Unless you have been away from civilization for the past two months, you have heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Individuals record themselves pouring a bucket of ice on their head, share it on social media, and then nominate friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100 to ALS research. Everyone from Bill Gates to Homer Simpson has done it.
When I first saw it, I was pleased to see so many people raise awareness and funds for such a terrible illness. My dear cousin, former Ottawa Jewish Bulletin editor Barry Fishman, passed away from ALS, and I witnessed first-hand how devastating a disease it is.
As this social media phenomenon progressed, I began to wonder if these campaigns are the right way to perform charity. A random sampling of ice bucket challenge videos shows that many people just make the video and don’t donate. However, many people do donate. By the beginning of September, more than $10 million have been raised in Canada, whereas last year’s ALS Walks only raised $3.5 million.
Is this the right motivation to give? Will it lead to more giving? Will people’s social media actions replace real world volunteering actions? Does this fulfil the Jewish value of tzedakah, giving of one’s income and time?
While every ice bucket video created and every dollar donated is positive, the Jewish concept of charity is greater than a single event. It’s a life code to give 10 per cent of our net earnings, purposefully, to charities closest to us; and, according to many interpretations, to give 10 per cent of our time as well.
The Jewish way of giving begins with ensuring we are, in fact, donating 10 per cent of our net earnings. Personally, I use a spreadsheet to keep track of our household income (minus taxes and work-related expenses like parking) and every donation we make. The spreadsheet provides me a tally of how much in charity dollars we have owing to remove any guesswork from tzedakah.
Further, Jewish giving is purposeful; giving where it is needed, based on the mantra of “charity starts at home.” We first must take care of the needy in our family, then our community, and then others. One must take care of a poor person in Ottawa before taking care of a poor person in Africa.
However, the latest statistics show that Canadian households with the highest incomes ($120,000 or more) donate an average of $744 annually – nowhere near 10 per cent of net earnings. Furthermore, less than half of Canadians (47 per cent) volunteer; and 10 per cent of volunteers account for 53 per cent of total volunteer hours.
How do we change this? Does participating in social media campaigns increase real life giving and volunteering?
Perhaps we need to teach the Jewish concepts of tzedakah at a younger age and lead by example for our children. Interestingly, among Canadians who actively volunteer, their motivation was strongly correlated with early life experiences.
The Jewish way is not to wait to be publicly called out, whether over social media or in-person, or to give to a cause just because everyone else is giving there. Every Canadian, Jewish or not, should research causes that are meaningful for them and strive to reach giving 10 per cent of their time and money. Whether this includes ALS or not should be the result of a conscious decision, not a fleeting feeling.
I have donated to ALS in the past – because I find the cause meaningful. I hereby challenge all my friends to give 10 per cent of their net earnings, to give on an ongoing basis, and to give where it matters to them.
Bram Bregman is vice-president of Community Building for the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.