Pennies for tolerance

'It had been brought to my attention that the child we send the money to may be Muslim,' she said.

muslim woman 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
muslim woman 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tolerance. Respect for other religions and cultures. These are values that most of us try to teach to our children. Raising open-minded, altruistic, non-materialistic Jewish children (or any children for that matter) in America or anywhere else is not an easy task these days. So what happens if some of the educators who teach our children might not understand or follow these values themselves? A few years ago, we encountered a situation with our own children that inspired my husband Charles and I to provide a lesson about how even small amounts of "throw away" money (small change people often set aside in their homes) can be used to provide food and necessities for less fortunate people around the world. After finding a non-profit, non-denominational, apolitical organization, we arranged to support a child and her family in Ethiopia. Thus, the annual Penny Drive was born at our children's school. In many schools, fundraising efforts are often accompanied with incentives. "Sell X amount of candy and you will win Y prize." Etc… etc… We stressed that our school was collecting money for no other personal reward then the good feeling we get from the mitzva of helping those in need. Over the past five years we have raised enough money each year to provide more than the annual amount (about $300) needed to support our Ethiopian friend. With surplus monies we have also supported different causes in Israel, including helping victims of terrorism and a Jerusalem based crafts house employing youth at risk. This past year the school raised it's most ever, $900. Four-hundred went to Ethiopia and $500 went to the newly established Daniel Wultz Scholarship Fund, named for the High School student from our school who died in last April's Pesach terror attack in Israel. So, all was well and good. Until we began this year's efforts and I received a phone call from the principal. "It had been brought to my attention that the child we send the money to may be Muslim," she said. Managing to maintain my composure, I told her that it was highly possible, but that we had never cared to focus on religion, color or any other ethnic factors. Because, why should any of these matter? Aren't we performing a mitzva by aiding someone in need? Isn't this principle a cornerstone of Jewish philosophy and practice throughout the course of our history? Haven't the United Jewish Communities been in the forefront of increasing awareness about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur? Dare we remind people that we are helping Muslims, and we are proud of it? I WAS shocked. No one had ever thought to raise this issue before. And yes, after checking, I discovered that the Ethiopian child is Muslim. But it seemed that some of the school staff had raised the issue and were concerned as to whether this was the right avenue for a Jewish school to take vis- -vis a charity project. Ultimately, the principal decided that no matter what, we would certainly continue providing money to our Ethiopian charge, at least for this year. She says that we must set an example in tolerance. I agreed, but asked about the teachers who sounded the "alarm." Do they understand that the Jewish people have a responsibility to not only be tolerant of other religions, but to help those in need, even if they are outside our faith? Even though I am not an expert, I was invited to a recent staff meeting to make a brief presentation on the essence of tolerance and to rehash the history and goals of the Penny Drive. I discussed Darfur and handed out some reading materials on the subject of tolerance. My hope is that the few minutes I spent with the staff will help those who questioned our cause to reconsider for the sake of the poor innocents we have helped, regardless of their faith. I also updated the headmaster of our school who listened to the story intently and agreed that work needed to be done to "sensitize" the teachers on certain matters of tolerance. Ironically, at the same time the "Penny Drive Controversy" was happening, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ellie Wiesel spoke at a local Broward County Jewish Federation event. While I was unable to attend, I was heartened to read press reports afterwards about his speech. Singling out two places in desperate need of help, Darfur and Cambodia, Wiesel spoke of the Jewish responsibility to help others. "Should you only be responsible toward Jewish causes? No" he told the audience. "We must be open to other people's worries, other people's anxieties, but always as Jews. All of us are capable and duty bound." Perhaps many Jewish educators either heard his words in person, or read them afterwards in the local papers. In the beginning, we saved our pennies to teach children about the meaning of money, how not to abuse its uses and what good it could do for those less fortunate. We never expected that the annual penny drive might also need to be used as a lesson in tolerance. The writer, an American-Israeli citizen, is a former journalist, currently teaches media education and works in public relations. She lives in Hollywood, Florida.