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Tzedek Partner Program Description

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Tzedek Partner Program: Learning, Giving and Organizing for Social Justice

Curricula for Synagogue Religious Schools and Jewish Day Schools from the Jewish Fund for Justice

Summary of the Tzedek Partner Program

The Tzedek Partner Program for middle school students in synagogue religious schools and Jewish day schools provides an avenue for Jewish youth to critique the world around them, work on solutions to the problems of poverty, and explore their role and responsibility as Jews in creating social change. At a time when we are all searching for ways to instill in our children an abiding love of Judaism, a belief that Judaism is relevant to them as young adults, and a commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam, this curriculum provides an exciting and profoundly meaningful vehicle to impart these core Jewish values.

The program includes:

Inter-disciplinary curriculum

An inter-disciplinary classroom curriculum that teaches students about the causes and consequences of poverty, how to bring about systemic change, and the mandate to fight poverty as expressed in Jewish text. A hands-on project that students carry out in partnership with a local, community-based organization working with low-income people to improve conditions in their community. JFJ will help the class to develop the partnership with a local community group by recommending potential partners and facilitating meetings and interactions with the partner group. The giving of tzedakah, which students contribute to their partner group. JFJ will match funds raised by schools, up to a maximum match of $1000.

The curriculum is geared toward middle school students (6th through 8th grades) and consists of 16 one-hour lessons for day school students and 6 one-hour lessons for religious school students. The lessons encompass learning in a variety of subject matters--history, economics, mathematics, language arts, political science, theology, Jewish philosophy, and Hebrew. Each lesson plan includes goals, lists of materials needed, set inductions, teacher and student activities, questions for discussion, and handouts. Teachers are also given background information about poverty; background information on the Jewish imperative to eradicate poverty; potential educator responses to student stereotypes and difficult questions; and evaluation materials. (The religious school curriculum was written by Jewish Educator Sharon Wechter and the day school curriculum was written by a group of day school educators in the Boston area, both in partnership with the Jewish Fund for Justice.)

The curriculum can be adapted by individual teachers to meet their particular needs. It can be taught as a self-contained unit or woven through the existing curriculum.

Lessons include topics such as:

  • What does a tzaddik look like?

  • What is poverty, what causes poverty, and who are “the poor”?

  • Texts of our people: Jewish responses to poverty

  • Responding to poverty: short term and long term solutions

A classroom lesson might include chevruta (partner) study of Jewish text, with discussion of its implications to a study of poverty. For instance, students may decode and discuss the Birkat Hamazon and explore why there is hunger in the world if the prayer teaches us that there is food enough for all. A lesson might be the development of a monthly household for a low-income family, enhancing the students’ math skills. Students might go to a neighborhood grocery store and buy food for a family for a week with the equivalent of a week’s worth of food stamps. Following a lesson on the Maimonides ladder of tzedakah, students might discuss Jewish responses to poverty in different times in our people’s history and then analyze differing perspectives on competing claims to tzedakah, e.g. compare two organizations that both apply for certain grant or tzedakah money. In one school, students were asked to imagine their own anti-poverty organization and create a brochure explaining it and soliciting support.

Hands-on Project

One of the objectives of the curriculum is to show students how they can act to eradicate poverty now and throughout the rest of their lives. Another objective is to expose the students to the realities of poverty. There is no better way to do this than to give them an experience with a local group that is empowering its members to fight poverty. If the school already has a relationship with a local group, a project can be created with that group, or the Jewish Fund for Justice will work to find a local group with which to partner, and JFJ will act as a liaison between the classroom and the organization to help develop the partnership.

In the past, students have partnered with such groups as the Young Women’s Project in Washington DC and Make the Road by Walking in Brooklyn. In Boston, they worked with The Food Project, an organization committed to feeding the hungry, caring for the land and developing youth leadership. Students planted and harvested food at the group’s urban agricultural site. This hands-on experience connected the children to their ecology/recycling unit in science and taught them about community organizing and developing long-term solutions to feeding the hungry.

The Giving of Tzedakah

Students have the opportunity to put tzedakah into action during this curriculum. Students give tzedakah, either during or after the curriculum, which is donated to the partner community organization with whom they are working and which will be matched by the Jewish Fund for Justice. Students may give tzedakah themselves or may organize a school-wide fundraising event or activity to increase funds raised and to involve the school community in their experience.

Use of Journal Writing (Day School Curriculum only)

Throughout the curriculum students can be asked to write in a personal journal. They might be asked to keep a record of ideas, thoughts and reflections that come up throughout this study, in the form of stories, poems, essays, letters, articles or pictures. Students can create these themselves or collect pieces from other sources, paste them in and respond to them. They might write about what they discover by comparing low rent and high rent apartment listings in their local newspaper, write a story or poem from the perspective of a person living in poverty, describe their experience of going shopping with the equivalent of food stamps, or comment on examples from the Torah that teach values reflected in a story about neighbors organizing to prevent an eviction. Consider the following poem written by a student about Sukkot and homelessness:

Under the Stars
Somewhere, two different people
are sitting under the stars.
One is happy and full of joy.
Another sad and conquered by sorrow.
One raises a full fork to his mouth.
The other thinks of her empty stomach.
One is surrounded by the warmth of friends and family.
The coldness of the night surrounds the other.
On Sukkot, somewhere
two different people are sitting under the stars.
One because of tradition,
the other because of homelessness.

Goals of the Tzedakah Partnership Curriculum

We hope that through this curriculum, middle school students, who are soon to become adults in the eyes of the Jewish community, will learn that that there is a Jewish mandate to combat poverty and that the mandate entails tzedakah and personal action. Students will come to understand what causes poverty, what it means to be poor and who the poor are. Students will understand different strategies for combating poverty and will redefine their understanding of tzedakah so that they realize that it involves action, not just the giving of funds. Through the interactive nature of the curriculum, we hope that students will “own” the themes of the curriculum and make the themes an enduring part of their value system and identity as Jews and as citizens of the world.

Role of the Jewish Fund for Justice

The curriculum and ongoing support are provided by the Jewish Fund for Justice free of charge. We are in contact with classroom educators and school principals on a regular basis to discuss how the students are reacting to the curriculum, to hear feedback from educators, and to assist with any problems that may arise. As mentioned, JFJ will help the class to develop the partnership with a local community group by recommending potential partners and facilitating meetings and interactions with the partner group. Teachers who have taught the course in years past are also available as a resource. Periodic training sessions for teachers are held in New York, at JFJ’s expense. Those who are teaching the course or are interested in teaching the course in the future are invited to attend.

For more information or a copy of this curriculum, please contact:

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