JNF is about giving
October 11, 2019
In many ways, Judaism is a religion with a moral compass built in. After attending Hebrew School for six years as a student, and five subsequent years assisting as a madricha (Hebrew transliteration for youth leader), I've realized that there's a common theme that surrounds my religion: Judaism is about giving.
Growing up, our Hebrew School classes began with a Tzedakah box. I remember it very clearly as being blue and green with the state of Israel prominently featured on the front. As students, we'd often shake it, trying to see how much was inside by listening to the clang of the money against its tin walls. Every week, we were instructed to bring in a few coins or dollar bills to slip through the slit of the box, and later, we'd sing a song to explain why we weren't saving the cash for ourselves: "Tzedakah, Tzedakah, we do what we can / To help other people and our fellow man / With quarters and nickels and dimes-pennies too! / Tzedakah, Tzedakah it's the best we can do."
Of course, as a kid, I didn't exactly grasp the concept. Why would we donate the little money that our parents gave us? What was the point of keeping it in that tin can? Where did we even get that tin can? It's taken me until this fall to realize it, but two weekends ago, I finally learned about the origins of the Tzedakah box.
On Friday, Sept. 13, my Hillel delegation from Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, left for the Jewish National Fund conference. During our time in Washington, D.C., we were able to not only attend sessions led by prominent Jews in their fields, but connect with other Jewish college students from around the country. I had the chance to reconnect with someone I had met the year prior from Ohio State, and listen to the New York Times opinion writer Matti Friedman speak with verve about how the framing of journalistic stories 100 percent affects the way we view certain events, specifically the Israel/Palestine conflict.
My greatest revelation at the conference occurred at one of the opening plenaries. A speaker revealed that the source of the Tzedakah boxes was JNF! As someone who has referred to herself as Jew-ish, feeling connected culturally, but not always in a religious sense, I was surprised at this, specifically that it seemed there was a reason the song we sang at Hebrew School has stuck with me for so many years. I can still recite the song without hesitation, even though I haven't heard it since I was 17, and that made me realize that it's not just Judaism that is about giving, it's JNF, too.
I figured out that subconsciously, it was JNF that led me to go on Project Tikvah, a community service trip that I took to Charleston in 2016 to volunteer at food banks and help provide assistance to people whose homes were ruined in a mass flooding the year prior. And although I've never been very religious, it is the Jewish values that I've acquired and the experiences I've had like Project Tikvah that inspire me to do better. I truly believe in the power of the messages that tikkun olam and tzedakah promote, and even if I do not pursue a career that directly ties into Judaism, I want to impact people's lives like JNF was able to impact mine.
Ruby Rosenthal is the Stetson Hillel vice president of Communications.