Ki Tissa – Building Community

Last Sunday morning our synagogue was buzzing. The social hall was filled with booths put up by each classroom in our Religious School.  Just imagine about 170 children, with parents in attendance collecting money for various causes.  At the booth put up by our Pre-K and Kindergarten class they were collecting for a North Shore charity called The Ark. Grade 1 was collecting for Israel Guide Dogs; Grade 2 for the PJ Library. Grade three was collecting for American Friends of Magen David Adom – the Israel Branch of the Red Cross. Grade 4 had a booth for the Make a Wish Foundation. Grade 5 was soliciting for the Ronald McDonald House; Grade 6 for the Lend a Hand Foundation. Grade 7’s cause was Chai Lifeline; Grade 8 was supporting Saint Baldrick and Grade 9 for Save a Child’s Heart. This was our annual Tsedaka Fair. As I walked in to the social hall, contributions in hand, I was immediately greeted by a first grader wearing a plastic snout of a dog. Then I saw that everybody, including the teacher, was wearing a rubber dog’s nose at the Israel Guide Dog booth. Each class had researched the charity for which they were collecting and made a sign illustrating the organization. They also had literature out on the table of the booth to inform contributors about the charity. But most impressive was the “elevator pitch” that each class wrote to describe the charity for which they were collecting. A first grader at the Israel Guide Dog booth had memorized her pitch, and did not need to be asked twice to deliver it. As I went around the room, each booth had one or two students designated to deliver the pitch.  In all the school raised almost $1200 to distribute to the various charities. More important, our students learned a great deal about the mitzvah of tsedaka, of giving.

One thing they learned was how small contributions add up! Our parasha of the week, Ki Tissa, opens with Moses asking each Israelite in the camp to contribute a half shekel to the building of the Mishkan. As you recall, the Mishkan is the portable sanctuary that will be the abode of G-d’s presence in the Israelite camp as they travel to the Promised Land. The wealthy are not to give more and the poor are not to give less than this half shekel. It is clear that in raising money for the building of the Mishkan, what was most important was not how much was raised, but how many people participated. Asking for a small amount of money insured that everyone would feel a part of the building of the Tabernacle, that everyone would have an investment in achieving the national goal of providing a “home”, as it were, for G-d.

It is still a smart strategy for fundraising.  One of our synagogue’s book clubs, renamed “The Dick Marshall Memorial Book Club” recently read the book Outwitting History the story of the founding of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town where Middy and I lived before coming to Naperville. Aaron Lansky was a 24 year old student of Yiddish at McGill University when he found that he and his fellow students were having difficulty finding books in Yiddish to read. A vast literature had been produced in Eastern Europe, but the Holocaust had destroyed Yiddish culture and virtually all books were out of print. Lansky realized that as the native Yiddish speaking generation gave way to the new, their children and grandchildren were discarding the libraries that they were not able to read.  He left his graduate program and set out to save these books from the landfill.

At the time, experts estimated that there were perhaps 70,000 Yiddish books that were still extant and recoverable. Lansky soon realized that the large Jewish Philanthropic organizations had no interest in his seemingly quixotic quest to collect Yiddish books. But people who read about his project sent him money – five dollars, eighteen dollars, thirty six dollars. This was in 1980, before the internet. He gradually built a community of about 4000 people from around the country who supported him through small donations. Eventually, Lansky and his network of volunteer zamlers, book collectors, collected one million volumes of Yiddish literature, some it quite rare, from around the globe. The books are not simply stored. They are placed in the hands of new students of Yiddish, of scholars doing research into Yiddish culture and at University libraries around the world to strengthen their existing collections. Twelve thousand titles have been digitalized and are available free, online. The National Yiddish Book Center is now supported by 30,000 members, making it one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish cultural organizations in the world today.

What do our Congregation Beth Shalom Religious School Tzedaka Fair, the Mishkan, and the National Yiddish Book Center have in common? They were all built around small donations. They were all built with the idea of maximum participation. Just as important as the end product of these causes — raising money for charity, for building a house for G-d or saving a tangible legacy of Jewish life in Europe, these causes built a sense of community because they invited the participation of everyone.

This coming Motzei Shabbat, March 5, we have an opportunity to both build community and do a mitzvah at the same time. Our first Trivia Fundraiser has a low bar for entry, inviting maximum participation. It promises to be fun and to build community, while raising much needed money for our synagogue. And if this question comes up at trivia night – “What is, proportionately, the most in-print literature on the planet” – you are going to know the answer by virtue of your being at services this evening. The answer is – “Yiddish literature” – thanks to the efforts of the National Yiddish Book Center.

Shabbat Shalom