Thinking Differently About Tzedakah

Jewish commitment to supporting the poor is about meeting them where they’re at.

The “New Jewish Neighborhood” concept is one where proximity creates possibility, where being Jewish is more than what we are (in a tribal sense), what we do (religious observance) or even what we believe (about God or our responsibilities in the world). The neighborhood is all about posture — how we are as much as who we are.
This question of posture toward the other is addressed in a fascinating Mishnah (a third-century text of Jewish law and lore). The rabbis ask since transferring objects (like food) from one domain to another on Shabbat is forbidden, does that effectively mean one cannot provide assistance to the needy on the Sabbath? Is there a way to achieve the Torah’s mandate to feed the hungry short of inviting a stranger into your home for a Shabbat meal?
The answer is about sharing responsibility. If the owner takes something from inside the house and hands it through the door or window to a poor person outside, the owner is in violation of Shabbat. Conversely, if the poor person reaches inside the house and takes something being supplied by the owner, the beggar is now in violation. To be patur (“nonculpable” for Shabbat violation), each party must play both an active and passive role. Either the needy person must reach into the house but receive the food or the owner must reach outside the home for the beggar to take the food. The simple positioning of hands, the angle of a gesture, makes all the difference!
Conceding that the letter of Halachah doesn’t strictly apply when both parties aren’t Jewish, the Mishnah’s articulation of posture can be helpful in thinking about how to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between two people with differing access to resources. Take Beth Am, for example. Our synagogue is located in Reservoir Hill, which includes residents with plenty and others with little. It’s fairly common to have neighbors ring our bell during office hours and ask for financial assistance. For years, we have done what we thought was our best: giving food vouchers or bus tokens or even cash handouts, and for years, we’ve struggled to come up with a system that works. Knowing we have finite resources, we’ve asked neighbors for ID so we can track how often they’re coming. Our giving is fairly arbitrary, based on a calendar, not a fair assessment of need.
This is why I’m excited to begin work this month with a peer recovery specialist. “Peers” are required to complete 500 hours with a trained supervisor and 46 hours of training and education. These individuals often are recovering addicts who, by virtue of their training as well as their own experience, are well-versed in resources available to the underprivileged. They know where to find food distribution, drug treatment, resource fairs, job training and help with literacy. They can do a needs assessment and help someone navigate the system. So far, well over 300 peers have been trained during a 10-year period. As Monica Scott, recovery services manager for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, told me, “Peer-to-peer works best because it’s individuals coming from lived experience, not a case worker or official dictating to you.”
Having a peer will allow us to meet people where they’re at, in a nonjudgmental, nonthreatening way. Our peer will alternate between engaging neighbors at community meetings or local school events and holding “office hours” at Beth Am, where she can do assessments, make referrals and provide guidance. “People know what they need,” says Scott, “[but] they don’t know where to start.”
Like the poor person knocking on Shabbat, it’s about shared responsibility. Jewish institutions can think about applying the wisdom of our sources to our heterogeneous society. If those who give also can receive those in need with compassion and dignity, if we extend a hand while empowering others to take for themselves, then we’ve managed to take the best of the Old Jewish Neighborhood and apply it to the New.
This column can also be found at Each month in Jmore, Rabbi Burg explores a difference facet of The New Jewish Neighborhood, a place where Jewish community is reclaimed and Jewish values reimagined in Baltimore.

One thought on “Thinking Differently About Tzedakah

  1. We use the same strategy of Peer-to-peer in hiv treatment support. Such a good idea, in such stigmatizing conditions as hiv, addiction, and poverty, to engage those who have lived the life, to be the connection between the giver and the assisted.


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