:20, commanding them to create a fair legal system and government. “The Jewish value of tzedek often gets lost in the concept of tzedakah,” says Rabbi Rifkin. “We often think of tzedakah as simple charity, but it’s really a much deeper mitzvah — about justice, equity and equality.”
And so, as part of its curriculum, the Religious School seeks to differentiate between charity and justice. “The concept of tzedek represents more intentionality than just the act of charity. Through this project, we hope to help our students be more thoughtful about where and how they want to give their time, money and energy,” says our Religious School’s assistant director, Julia Bennett, “and for them to bring acts of tzedek into their daily lives.”
“It’s so important for young people to feel empowered to change the world,” says Social Justice Program Associate Steven Morris. “We’re teaching our students to learn how to translate Jewish values into social action.”
Sitting on the tzedakah table behind the sign are five plastic jars, each slowly filling up with money earmarked for an organization whose mission encapsulates a core Jewish value. Throughout this school year, our Religious School students of all ages are learning about these five different organizations and Jewish “tzedek heroes” from the past or present who represent each organization’s justice-related cause. For example, tzedek hero Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg z’’l represents the National Women’s Law Center, which fights for gender justice, including equal pay for women.
“Our seventh graders have done tzedakah projects before, but this is the first time we’ve involved the whole school,” says Rabbi Rifkin. “It’s important for our students to see the different ways that Jews have engaged in the work of tzedakah and tzedek. To be able to relate to some of our heroes, understand the scope of their work — and to see that it’s not just about dropping coins into jars, but about working toward a more just world.”
The five organizations our students chose are: the National Women’s Law Center; HIAS, which is guided by Jewish history and provides vital services for immigrants and refugees; Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a Gen Z-led movement dedicated to fighting climate change through a Jewish lens; The Trevor Project, which seeks to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth; and the Anti-Defamation League, which fights hate and antisemitism.