One of Ilana Prager’s earliest memories is helping her parents stuff envelopes to assist Soviet Jewry. Although her parents were very active in their local Jewish community in St. Paul, Minnesota, their commitment to the needs of the Jewish community—locally and globally—didn’t necessarily stand out to her at the time. She explains that, as in most smaller Jewish communities, “people were very invested and contributed however they could.” Now, Ilana and her husband David are raising their family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a far cry from her small-town Midwestern roots, but they are working hard to pass on to their children that same willingness to give of themselves for their fellow Jews.
The media often harps on the fact that today’s young people—known as “Gen Z”—are part of the “I” generation, raised on iPhones and accustomed to immediate gratification. At the same time, studies have shown that young people care deeply about social issues and want to make a difference. These complexities have many parents and educators in the Orthodox world grappling with the question of whether we can successfully raise this generation of children to be givers, in every sense of the word.
Prager often discusses with her children, who range in age from seven to thirteen, the “three T’s of philanthropy”: giving of your time, talent and treasure. “We tell our kids that all ways of giving are necessary, appreciated and encouraged,” she says.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Pragers’ home was open to guests of all stripes. Both Ilana and David are active lay leaders: she is involved in JInspire Manhattan, which connects Jewish moms to Israel and their Jewish heritage, and co-chairs the Upper West Side Mikvah; he is treasurer of the Board of Directors of Manhattan Day School. “I love the work,” Ilana says, “and I love that I am simultaneously giving my kids a powerful message through my involvement.”
In fact, being generous with time or resources is the best way to inspire children to be givers, according to Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg. She and her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, run the Lakewood, New Jersey, branch of Olam Chesed, an organization that sources surplus goods from manufacturers and distributes them to people in need. “Giving isn’t taught, it’s caught,” says Rebbetzin Hochberg, who served as rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York, for thirty years. “What you see becomes your normal.”
Until their retirement in 2019, the Hochbergs worked to create in their shul what Rebbetzin Hochberg calls “a culture of giving.” The shul ran numerous projects for worthwile causes, such as a yearly clothing sale that donated thousands of articles of clothing to poor communities in Israel and a 5K walk/run for Israel that raised approximately $75,000 annually for the past eighteen years. Rebbetzin Hochberg especially enjoyed the shul’s monthly “Mitzvah Mornings.” Children would come with parents or grandparents to work together on a project for a particular cause—which ranged from making jewelry for Jewish children in Uganda to preparing lunch for a local group home. “To me, this was one of the highlights of our thirty years in Jamaica Estates,” she says. “At first, the kids wanted to take home what they made. But after a few times, they got it. They would come in and ask, ‘Who are we helping today?’ I was so proud of them! But more importantly, the children were so proud of themselves. They were learning the joy of making something to help someone else.”
Indeed, nothing seems to have more of an impact on children than engaging in hands-on chesed or seeing their parents do just that. Adina, a philanthropist from the New York area, recalls that when a meshulach (collector of charity) would come to her home when her kids were young, she would make sure they would come greet the individual (even if they were in pajamas!). “We wanted our children to see how we gave our visitor a check but also that we served him some food and a drink.”
Additionally, she adds, that whenever her children would receive a monetary gift, she and her husband would discuss with them how to allocate 10 percent of their gift to a cause, fulfilling their ma’aser obligation.
Adina also believes it’s important to give children a sense of the familial connection to chesed. She would tell her children about the role her parents played in being pillars of their community and having a hand in establishing many of the local shuls. “My mother used to send her cleaning help to vacuum the shul,” she says. These stories helped connect her children to the ideal of working for the klal.
Modeling the Way
Pace and Aileen Cooper are another couple who feel privileged to work on behalf of the community. And they feel their children are well prepared to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. “We’re not necessarily talking to our children about why it’s important to give, we’re passing along the modeling we received,” explains Pace. “Aileen and I both saw our parents leading causes they were passionate about and building up their respective Orthodox communities.”
Pace Cooper is a member of the OU Board of Governors. Among other causes, he and Aileen are strong supporters of their shul and day school in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis’s Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys bears their family name. The Coopers’ four sons are in their twenties (two are married), and their twin daughters are in high school. All of them took on various leadership roles as teens. “We have to train kids to be lifelong givers,” Cooper says. “If we don’t start when children are young, they won’t have an entry point that feels natural as adults with their own families.”
Cooper is gratified to see that each of his children has taken on communal responsibility as they’ve left home. “Our boys are in college and are involved in the Orthodox communities on campus,” he says proudly. “They’re leading minyanim or serving on boards of student groups.”
Although all his children participated in a local teen philanthropy program, Cooper’s focus is clearly on encouraging them to roll up their sleeves and work on behalf of institutions they care about. “Giving is nice,” he says. “Giving and nurturing is even nicer. Giving money without having a hands-on relationship loses a lot of the meaningfulness.”
Similarly, Prager stresses to her children the “doing” more than the “giving,” and she tries to highlight the balance between the two. “We talk about how crucial financial support is and, practically, how money is used by an organization,” she says. “For example, they understand that Hatzalah cannot answer calls if there’s no gas in the ambulance. During the month of Elul in particular, we talk with the kids about local agencies and what they do, and then decide together where to give. But right now we’re talking more to our kids about giving our time and energy and less about our checkbook.”
Cooper points out that while parents can raise children with the know-how and willingness to give of their resources, their efforts still may not provide the Orthodox community with the next generation of philanthropists. “We’re definitely raising children who have Torah values and leadership skills,” he says. “These are impressive and capable young people. However, I worry that the pressures of raising large families and ‘doing it all’ is much harder today than it was thirty to forty years ago. The opportunity to hit it out of the park in business is more limited. The cost of Orthodox living is higher, and there’s almost a cap on earning potential. It makes it harder for people to have the breathing room to give their time to important causes and to have adequate means to contribute financially.”
Beyond the Home
Schools and youth programs often provide opportunities for children to learn the values of chesed and tzedakah, in addition to what they see at home. “Kids can be taught to be givers,” says Erin Stiebel, director of NCSY GIVE, a five-week summer program based in Israel for high school–age girls, “but it’s not going to happen within the four walls of a classroom. It’s hands-on learning.” Participants on GIVE—Girls Israel Volunteer Experience—spend the summer doing chesed projects throughout the country, including serving food in soup kitchens, running camps for children with disabilities and volunteering as medical clowns.
Stiebel, who lives in Detroit and has been the director of GIVE since 2009, says girls from a variety of backgrounds join the program. Some are passionate about social action prior to the trip. Many, she says, “come from families heavily involved in chesed in their communities. But there are also girls who have experienced chesed in their own lives.” No matter where they come from, “by the end of the program, they understand that they are part of an amazing community where everyone takes care of each other,” says Stiebel.
“We tell them that Hashem gives us each a unique toolbox we can use to be a valued, important member of Klal Yisrael,” says Stiebel. She emphasizes the advantage of this message for teens who spend most of the year in the academic environment of school. “Not everyone is cut out for classroom learning. Here we have opportunities for every girl to find her place and shine.”
Instilling in children the desire to do more for others is the key to helping them become givers. “Most people do not maximize what they could do for others,” says Daniel Rothner, founder of Areyvut, an organization dedicated to inspiring young people to become thoughtful, giving members of the Jewish community. While some people may be limited by funds, “they can always increase the amount of chesed they perform,” he says. “Chesed and tzedakah overlap—the terms are often used interchangeably—but they are different. Kids need to be trained in both.”
Areyvut collaborates with educators and organizations to offer programs that teach children the values of chesed, tzedakah and social action. Rothner, who lives in New Jersey with his family, offers curricula and workshops to both formal and informal educators as well as acts as a “matchmaker,” helping individuals or groups find meaningful volunteer opportunities. For example, Areyvut often helps connect bar or bat mitzvah celebrants with a project that resonates with each family. These projects can range from fixing up the house of a family that is struggling financially to hosting the celebration in a nursing home (prior to the pandemic) and having guests visit with the residents. More commonly, guests at the celebration work on a craft or baking project that is then donated to local or Israel-based agencies. The “mitzvah project” has become a standard component of children’s celebrations in many Jewish communities across the country.
“We see a range of projects kids are doing for bar or bat mitzvahs,” says Prager, who notes that a hands-on mitzvah project for her son’s bar mitzvah this year is one of the things he missed out on due to precautions during the pandemic. “Though it can sometimes feel obligatory, I think institutionalizing the idea sends an important message to kids. They learn that no simchah is complete without thinking of other Jews, and it leaves the door open to kids becoming involved in this way as they grow up.”
Rothner does, however, note that mitzvah projects and one-off volunteer sessions may not be able to accomplish the intended goal. “A yearly ‘chesed day’ won’t teach a child to be kind. Acts of chesed should be deliberate and daily.”
Unfortunately, daily efforts to be kind don’t come with the fanfare that teens get when they organize a successful fundraiser or when they travel to help rebuild locales struck by natural disasters. “Big things get press,” says Dr. Oshra Cohen, a guidance counselor at a girls’ high school in the New York area and a psychologist in private practice. “Big projects are written up in the papers. But the kid who gave her notes to an unpopular classmate isn’t making it into any newspaper, though that act of kindness is so fundamental. That child is truly becoming a giver.”
School chesed programs are wonderful, says Cohen, but they may not be enough when it comes to teaching kids to be generous with their time and resources. “The question boils down to intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation,” she explains. “Making a child volunteer won’t make the child kind. That’s why we see children who are involved in beautiful chesed projects but unfortunately treat a classmate poorly.”
Of course, there is value to the efforts, Cohen stresses. “We believe in the model of ‘mitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah’ [roughly translated as ‘although not acting for proper reasons, they would eventually act properly for the right reasons’].” However, we should also spend time teaching kindness skills and practicing them. “We often don’t teach empathy in schools,” Cohen adds. “In fact, we generally don’t focus enough on social-emotional skills. We may want to teach kindness skills; we may even think we teach them. But we’re not there yet.” For example, she says, “Kids are told ‘don’t be mean,’ but we often aren’t explicit enough about what it looks like to be kind. Teachers have many academic and behavioral responsibilities and may not sit down with their students and say, ‘In this class, if we see someone being bullied, this is what we do . . .” Cohen also suggests that curricula can be adjusted to teach teens empathy. “Chumash is full of opportunities to have meaningful discussions,” she says. “Let’s talk about how hard it was for Avraham at the akeidah. How must it have felt to be in those circumstances?”
Rothner says many of his programs at Areyvut start with teaching empathy. For example, kids could run a drive for a local food bank, “but when they participate in a workshop about hunger, they’ll have a completely different response,” he explains. “They start to see a bigger picture—they understand the needs of the recipients.”
Rothner also points out that schools and youth groups can use their chesed programs as a way of leveling the playing field for teens. “Often, it’s the natural leaders who are leading the chesed projects,” he says. “The other kids aren’t being tapped or asked. But here’s one area where it’s not about the money you have or the ‘cool factor.’ Chesed projects can use everyone’s strengths, talents and interests.”
This final point is key for Prager. “We stress that you can give in lots of different ways and all of them are important,” she says. “It’s fun for the kids to see David and me use our very different skills to contribute to organizations we’re each passionate about.
“I don’t know what the future holds for my children in terms of their financial realities,” she adds, “but the message we are trying to convey is that community involvement and taking responsibility for fellow Jews is critical, no matter which way it’s done.”
Rachel Schwartzberg works as a writer and editor and lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.
How to Raise Children to Be Givers
Model giving behavior. “When parents make community responsibility a priority, kids see this is a value of their family,” says Erin Stiebel, director of NCSY GIVE. Rebbetzin Karen Hochberg adds, “Values are what seeps in, not what kids are told.”
Engage in acts of kindness and tzedakah with simchah. “It’s the same with all of the mitzvot,” says Adina, a philanthropist who lives in the New York area. “If they see and hear their parents being involved with the kehillah with simchah, this will stay with them. Kids learn by seeing the joy their parents take in helping others and being taught . . . that our lives are so much more meaningful if we think beyond ourselves and help our fellow Jews.”
Talk about your values. “People do tons of chesed,” says Daniel Rothner, director of Areyvut, which develops innovative programs for teens. “They’re involved in bikkur cholim, they’re leaving the house to do a taharah, to go to board meetings. But do they explain to their children why they choose to spend their time this way?” Articulate why these activities are important to you.
“Be the best version of yourself,” says Stiebel. “That’s the root of chesed.” Psychologist Dr. Oshra Cohen adds that parents should realize that teens are always watching your interactions with others. “When adults are not being kind to each other,” she says, “adolescents will notice and model the behavior.”
Highlight to your children positive behavior you see others doing. “If you see something, say something,” says Rothner. “That’s a powerful way to show what you care about.”
Start when your kids are young. “You can show little kids they have ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to tzedakah, and it’s not just something to sing songs about,” says Rothner. “For example, when children receive money, teach them to divide it up and give 10 percent to tzedakah. When they grow up and get a bar mitzvah gift, or their first job, they’ll have a paradigm to follow.” But, he says, if you haven’t yet started discussing these topics with your kids, it’s never too late to start.