Jewish Help for Infertility

Image: The logo of Hasidah, a Jewish organization for support of individuals and couples suffering with infertility. It is a stork carrying a bundle, and the word “Hasidah.”

There’s a trope that repeats again and again in the Jewish Bible: a woman suffers from infertility. Such a women is identified in Hebrew as an akarah, a “childless woman.”

Five women are identified as akarot (plural): Sarah (Genesis 11:30,) Rivka (Genesis 25:21,) Rachel (Genesis 29:31,) Samson’s nameless mother (Judges 13:2,) and Hannah ((1 Samuel 2:5)  The prophet Isaiah even characterizes Zion as a metaphorical akarah (Isaiah 54:1).

The stories follow a pattern: a woman grieves because she has difficulty conceiving, someone offers prayer, and God grants the woman a child. The moral of the story seems simple: God, who is central to fertility, listens to prayer.

For many modern couples, the simplicity of the stories and their solution may feel glib or even like a mockery. About 10 percent of women in the United States ages 15-44 (6.1 million) have difficulty conceiving or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the technology of infertility treatment has made great progress, it is available only at great personal and financial cost. In addition to the physical and financial challenge of infertility, it often raises spiritual and emotional challenges as well.

Hasidah (www.hasidah.org) is a Jewish organization which supports and assists Jewish couples who experience infertility. It does so by connecting people undergoing the grueling process of infertility treatment with resources for spiritual, emotional and financial support. Hasidah also trains Jewish professionals in the pastoral support of infertile couples.

If you or someone you know is suffering from infertility, contact Hasidah. Also, if you wish to support infertility awareness programs, rabbinic training seminars, counseling and spiritual care,  as well as financial assistance for fertility treatment, you can donate to Hasidah – it is an excellent choice for your tzedakah funds.

(Full disclosure: I am a Rabbinic Partner of Hasidah.)

 

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How Can I Give When Money is Tight?

Image: A person pulls their jeans’ pockets out, empty. (shuldnerhilfe/pixabay)

What is the responsibility of the low-income person in giving tzedakah (money contributions for the relief of suffering)? What are the tzedakah requirements for the person who may have income, but whose responsibilities are so numerous that they are “cash-poor”?

Jewish tradition is adamant that the commandment of tzedakah applies to all of us, from the wealthiest Jew to the poorest. For the wealthy, Maimonides prescribes a minimum of 5% of income after taxes with a maximum of 20%. That prescription may seem a mockery for anyone struggling to pay the rent. The Shulchan Aruch, an influential code of Jewish law, is adamant that even the poorest person is required to give something.

What is a low-income person supposed to give, if they have no money? Why require such giving from the poor? What are some strategies for giving when we simply don’t have the cash?

  1. What are the poor required to give? Most sources cite Exodus 30: 12-16, which states that “the poor will not give less than half a shekel.” A biblical shekel is estimated to be $2 or $2.50. The poorest person has fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah if they contribute at least $1 annually to the relief of other sufferers. The recipients  may be relatives of the giver. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 7:13) Those who can give more than that absolute minimum should do so, but not at such a level that their own subsistence is threatened.
  2. Why require such giving from the needy? Our tradition puts a high value on the dignity of every individual. The person who has to receive tzedakah may feel embarrassed at being the recipient of aid, but their dignity is bolstered by the knowledge that they, too, contribute to the support of the poor.
  3. Can a person not contribute instead by volunteering their time? Volunteer work is a different mitzvah: it is gimilut hasidim, deeds of lovingkindness. It cannot substitute for giving tzedakah.

Some strategies for giving when money is tight

I’m speaking here not to “the poorest of the poor” but to the average person who has limited income.

Take stock of the tzedakah one is already giving. If a person is in the habit of “helping out” friends or relatives with the rent or roceries, that’s tzedakah. If a person hands loose change to people on the street, that’s tzedakah. If a person is supporting an adult child or relative with a mental or physical illness, whatever they spend on that is tzedakah. Money one spends on groceries that are cooked into a meal for a needy person is tzedakah.

One may give tzedakah as a gift. If one is a member of any community, there are times when we are expected to give gifts, something that can become quite a burden. Where a gift of a very small amount might be all one can afford, one can give a donation of $5 to a charitable organization in honor of the wedding or the bar mitzvah. The organization does not report the amount given, they just send a card reporting the gift with thanks.

One may make a micro-loan through an organization such as kiva.org. Kiva brokers loans of $25 to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. While the money will be tied up during the period of the loan, it is exactly that: a loan. At the end of the repayment period, one can get the entire $25 back. Kiva loans are not risk free, but they are fairly safe, with a repayment rate of 96.9% or a failure rate of 3.1%. Such loans qualify as tzedakah because they allow the borrower to move from a situation in which they need aid to real independence. (According to Maimonides, this is the highest form of giving.)

Keep a pushke or tzedakah box. Collect small coins over time in a little box, and when it fills up, give the contents to any charitable organization or to a needy person. This little box can be a “penalty box” for sin (e.g. a swear jar)  or a “blessing box” for happy moments.

By the way, our tradition includes all money given for relief of suffering to be tzedakah, whether the recipient is Jewish or not. Giving money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people suffering from injustice or those unjustly imprisoned, is a perfectly acceptable form of tzedakah. It is good to “take care of our own” but the sages also point out that giving that goes beyond the borders of our community promotes peace.

Don’t Forget This Mitzvah before Pesach!

Image: A box for collecting tzedakah funds.

It is a Jewish tradition of long standing to give tzedakah (funds for the relief of suffering and need) before holidays and celebrations. We are approaching one of the greatest holidays of the Jewish year, Passover. In the rush to be ready, don’t forget to give so that the discomforts of others may be less on the holy days.

I’ve been working on a long piece about tzedakah, and as often happens there are texts that I love but cannot use in that particular paper. I thought I’d share them here for your enjoyment and perusal, because darnit, I like them so much!

“What goes around, comes around”:

R. Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to your children.” She exclaimed, “You are cursing them (by suggesting that they may become beggars)! But R. Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.” – Shabbat 151b

About fakers and frauds:

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” – Darkai Chayim (1962). 137

A warning against “compassion fatigue”:

R. Joshua b. Korkha said, “Anyone who shuts his eye against tzedakah is like one who
worships idols.” – Ketubot 68a

Do you have a favorite text about the mitzvah of tzedakah?

 

Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24

This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?

In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…  All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15

Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground.  All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.

Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:

Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood.  – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)

We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person.  It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.

Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds? 

The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.

For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.

One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society,  To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.

 

A Request from My Heart

Image: The Introduction to Judaism class of 2015 lights Chanukah candles together.

Dear Readers,

Would you consider joining me in making a year-end donation to Lehrhaus Judaica?

 

I am a deep believer in Lehrhaus Judaica and its mission: the empowerment of adults to pursue their Jewish passions. I believe childhood Jewish education is important, but part of that education is for Jewish kids to have educated and engaged parents, teachers, grandparents, aunties, and uncles. 

Lehrhaus Judaica is dear to my heart. It equipped me for Jewish life. Every term I meet dozens of adults who are learning through Lehrhaus, and who carry their new energy from learning back to their synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Some are new to Jewish learning, like my Intro students, and others are building upon their educations, learning topics as diverse as challah-baking, Yiddish, Mussar and Talmud study. Lehrhaus offers programs on interfaith issues and on the arts.

It’s easy to donate: just follow this link. Tell the folks in the office that I put you up to it in the little box where you can type an “optional note.” When they notify me, I will write you a handwritten note with my sincere thanks.

To quote the website:

Lehrhaus Judaica is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All donations are tax deductible. As an independent non-profit organization, Lehrhaus relies on contributions from our students and the community to help underwrite the hundreds of courses, workshops, and lectures that we present each year. Tuition income and grants offset only part of the cost of running our school; in recent years, donations from individuals have represented up to one-third of annual budget. This year, in this difficult economic climate, we must depend on your support more than ever before.

Please consider giving. No gift is too small. Every small gift will multiply by empowering the present and the future leaders in Jewish communities. Thank you for reading.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

“Giving Tuesday” – A Jewish Perspective

Image: An alarm clock, next to stacked coins. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

This is an update on a post from years past, but the message is evergreen.

“Giving Tuesday:” It’s a new tradition, started recently, and while I am glad that people are giving charity, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We have the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedekbefore every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone with financial security, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat arrives  every Friday night. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.

Three Ways To Help Puerto Rico

Image: A man rides his bicycle through a storm-damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico (Richard Arduengo/AFP/Getty)

The news from Puerto Rico is horrible – a week after Hurricane Maria, the people lack water, food, gas, and power. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Julín Cruz, appeared today on mainland TV, begging for water and frankly furious at the tangle of bureaucracy.

Many of us watch the news and say, “What can I do?”

Here are some ideas:

  1. CALL your Representative and your Senators in Washington, and ask for a temporary suspension of the Jones Act, officially called the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. According to the New York Times: “Section 27 of this law decreed that only American ships could carry goods and passengers from one United States port to another. In addition, every ship must be built, crewed and owned by American citizens.” In other words, it’s snarling things up for no pressing reason. This will help not only Puerto Rico but also the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  2. SEND CASH to any of several organizations who are organized to help, including:
    1. United for Puerto Rico (organized by the first lady of Puerto Rico)
    2. One America Appeal (organized by the living ex-POTUSes)
    3. Catholic Relief Services
    4. Hispanic Federations “Unidos” Page
    5. ISRAid via Global Giving
    6. Direct Relief (accepts PayPal)
    7. Charity Navigator is a good way to check out charities. They also offer a page of organizations working to assist victims of Hurricane Maria. They also offer a page on charities providing aid to those affected by the earthquakes in Mexico.
  3. VOLUNTEER
    1. Help spread the word about the Jones Act and about places to send cash.
    2. Once things are stabilized on the islands, they will need volunteers for cleanup and rebuilding. The place to follow for that information is Puerto Rico Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD).

Jews traditionally give tzedakah before festivals and holy days. This year the needs are enormous. Let us hope and pray that 5778 will see no more such disasters!