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Heeding call to help the poor


WITH the coming of the season of good will and gift giving to loved ones and to those in need, it is interesting to note the remarkable record of the Jewish community of Baltimore.

The Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore recently announced that its campaign goal for 1999 is $26 million and that the 1998 campaign produced $25,472,000, an average contribution of $1,700 per contributor -- the largest average of any major city in the United States.

In addition, a comparable amount was contributed by Jews to non-Jewish institutions: hospitals, museums, concert halls and other humanitarian, cultural and civic endeavors that benefit the entire population, according to sources in the local philanthropic community.

That's a long way from the pushke, the small box or tin can that was found in the kitchen of Jewish homes early in this century. The pushke played an important role in my childhood. When my grandmother visited and gave me the generous gift of a nickel, I was in the habit of squandering it on five Tootsie Rolls.

My parents would persuade meto put one cent from the five into the pushke. I did and got so much praise and satisfaction that I later extended the contribution to two, then three, then four cents out of the five for the needy beneficiaries in American ghettoes, European shtetls and in Jerusalem.

Every Friday, before the Sabbath, a man in a long coat and black hat came and picked up the pushke and replaced it with another one. That was the introduction of many Jewish children to the tradition of generosity, known in Hebrew as tzedakah.

Many Jews feel that it's important to obey the commandment to help the needy.

This is underscored by the many Jewish foundations in Baltimore, including the Weinberg Foundation, a nonprofit agency with $1.2 billion in holdings, and others that bear such names as Goldseker, Blaustein, Meyerhoff, Hoffberger, Kreiger, Pearlstone, Strauss, Rosenbloom and Feinberg. In addition, there are thousands of individual Jewish contributors like the late Sidney M. Friedberg, head of the Fairlanes Bowling Centers, who in 1981 contributed $1 million dollars to the Peabody Conservatory.

These generous Jewish philanthropists have been moved by the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah to "Care for the city in which you live for in its welfare is your own."

The main motivation for such exceptional generosity is the ancient Jewish tradition of tzedakah, which is not the same as charity. Charity is derived from the Latin word, "caritas," suggesting mercy and loving kindness, expressed in Hebrew as "rachmonos."

Tzedakah is a biblical injunction to do justly -- not merely an expression of good will, but an obligation owed to the less fortunate, who have a right to a decent life. It is not only our good intention, but also our responsibility to provide necessities for each poor person to help maintain his self-respect. This is in line with the basic Jewish concept of Tikun Olam, striving to improve the world a little.

The pushke helped to dispel the ever-haunting fear of the poor house that was the refuge of last resort before there were many large charities or public welfare and food stamp programs. In short, tzedakah is not sympathy, but empathy. It grows out of the long Jewish history of suffering and deprivation and from the constant awareness that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Jack L. Levin writes from Pikesville.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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