Hanukkah tzedakah

When third-grader Bryn Sentnor was diagnosed with diabetes last month, she reacted much like anyone would upon hearing they have a chronic illness for the first time.

“It was kind of scary,” said Bryn, 9, who attends Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

For some, that diagnosis might turn into a feeling of helplessness, but that wasn’t the case for Bryn. Fortunately, her school gave her an opportunity to transform it into positive action. She nominated the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as an official recipient of SMDS-RJA’s Tamhui program, an annual project designed to teach children the value of tzedakah.

“I think that the thing I can do is to help scientists to research a cure and I can talk to other kids about how it works and how they can deal with it and they can speak to other kids about it,” she said.

The desire to garner that kind of hands-on interaction with an issue is what Tamhui is all about. It’s designed to allow children to understand the consequences of philanthropic choices.

“We want our students to have to make some ethical decisions and to figure out what they care about most, what pulls at their heartstrings,” said Cheryl Maayan, SMDS-RJA’s head of school. “It’s the same process that we grown-ups go through when we get solicitations in the mail. Am I going to give to the one that helps animals? Am I going to give to the one that’s curing cancer? Am I going to give to the one that’s working on poverty? Our students are really faced with that dilemma every year during this project.”

Tamhui allows the school’s 82 children the chance to hear presentations from five different organizations representing an array of Jewish and non-Jewish charities. Students are then encouraged to donate to a common pool of funds with money acquired by doing extra chores for parents or giving up a night of Hanukkah gifts. The suggested donation is $10 but families can give any amount. At lunchtime each day students are given two small “pom-pom” chits to be dropped into canisters representing the selected charities. The chit totals determine how the cash is eventually divided up.

“I think it’s good that we get to choose how much we donate ourselves,” said 11-year old Sophie Hurwitz, a fifth-grader who said she is partial to environmental causes. “It isn’t chosen for us. We get to really make a difference even though we are kids.”

“I think the program is great,” concurred classmate Johanna Hogan, also 11. “They pick awesome projects, a little bit of everything.”

In addition to Bryn’s nomination, this year’s students will choose from Casa De Salud, a health and wellness center for immigrants; Bayit Ham (A Warm Home), an after-school program for at-risk kids in Yokneam, Israel; Living Lands and Waters, a rivers-protection group; and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. Living Lands and Waters has sent a DVD for the children to view. The other groups dispatched representatives to make pitches to the students directly.

“We hope that they understand that they can become philanthropists at a young age,” said Bob Fox, who made the case for Casa De Salud at a morning assembly for the children on Dec. 8. “But also they can become activists in the community; they can do things. It doesn’t have to be about money. It just has to be about caring about others.”

Fourth grader Amy Granick said she enjoyed the presentation delivered the same day by Sue Rundblad of the food pantry who talked about her organization’s policies.

“They said that if someone comes, they never turn anyone away,” Amy said. “I think it’s good that when they come they know that they are going to get what they need.”

Both Amy and fellow nine-year old Evyn Levy said the best thing about the program was that it pushed participants to think about others instead of themselves.

“I think it’s really good to give up one night of Hanukkah presents,” Evyn said.

Perhaps most interesting is that the school even uses Tamhui as part of the academic curriculum. Specifically, it’s a math program.

“Some people say you can integrate Judaism with all the subjects except math,” Maayan said. “But they are wrong. Our last day before winter vacation is Tamhui math day. We’ll have to figure out how much money we’ve collected, how many pom-poms in each jar, what each is worth and how much each organization will get.”

Kindergarteners and first graders count the pom-poms. Second and third graders count the money. Fourth graders do the division. The results are announced by fifth graders who make and present illustrative charts for the occasion. Maayan said that SMDS-RJA usually collects about $1,000 dollars for eventual distribution to the charities.

But the final totals aren’t the most enjoyable aspect for Maayan.

“My favorite part is that every year, it’s always the cutest little kindergartener who comes in with a handful of coins,” she said. “It is my pleasure to roll their coins for them. Some people say we ought to have them bring a check but I say no, it’s great for the kids to hand me that stack. It’s very tangible.”

It’s tangible for Sentnor’s friends, too. Maayan said that Bryn’s classmates not only wrote cards and made phone calls to the little girl, they even visited during her brief stay in the hospital. Now they have a concrete personal goal toward which they can direct their energy.

“It makes something that might have been just one of thousands of organizations a month ago so real now,” Maayan said. “They know they have a friend for whom they want to find a cure.”

Carol Rubin, director of Jewish life at the school, said that tangibility is the point of the program. It’s important to make children feel as though they are changing the world for the better, a thought appropriate to a time of year which commemorates the successful Maccabean revolt against a powerful Hellenized Syrian army.

“It’s a message of the power of the small to stick to convictions and make a difference,” she said. “We can remember that story by reminding ourselves that the small and the weak can really do great things.”