Jewish Journal


October 16, 2003

Tzedakah-Giving On A Budget


Last year, Malka Nutkiewicz and her friend, both students at Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks, raised more than $1,000 for Camp Simcha, a kosher summer camp for youngsters with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses in Glen Spey, N.Y. During the 2002-2003 school year, the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls at Emek raised more than $25,000 for their pet cause. Because of Nutkiewicz's passion for the charity, which is a flagship program of Chai Lifeline -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Jewish children with serious illnesses -- Nutkiewicz was selected to co-chair the campaign this year.

"I feel like I'm doing something very, very good," said the 13-year-old North Hollywood resident, whose regular donors include her parents, family friends, other relatives, people in the community and, of course, herself. "I can relate to the girls and boys [at Camp Simcha] because some of them are my age."

As day school students around Los Angeles learn the value of tzedakah, many families struggle to teach their children the mitzvah while facing their own challenges of making ends meet. With 40 percent of Southland day school students on scholarship, not everyone can afford to contribute large sums of money to charities and pay the high price of school tuition. Many scholarship families are comfortable with the task of giving what they can, but others have mixed feelings about school tzedakah projects.

A parent at Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles, who asked not to be named, said that the school's ongoing charity projects last year made her cynical.

"There was always a new cause. They'd bring the students into the beit midrash and talk up [the project] so the kids would run home and ask their parents for money," said the single mother, whose child attended the school on scholarship.

Some of last year's causes at Maimonides included raising funds for Pups for Peace (a group that trains bomb-sniffing dogs to track potential suicide bombers), purchasing motorcycles for ZAKA (the rescue and recovery organization in Israel), planting trees in Israel for Ilan Chai (a project in memory of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon) and raising money for a family in Israel whose mother was killed in a terrorist attack.

"The beauty [of these projects] is that they connect the kids with the state of Israel," said Rabbi Karmi Gross, the principal of Maimonides Academy. "It gives the kids a feeling that they've done something." In addition, Gross said the projects are usually generated and driven by parents. In fact, the president of the PTA serves as the tzedakah point person.

While the struggling Maimonides Academy parent contributed a small sum of money to many of the causes last year, the volume of projects and the large sums of money collected made her suspicious.

"Who monitors where all this money really goes?" she asked.

Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education has not seen corruption in the area schools collecting tzedakah money.

"My own experience with schools is that they make regular accounting to their parent bodies by saying 'we raised this much' and then they write a check to the charity," Graff said.

On the other hand, many local scholarship families report positive experiences. "It's never been a problem," said Joshua Grenrock, whose daughter Hayley attends the Ronald and Trana Labowe Family Day School at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on scholarship. His son graduated from the school last year. Grenrock said he doesn't believe his children even have an awareness that their family can't afford to donate as much as other families.

"It's done so tastefully and discreetly at Adat Ari El that no one knows what anyone else is giving and my kids have never been made to feel like they are any less because they can't give as much," he said.

Lana Marcus, the head of school at Adat Ari El, agrees that the anonymity of individual donations make the tzedakah process comfortable for everyone. "We have a lot of kids on scholarship and there's no awkwardness [in regard to donations]," the administrator said. The school raises money for a number of organizations, which are determined by the student council. Some of last year's projects included raising money for Pups for Peace and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

At Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA), students make their contributions through both fundraising and nonmonetary volunteer work. Many students perform community service by visiting retirement homes, volunteering for the Etta Israel Center and delivering Shabbat meals for families in need through Tomchei Shabbos.

In the meantime, many Jewish children in the Southland are enjoying learning to give to those in need.

Hayley Grenrock, 8, said that her favorite charity project was Pups for Peace.

"Everyone brought in tzedakah for about a month and at the end of the month, a guy [from the organization] came in with a dog and showed us tricks that the dog could do," the third-grader remembered. "It made me feel happy. It was nice to know that I could help them."

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