One of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Darfur Relief Projects

By Danny Siegel

Posted on 28th December 2009

In the spring of 2005, I was invited to spend six days at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.  It is a very large congregation, with more than 2,000 family units. I was invited both to lecture as well as to be a participant in several programs. Each session was a unique experience, and each was pleasant and satisfying in its own way.  One program in particular stands out as something I had never experienced before in all my 31 years of work in this field — Kids’ Mitzvah Shopping Night at Costco.

The background: The congregation was about to ship a huge container of donated goods to the Darfur region of Sudan.  The slaughter and suffering in Sudan has been going on for many years, and, at this writing, still has no sign of abating.  The congregation had already done the most important piece of research.   They had located an agency in Sudan that could assure the members that the donated goods would arrive safely and would be delivered directly to some of the thousands of Sudanese in refugees camps.  Arrangements had also been made for the actual shipping of the container.  All that remained was to fill it and to have it put on board the ship.

The synagogue arranged for its members to donate in one of two ways: (1) the congregation supplied cartons to any members who wanted, which the members could then fill with suggested items, or (2) they could donate money and volunteers and staff members would purchase the items. 

Enter “The Kids”

The shoppers were a recently-formed group of post-Bar and Bar Mitzvah students who would be focusing their efforts on Tikkun Olam.  Months before, when Rabbi Dennis Eisner and I were reviewing my schedule, I told him I was particularly excited about this program.  Even the name excited me: Mitzvah Madness.  I justknew that the educators would be teaching Tzedakah with great creativity.

The night the teen-agers went Mitzvah shopping, they had $2,100 of Wilshire Boulevard’s Tzedakah money at their disposal.

This was the scene at Costco: Eight students, their educators, two or three assistants, and myself as a participant came in for a special kind of shopping spree.  A few minutes before, one of the educators talked to the manager about what we were planning to do; he kindly offered us a big lawn table and chairs in the middle of the store so we could sit together and talk as a group.

Money, Money — The counting of the $100 bills

Up to this point, the kids did not know exactly how much money they had to spend. The educators explained the program, including a basic list of what kinds of items were needed, and what could and could not be shipped more than half way around the world to Sudan.  Then one of the leaders took out 21 $100 bills and counted it out right in front of them.  The kids’ eyes lit up, and the buzz and chatter began.  It felt like a younger version of a family’s first reaction when they find out one of them just won the lottery. Sometimes money does that to kids, just like it does when they are older and Big Money suddenly becomes part of their lives.

The truth is, though, I could tell that they already began to “get it”.  Deep in their gut they knew, that this was not their money, not then, not in a half hour, never.  It was Mitzvah money that would buy critically-needed items for utterly-despairing people living in a nightmare.  Even before they put their hands on big shopping carts, I knew that not one of them imagined that a single penny of this was for themselves. 

They proved it once they began pulling huge quantities of merchandise off of the shelves. And they proved it to themselves.

Up and down the aisles

Some more details: We broke up into three groups of two or three students and a staff member or two, in case there were questions.  Let me make it clear, though — it was the teen-agers who ultimately made the choices, put their own hands on the merchandise, and put it in the carts.  Now and again they might ask each other or a staff member whether product X or Y was appropriate since it hadn’t been specifically listed among the recommended items.  I was particularly struck when one of them looked at the brooms and suggested they put a bunch of them in the cart.  One of the group responded by describing what a refugee camp must be like — tents, no real floors, just dirt, and the like — and that brooms weren’t necessary.  It was a stunning moment.   Kids, most of them so-called “privileged” children living in splendid isolation from the real world, kids talking High Tzedakah to each other, “getting” it.

Checking out

While one of the staff took care check-out, the rest of us then had some time to discuss what we had just experienced.  As we reviewed the activity, I remember thinking, “Never once did they think that this money was for themselves.  Not a nickel of it.”  I was also impressed that had these kids been shopping for themselves, they could have easily spent all of the money.  Many, but not all, of them are from well-to-do families and quite possibly wouldn’t even flinch at spending $500 or $1,000.   It was clear, though, that they had really learned the difference between “shopping shopping” and “Mitzvah shopping”.  There is one thing, though, that they didn’t “get”.  They had succeeded in spending only about $1,550.  They were new at Mitzvah shopping on such a grand scale, and couldn’t get used to the fact that they could have bought 20 of some items instead of a dozen, or 50 instead of 30.  But that will come with time as they grow up, earn their own money, and begin to do Tzedakah with their own resources.

When it was all over that evening, we filled a huge van with the purchases.  On Sunday, it would be loaded into the container which would be picked up later in the week.  Then, it would be put on the ship to work its way, so far away, to the refugee camps.  In fact, by Sunday, it was already evident that there would have to be a second container because the congregants had donated so much. 

It was quite an evening, and a few days later, quite an afternoon working with congregants to load up carton after carton of Tzedakah items for people they would never meet but who were, in some very intimate way, part of their lives.

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