Help Me Make a Tzedakah Plan!

Rachel Petroff Kessler
October 10, 2011
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When I was little, giving Tzedakah was fairly straight forward. A portion of your allowance? Into the tzedakah box. Find a penny on the street? Into the tzedakah box it goes. Then once or twice a year, we’d dump all the money out onto the dining room table and count it up, lining up neat little stacks of pennies, and group nickels and dimes into dollars. We’d decide where to donate the funds, and sometimes my brother and I would just show up, parents in tow and cash in hand.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t add, thanks Mom(!), for making Tzedakah something mandatory, reflexive, and lots of fun.)

Today, however, it’s not quite as simple. Sure, we still have Tzedakah boxes around the apartment that we fill with loose change. But the last time my husband and I made an actual plan for donating Tzedakah (something I’m embarrassed to admit we only did once, and not since I finished graduate school and got a job), it required multiple subway conversations, pro/con lists, and a Google spreadsheet. Admittedly, it did feel pretty great to make donations in excess of 18 or 36 dollars, and to be proactive about our giving, instead of just responding to appeals from friends and family (apparently we know a lot of people who do charity marathons/half-marathons/5Ks). But frankly, it was a lot of work, and the fact that we haven’t done it since, is a sign that maybe it is a bit too much work. For better or worse, we need something easier, or at least could use a bit more guidance.

So tell me, what do you do?

  • Do you base your giving on the calendar year? The fiscal year? Center it around certain Jewish holidays?
  • How do you decide what causes and organizations are worthy causes? Do you differentiate between Tzedakah (to causes that aid the poor and disenfranchised) and philanthropy (supporting other causes)? How do you balance between giving to Jewish and non-Jewish sources?
  • How do you determine how much to give: ten percent? More? Less? Of all your income? Post-taxes? What’s left over after paying for groceries and housing?
  • Do you have a process for making these decisions (I love checklists, so if you have one, tell me about it)? A ritual? Do your choices change every year or have you found some routine?
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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.


  1. Thanks for this post, Rachel. I’m sorry that it hasn’t received any other responses; I’d love to know how other folks deal with the tzedakah considerations you inquire about.

    Personally, I give throughout the year, but do “juice up” giving during Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Jewish and non-Jewish giving is, for me, probably about 40/60, respectively (although I’m viewing groups such as American Jewish World Service as non-Jewish in this case, since their work is not specifically Jewish-centric, whatever the impetus).

    I also like charts and graphs and want to devise a set way of determining annual tzedakah…..and have so far failed miserably at doing so! I aim for 10% of pre-tax income (very roughly).

    Instead of putting coins in the tzedakah box that my fiance and I use, I took the advice of a friend, and place the names of worthy groups that have mailed or emailed me fundraising requests. At different times through the year, I randomly draw a name from the box and send a donation to that group. Admittedly, this is terribly unscientific and not very satisfying.

    A hurdle that relates to your mention of differentiation between tzedakah and other forms of giving: I feel personally compelled to give money to environmental/conservation non-profits and I consider this part of my tzedakah — giving voice to the voiceless — but I’ve been told by several rabbis that no money given to a charity that doesn’t work to alleviate poverty or hunger should count as tzedakah. Their position seems unacceptable (given our contemporary purview and the interconnectedness of conservation, the environment, and human rights), but I feel a bit like a Jew straying from the path by giving a percentage of tzedakah to conservation causes. I’m curious to read other thoughts on this issue.

    As I move toward family, another challenge is that I feel I’m bound to experience spousal resistance to the 10% mark, what with diapers, day school, and all the expenses associated with parenting. I imagine this is often an issue outside of the Orthodox world.

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  2. Corev,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I love the idea of a Tzedakah box filled with different options for Tzedakah giving!

    And I must admit that I’m swayed by your argument about considering environmental issues as Tzedakah, though it raises another question for me, about the balance between giving to causes that help address long-term structural inequalities in our society and direct giving that has a more immediate impact.

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