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On Tzedakah Boxes and Feline Philanthropy

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03/10/2015

On Tzedakah Boxes and Feline Philanthropy photo

Growing up as a child I didn’t fully understand the concept of piggy banks.

As far as I could tell — based on the information amassed from countless viewings of Toy Story and the occasional Nickelodeon advertisement — piggy banks were strange, possibly animate creatures into which you put your unusually large coins. Later, when you wanted to retrieve that money, you either smashed or violated the piggy to get maybe $3 worth of change out of it. The whole thing seemed completely barbaric to me.

When my peers and I became old enough to receive an allowance and visits from the “Tooth Fairy” (sorry, Mom and Dad, you didn’t fool me for a second!) they kept their winnings in bright pink piggy banks, and I kept mine in a little box in my closet.

This choice greatly confused my friends, who would occasionally come to my house with piggy banks in tow so we could all count our money together in an entertaining ritual rather similar to sorting one’s candy on Halloween. The first time we met, no one mentioned my lack of a piggy bank. But the second time, Claudia asked, “Where’s your piggy bank, Jenna?”

Reveling in being contrary, I answered, “I don’t have one, I use this instead,” gesturing to my little box.

“So,” said Claudia, “what’s that?” pointing to an object on the shelf on the other side of the room. Looking up, I realized that she was pointing to our tzedakah box where we set aside money to donate each year.

“Oh,” I said, “that’s just our tzedakah box.”

To my surprise, my perfectly ordinary answer was met with blank stares.

“Don’t you have one at home?” I asked.

More blank stares.

Their silence led to wonder if maybe there was another name for tzedakah boxes that I didn’t know. My mom’s great-aunt called the freezer an “ice box,” so why couldn’t my friends have another name for this everyday household item too?

“You know,” I said, “a charity box. The place you put extra money to give to charity?”

They still had no idea what I was talking about.

It was then that I realized that tzedakah boxes were a distinctly Jewish thing and in fact not a staple in every American household. That realization made me kind of sad. I felt it was a shame that my non-Jewish friends didn’t get to drop coins in the slot of their tzedakah boxes and hear the “whoosh” and metallic “click” of money filling up the box. But then, looking back at the structure of their piggy banks, I realized that my friends did know the satisfying sensation of dropping money through the slot. The only difference was that the money saved in their piggy banks was for them, and the money we saved in our tzedakah box was for someone else.

From that day on, I looked at our tzedakah box with a heightened sense of responsibility. I began following my dad around the house and collecting the change that fell out of his pockets. I rooted through kitchen drawers for spare coins and dug through the washer and dryer too. By the end of that first year, I had helped collect over $25 in spare change — a mighty feat for an elementary school student. And the money went to the charity of my choice, the name and purpose of which I’ll admit I’ve forgotten. But every year since, my family has filled our tzedakah box and donated the money to a deserving cause, which I get to choose.

A few years ago, while counting the year’s savings, I decided to send our tzedakah to the JUF annual campaign. As we sorted the pennies from the nickels, my family and I discussed under whose name the donation would be made, since the three of us were already regular donors to JUF. But before we had the chance to make up our minds, the decision was made for us, for up onto the table jumped our cat, Callie, who then proceeded to roll around in the pile of change on the table. While this adorable — albeit passive aggressive — display was nothing more than a demand for attention, we decided that it was Callie’s way of telling us she wanted to become a regular donor at JUF, too. So we counted out the change and wrote a check to JUF from Callie Cohen for a grand total of $25.

Since then, Callie has become a regular donor of JUF, in fact, she’s come to take it quite seriously. Each year, without fail, Callie joins us on the dining room table to oversee the counting out of her annual gift. She no longer sits on (or rolls around in) her yearly donation, but sits beside the emptied tzedakah box with what seems to be a sort of feline pride.

You know you live in a delightfully Jew-y home when even the cat knows the importance of giving tzedakah.

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