Smart Chesed: Four Ways Anyone Can Make a Difference

One idea that meaningfully encapsulated the experience of 2020 for me was shared by my friend Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin (@dbashideas) in the week leading up to Parashas Noach. He tweeted: “Opening of Parshas Noah mentions his name 3 times because there were 3 Noahs: (1) Noah before the flood (2) Noah during the flood (3) Noah after the flood. (Midrash Tanchuma 5:1.) Feels like we’re all in a similar moment now. Praying that we will all merit to see our 3rd self.”  We are all living through a period now that will necessarily change us. The only question is what we are going to look like on the other side.

As our community and society at large look past a difficult year and begin to focus on the future, we are faced with a new reality. The months and years ahead of us, however, contain hope and promise when it comes to the opportunity to effect change and have a positive impact on everyone around us.

One of the silver linings from the tragic events of this past year has been our redefinition of the word “hero.” The world seems to have, temporarily at least, traded the capes of superheroes and the jerseys of overpaid athletes for the scrubs of doctors and nurses and the everyday heroism of educators teaching from home with their own families to care for, and the heroism of parents trying to work full-time jobs at home while managing their children’s schooling. There were heroes who looked after their neighbors and heroes who looked after their communities. These included sanitation workers who risked their health to keep our cities clean and nameless epidemiologists who worked on vaccines. As we consider what we are going to take with us from this year and what our third “post-Covid selves” will look like, perhaps we can take inspiration from the extraordinary acts of kindness performed by the ordinary people around us.

If you are looking to involve yourself in chesed, there are myriad ways to do so, including engaging in acts of kindness and volunteering for your local day school or communal organizations. I’d like to lay out a few basic ideas to sketch a blueprint for chesed that does not require a significant amount of money and can help anyone make a difference.

Rule No. 1: Don’t recreate the wheel. Leverage existing organizational infrastructure.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish organizations have come up with effective ways to tackle social issues, from unemployment to mental health issues. Many of these organizations are based in specific areas, however, oftentimes those directing these organizations would be more than happy to help others implement the service or program they offer in their own communities. For example, over the past few years, the Baltimore community has leveraged the incredible work of organizations like EPI (job placement and interest-free loans to business startups), Mesila (personal financial education), Relief Resources (mental health referrals), Bobbie’s Place (clothing distribution), World of Giving (household goods distribution) and others by opening Baltimore-specific branches. These are all organizations that have worked out the kinks in their concepts over the years. By leveraging existing practices and systems and partnering with these and similar organizations, other Jewish communities can stand on the shoulders of their incredible work and save large sums of money.

Rule No. 2: Focus on Sustainability

A very meaningful concept in the larger nonprofit world is sustainability, that is, creating organizations that are self-sufficient and do not rely exclusively on raising money to fund their operations (see Building Social Business [New York, 2010] and A World of Three Zeros [New York, 2017], both authored by Muhammad Yunus). The best way to have an impact that will be long-lasting and far-reaching is if it can be done in a sustainable manner. Nonprofit organizations that rely on raising a dollar to give away a dollar, while sometimes necessary, are limited by how much money they can raise. Conversely, there is literally no limit to the impact that can be achieved by creating or contributing to charities (or “social businesses”) that provide value to the needy and are also self-sustaining.

A good example of a self-sustaining charity is an interest-free loan fund. An outstanding model of such a fund is EPI (mentioned above), a business loan fund based in Lakewood, New Jersey that has given interest-free loans of $25,000 to $50,000 to over 600 businesses in the tristate area. A smaller fund was started in Baltimore (in conjunction with EPI) with a $100,000 grant from a local ba’al chesed that has been turned over more than five times and has helped close to twenty local Jewish businesses get off the ground or expand their operations.

The $25,000 loans disbursed in Baltimore helped people like J. expand his K9 bedbug detection business. Starting with a single dog and one truck, he now has an employee and four dogs, enabling him to take on customers all over the state. It also helped Shmuel and Malka build a small family therapy practice into a state-of-the-art practice with a 6,000-square-foot facility and employees and contracts in multiple states. When these types of businesses become successful, wealth is created, which circulates back into the community and helps employ local individuals.

Another sustainable enterprise is the New Jersey–based The Jewish Entrepreneur (TJE), an organization created to aggregate successful businesspeople who can mentor those looking to start or grow their businesses. The positive effect of mentoring is evident in Bracha’s story. Bracha started an e-commerce children’s accessories business to help support her family and was seeking mentorship in a number of areas to increase her revenue. TJE provided her with three different mentors: one for sales to big-box stores, one for e-commerce and one for financial management. With her mentors’ help, Bracha’s business grew to an average of $1.5 million in annual revenue. She was so taken by the process that she herself now serves as a mentor in e-commerce and Amazon sales in addition to helping budding entrepreneurs with overseas manufacturing issues. In the five years since its inception, TJE has, on a modest budget, matched over 1,500 early-stage entrepreneurs with 300 successful business people for mentorship. This has facilitated tens of millions of dollars in increased revenue for these businesses, and by extension, this is money that makes its way back into our community.

With creative thinking and the backing of visionary leadership, each community can tilt the balance toward sustainability and thus create far-reaching and long-lasting impact.

Rule No. 3: Get the maximum value out of every dollar.

If an organization cannot be completely self-sustaining, the next best thing is to find innovative ways to get the best return on the tzedakah dollar. One of my favorite organizations in this regard is Bobbie’s Place, a clothing “store” in Brooklyn, which you would assume, if you didn’t know any better, is just a regular storefront. Started by Michal and Avi Schick of Brooklyn to provide beautiful Shabbos and yom tov clothing in a dignified way to struggling families, the store is open twice a year during the yom tov season. Serving more than 9,500 children and teens each year, with distribution operations in Brooklyn, Monsey, Queens, Passaic and Baltimore, Bobbie’s Place provides 90,000 articles of clothing—including coats, jackets, skirts, shirts, dresses, suits, pants, gloves, pajamas and more to those in need.

By leveraging their relationship with clothing manufacturers, the Schicks purchase first-line, trendy clothing at significantly discounted prices, and in some cases at cost price, from clothing manufacturers. “We have no paid employees and almost no overhead,” says Avi Schick. “That means that more than ninety-seven cents of every dollar contributed is used to purchase clothing. And because we work with manufacturers who appreciate and support our mission, the discounts we receive mean that a family in need gets four dollars’ worth of clothing for every dollar that we spend.”

(Incidentally, Bobbie’s Place is also a perfect example of an organization that can be leveraged by other communities; the Schicks have been working with the Baltimore community for close to ten years to provide tens of thousands of articles of clothing to those in need).

Rule No. 4: Use technology to achieve scale.

As technology advances and becomes more ubiquitous, it is easier to use with minimal expense for the benefit of large groups of people. What is helping to supercharge this phenomenon is that, as part of our new post-Covid reality, people are willing to both work and accept services remotely. This enables individuals and organizations to harness the power of technology to dramatically expand their reach.

In July of this year, a group of dedicated, communal-minded individuals launched “Klal Ventures,” an organization seeking to assist people with interesting ideas for scalable chesed ventures and to help fund, build and roll out such ventures. The following are a few of the inspirational individuals who applied for assistance:

The $25,000 loan . . . helped Shmuel and Malka build a small family therapy practice into a state-of-the-art practice with a 6,000-square-foot facility and employees and contracts in multiple states.

Leah Solomon, a fourteen-year-old who lives in the Five Towns in New York, conceived of a platform that would match high school girls willing to tutor younger girls in their own school or in schools across the country as a chesed. Leah was inspired to start the program after seeing the difference she was able to make in tutoring an elementary school child in her neighborhood. The tutoring would provide young students with the ability to review schoolwork, study for tests, build meaningful relationships with appropriate older mentor-figures and develop their self-confidence. At the same time, mentors will get the opportunity to develop their skills and create lasting relationships. Klal Ventures is currently helping Leah build the technology, while her venture, called “After the School Bell,” is recruiting pilot schools. There is a lot of excitement about the platform’s potential.

Ned Schoenfeld and a group of lay leaders in the New York area are creating Parnassah Exchange, an initiative that will use a sophisticated technology to match job seekers and companies across the country looking for talent and gig work. Additionally, Parnassah Exchange will collaborate with the various job assistance organizations around the country.

A group of women with PhDs in data science are volunteering to train other women in the field (mostly young women whose husbands are learning in kollel in Israel). Led by Dina Yankelewitz, these women have also launched their own agency providing remote data and AI services to major corporations around the world, enabling them to hire their own trainees and offer incredibly well-paying positions.

These are just three examples of entrepreneurial-minded individuals who are creating valuable, scalable technological platforms that will provide significant benefit to their communities with relatively minimal non-recoverable, long-term costs. Hopefully, they represent a new generation of innovative and inspiring chesed leaders. The organizations discussed in this article are just a small sampling of an exceptional chesed infrastructure that exists in our community, and the principles laid out are by no means exhaustive. It goes without saying that while our community has been successful by many metrics in helping ease the burdens and challenges facing individuals and families, there is still a long way to go. Hopefully, this article will help spark discussion and encourage people to consider the things they are passionate about so that they can find ways to innovate and give back, improving life for our friends, our neighbors and our community as a whole.

Zevy (Isaac) Wolman lives with his family in Baltimore. He is involved in various communal organizations and runs a toy company in his spare time.

 

Never Underestimate Your Own Power 

“Too many people don’t realize how profound their actions are. If I had one message for aspiring communal leaders, it would be this: Never underestimate the power of one. The impact that one human being can make in the world has reverberations and ripple effects that are simply impossible to gauge.”

By Manette Mayberg, as told to Leah Lightman. Manette is a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation, which invests in Jewish education and engagement initiatives. She founded the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge, catalyzing radical improvement in Jewish day schools, and MyZuzah, bringing kosher, fair trade mezuzot to under-affiliated Jews worldwide. She is also a national vice president of the OU.

Leah Lightman is a writer who lives with her family in Lawrence, New York.

 

Aim High

“We shouldn’t limit ourselves. God runs the world and can make anything happen. So why shouldn’t one aim high, for the greatest outcome one could possibly imagine? Potential is limitless, and therefore results are limitless. Things go beyond nature all the time; we just have to recognize them. I have learned that nothing is impossible.” 

 – Manette Mayberg 

 

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This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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