In this election season, I wake up each morning and check the news, wondering, “What new low moment of discourse have we reached today?” The vitriol is prevalent in so many corners, and the language of fear and hate seems to just create more of the same.
Many of us are wondering what we can do to create positive change — and how we can engage with our children to help them develop a greater sense of mutual respect and deep hearing of “the other,” towards a brighter, more hopeful future.
How can we convey our deepest values to our children in a positive, productive way that enables them to have a real impact? How can we work with our children’s schools to get there?
One way is through a giving circle — or for Jews, a Jewish giving circle. A Jewish giving circle is a group of friends, family, or co-workers who come together to give, motivated by Jewish values, pooling their charitable donations and deciding together where to allocate their money. Jewish giving circles meaningfully engage children, even as young as kindergarten, in values of collaboration and respectful discourse, money and compassion, and Jewish identity and “peoplehood.”
Giving circles are different and unique in that they are eminently customizable — they can be designed to serve the needs of each family or community — and in that they are a tool that every Jewish day school, congregational school, and camp can use.
Nowadays, we hear much talk about teaching our children to be able to see multiple sides of an issue and to discuss respectfully. These values feel all the more important in this election season. A Jewish giving circle is, by definition, a collaborative exercise — the children discuss their values, relate their values to learning about equally worthy issues and non-profit organizations, and then discuss where to donate. Through giving circles, educators can help children, as young as five, to listen to friends’ opinions, respectfully share their opinions, consider various views, and come to a community decision — helping to develop critical skills to use over their lifetimes.
Giving circles are also empowering for children. Kids love participating in adult activities — just see the many children using pretend phones as young as 1 year old. Discussing money and giving isn’t a “dumbed down” activity. Giving circles engage children as equals, and tell participants that their opinions are important in a profound way.
In addition to teaching respectful discourse and empowering children, giving circles can help us in other ways. In many communities, parents are very worried about our children being spoiled and entitled. In The Opposite of Spoiled, New York Times columnist Ron Lieber describes parents asking him “How can I instill good money values in my children?” One tool he suggests is to start a practice of charitable giving. He also acknowledges that for many parents, it’s hard to know how to start these discussions and practices — these parents crave guidance. When our schools and camps create giving circles, it’s an opportunity for family engagement, providing this guidance that parents are seeking.
At a prominent Jewish day school, Schechter Manhattan, in addition to in-school discussions, parents are asked to do a “home activity” with their child — learning together about the non-profits, having values-based conversations about money and compassion, and identifying which organization is of most interest to the child. Here the child is in the driver’s seat, considering what s/he cares about most, whether it be alleviating poverty, helping refugees, caring for the environment, etc. By giving parents a real tool to talk with their children about money and values, schools and camps can help alleviate the anxiety that parents feel about their children’s attitudes towards money.
Specific to the Jewish community, another way that giving circles can teach life lessons to children is around ideas of Jewish identity and peoplehood. The crisis in Jewish engagement that the 2014 Pew Study points to has focused much donor and programmatic energy in the Jewish world on 20- and 30-somethings.
What if we started meaningfully engaging our children in the biggest questions of life through giving circles in elementary school? Jewish giving circles can help in a few ways here. First, when the conversations about giving are grounded in Jewish values and learning, children see a direct connection between Jewish tradition and important issues in the world today. When children (and adults!) see Jewish wisdom as relevant to critical issues in the world today, they’re more likely to want to engage more.
Second — questions about money are some of the most profound ethical, spiritual, and values-based questions of our day. All we have to do is look at the news: discussions of income inequality; investigations into alleged financial improprieties by leaders; Nicholas Kristoff’s discussions of privilege and compassion. By connecting Jewish wisdom with these profound questions, we’re offering our children a framework for navigating our complex world – and providing a positive reason for being part of the Jewish endeavor.
To be sure, elementary and middle school-aged children are young and cannot have discussions as complex as those that high school or college students or adults can have; according to Amplifier and the Jewish Teen Funders Network (JTFN) , there are more than 75 adult Jewish giving circles in the US today, and around 100 teen Jewish giving circles. Yet the values-based conversations that we’ve heard Schechter Manhattan students have at our Tzedakah Roundtable are nuanced, and the children discuss Jewish values, universal values, and their own lives in powerful ways. And this model could easily be tweaked for giving circles of another faith or none at all.
If every Jewish school and camp starting its own Jewish giving circles, just think what a change we could make in the world together — with our new learning about Jewish wisdom and issues of today; with our new connections to each other; with our increased giving. Talk with your school leaders today (and your camp leaders in the fall!) — sharing Schechter Manhattan’s materials is an easy place to start; Amplifer and JTFN also have resources. As this election season calls upon us to create positive change for a hopeful future, it’s a great moment to consider how giving circles create opportunities for lofty, impactful discourse and help transmit our deepest values, from generation to generation.
Julie R. Sissman, an organization and leadership consultant, is active in the Jewish giving circle world, helping to lead Schechter Manhattan’s Tzedakah Roundtable and HEKDESH (a giving circle of alumni of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel), serving as an Amplifier giving circle incubator coach, and participating as a member of the Natan Fund, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of NY, and the Repair the World/Avodah Racial Justice Giving Circle.