Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mitzvah Heroes Fund

What an exciting day yesterday was: after nine months of waiting and following up, The Mitzvah Heroes Fund received its final 501(c) (3) status from the IRS. All donations from the past as well as from this time forward are now fully deductible - we are now a designated "public charity" (their term, not ours). Our US IRS tax ID number is 26-1913966.

We began Mitzvah Heroes in an attempt to fill the gap left by the closing of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund last spring. In 9 months, just over $30,000 has made its way to the very deserving Mitzvah Heroes and their clients in the United States and Israel. We have and will continue to treat all donations and the recipients with the utmost of respect and dignity.

Steve, Bill and I (co-directors of the Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc) are conscious that economic times are difficult for many people, and there may be additional hesitation to make donations to Jewish organizations due to recent developments and investment dollars lost due to dishonest people and practices.

The Better Business Bureau recommends that you look for recipient organizations which use no more than 35% of the donations they receive for overhead, publicity, etc. Two recent articles (one by the Associated Press and one by the Boston Globe) indicate that even those guidelines aren't always followed.

All three of us volunteer our time (which helps keep our overhead low) and are able to pass on to our Mitzvah heroes between 95%-97.5% of the funds we receive. We support Mitzvah heroes and organizations with minimal overhead and bureaucratic structures, preferring most of your money to go to direct support of people in need.

We need your help:
  • If you're on Facebook, please join our group and suggest that your Facebook friends join our group.
  • Consider making a contribution (quick and easy with PayPal from our website WITH OR WITHOUT a PayPal account) to celebrate this milestone; $10.00 or $18.00 goes a long way and is not a small or trivial amount of money to the Mitzvah Heroes Fund (of the donations received this year, over 90% were under $110.00)
  • Tell your friends, Rabbis. Teachers, family (regardless of how young or old) about us and let them know that there are options and alternatives for their charitable dollars.
  • Remember us when you need to honor or remember someone at a simcha or somber occasion.

In the next month or two, we will send out our first Annual Report describing the people, organizations and programs that WE (you and us together) have supported in the past year. This not only shows who we support and why, but will also add to our transparency as we will show all monies received and how they were distributed. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO RECEIVE THE NEWSLETTER FROM MITZVAH HEROES, please click here and scroll down to the box on the left-hand side.

Finally, here's a link you may find of interest: Bill, Steve and I were recently inteviewed by a reporter from the Washington Jewish Week. Quite frankly - it was a lot of fun and we got to talk about some very neat Mitzvah heroes!

Wishing you a year filled with the joy of making a difference in the lives of others,


Friday, December 26, 2008


I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about tzedakah. Often translated as “charity,” tzedakah really means "justice." It’s a mitzvah – a commandment, not at all voluntary. The concept of tzedakah often involves other Jewish concepts and middot or values:
  • gemilut chasadim – deeds of lovingkindness
  • kol israel areivim zeh ba'zeh - all of Israel is responsible for each other
  • tikkun olam – repair of the world
  • kavod – respect for people, human dignity

What triggered these thoughts – and their intensity? Several factors:

As you may or may not know, I am a co-director of the Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc. I’m the one who’s privileged to send out acknowledgement receipts to all our donors. Generally, I try to get the acknowledgements mailed within a couple of days of receiving the funds. Unfortunately, I’d fallen behind since early November. Each time I’d turn my computer on, a reminder would flash on my “To-do” list.

Mitzvah Heroes is very close to receiving notification of our approval as a 501(c)(3) organization. We’ve had “approval pending” on all our materials since March (our incorporation), but some donors are reluctant to donate until final approval is received. In light of the Madoff scandal, I can understand that sentiment. [The IRS does allow tax-deductions for contributions to “approval pending” organizations. Just thought you might like to know that!]

Mitzvah Heroes has also been involved in a couple of events recently. At one, we spoke to middle school aged day school students about the wide variety of tzedakah opportunities available and how to key their projects to their own interests.

In another setting, we were part of a Chanukah program. We spoke to fifth grade day school students about three Israeli “Mitzvah heroes” – organizations that make a big difference in people’s lives with very little bureaucratic process or overhead. We presented the students with a tzedakah challenge: If they organized a campaign to persuade lower school students to “vote” with their tzedakah which of the three recipients was the most deserving of funds, we would match their funds up to $180. The challenge could last only a week, because the following weekend, we had a courier leaving for Israel who could deliver the funds as allocated. We compared their collecting these funds to the purpose of the shamash/helper candle in the hanukiah/Chanukah menorah – they would be able to bring “light” to the recipients of their funds.

The students met our challenge – and exceeded it! In 5 days’ time, they raised $389 – of which we were able to match $274 ($180 plus money thrown in a pot at another engagement, plus tzedakah from my home, plus “found” money in an old wallet, plus…. you get the idea!) The money left for Israel on 12/21 and was distributed by the 24th. (I got a call on the 23rd, that they’d received an additional $27.35 – could we please pick it up? Of course I said “absolutely!”) Over $250 consisted of coins. Little donations that, when added to other little donations, made a big difference.

Our final MHF event of the month occurred in the middle of the Tzedakah Challenge Campaign. We set up a table at a Chanukah Fair at a nursing home. We had materials displayed from a number of the Mitzvah heroes we support and had the opportunity to talk tzedakah, mitzvot, and heroes with many of the residents, the chaplain, and guest speaker Danny Siegel, Mitzvah maven extraordinaire. It was a wonderful place to spend a day. We collected $70 that people added to the pot, if they wished (which we used to apply as matching funds for the Tzedakah Challenge). The atmosphere in the home that day was one of gentle kavod demonstrated towards the residents. It soothed my soul to see the respect with which they were treated and their delight in their ability to share their memories. I left feeling nurtured.

In addition to the above, I’ve also been asked to design an educational learning program for fifth grade students in our region on tzedakah. I’ve been grappling with what specific concepts we wanted to teach, in addition to which strategies we’ll employ, and which organizations we’d like to ask to participate. Yesterday, the pieces finally came together.
Our three key concepts will focus on the following:

*Maimonides’ 8 Levels of Tzedakah

*Universalism vs. Particularism in making donations

From Seder Eliyahu Rabbah, “If a person has food in his home, and wishes to
perform an act of tzedakah with it, first he must sustain his father and
mother; if there is anything remaining he should sustain his brothers and
sisters; after that the other members of his household; after that, other
members of his family; after that, those who dwell in his immediate area;
after that, those who dwell in the neighborhood; from then on, he may
increase his benevolence among the Jewish people.”

*Due Diligence in checking out recipient organizations -- see Smart Tzedakah

A person should not contribute to a tzedakah fund unless he knows its
management is reliable and knows how to conduct the fund properly. (Yoreh Deah

If you haven’t yet made your final allocations for the current secular year – please do so. In today’s tight economic times, your pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollars are needed now more than ever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mid-Year Reflections

Six months ago, I engaged in reflective practice at the end of my first year as a “Jewish Educational Consultant.” At that time, I articulated some things I would “do differently” in this coming year. It’s worth taking a mid-year look and see how things stand at the mid-point of the year. Let’s see now:

I’ve decided to build in structured time to stay on top of the logistics involved in running a business. 9 AM on Monday mornings didn’t work. Well I structured a different time and day in, but I’m still not REALLY doing this. Time to think about new options:
  • maybe asking a friend to help with the accounting piece (?Do I really want someone else getting in to my financial stuff? What would be the emotional cost of having a friend involved?)
  • maybe working with an acquaintance who’s a life counselor (?Maybe I need to be accountable – sorry for the pun – to someone else?);
  • maybe just quit messing around and do it?
On the positive side, I’ve set up a separate calendar on my PDA for invoicing purposes; all my receipts are in one drawer (even if they’re not entered into Quicken), and I’ve learned to cross reference invoices and checks received.

I’ll set up a process for new clients, so I can track whether I’ve opened a file or begun a project without forgetting any details. I’ve made some (small) progress here by setting up separate “binders” in my OneNote program – it enables me to save notes from phone calls, emails and download research directly from the Internet and save it.

I’ll revise the curriculum and materials for the long-term teacher training classes I’m running AND have them ready to go before the first class. DONE! – but the classes were cancelled because we didn’t have the enrollment the grantor required.

I’ll review and assess the format I use in other workshops, in order to model how one can teach to different learning styles. I’ve begun to do this – repackaging some of the workshops I’ve done in the past; using some new technology. It's actually been kind of fun!

I’ll look for a few other consultants here in the area to network with on a regular basis – for support, brainstorming, and collegiality. This I HAVE done – I’m now meeting/talking semi-regularly with three separate colleagues. It’s good to be able to bounce ideas around and to get energized when I hear what others are doing.

I’ll update and expand my website to more accurately reflect Morah Mary Consulting. I did revise the website this summer and even signed up for a search engine enhancement… BUT I didn’t follow through with the suggestions resulting from the analysis. It’s on my to-do list for this winter break.

Okay – what are some other things I’ve been involved in that weren’t on that list:

Pro-bono work – I’m working with a group that was in a period of crisis this summer, guiding them through the process of visioning and then articulating what they’re looking for in a new director.

Tzedakah work – As a co-director of Mitzvah Heroes Fund, we’ve watched our Fund collect and distribute over $30,000 in less than 9 months. We’re well on our way to getting our IRS 501(c)(3) status approved. In the last week, with a co-director, we’ve presented programs to two separate groups in this area.

Personal – as a personal tzedakah project, I knit scarves for homeless men and women who are sheltered by an interfaith group of religious institutions in Howard and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. One of the participating institutions is Oseh Shalom, where I worked for four years. It’s been my custom to knit scarves for the guests to have during the weeks they are housed at Oseh. So far, I’ve completed 18 men’s scarves and 3 women’s scarves. My goal is 2 dozen men’s scarves and 18 women’s scarves. The first guests will arrive at Oseh at the end of January. I’ve got a little time left – but not too much!

Personal study – With a friend and fellow-congregant, I’m co-chairing the weekly Torah study sessions at our synagogue, Tikvat Israel. Our primary job is to organize things so that each week someone leads the discussion on the Torah portion. It’s been fun…. but I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to volunteer to lead another session – I haven’t done that since before Rosh Hashanah.

More reflection later – I’m “reflected out” right now!

Shabbat shalom.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Facilitating Group Dynamics

I did a couple of workshops for our local Education Day last month. Our individual workshop topics are often (intentionally) broad and designed to attract a wide number and variety of participants. It’s always a challenge to figure out how to convey the most amount of information in a very short period of time.

On the one hand, we’d like to be able to model good teaching strategies and involve our participants as much as possible. On the other, often the quickest way to present information is by using a frontal/lecture approach. And this year, we were given the added challenge: “Make your workshops work for both classroom teachers and youth group workers.” Both are teachers of Jewish kids – one in a formal educational setting; the other in an informal educational setting. My specific charge from the planning committee was – “Do something on classroom management.”

Several of us brainstormed ideas for workshop names (that’s not one of my strong points: naming things) and came up with one in time for the deadline: Facilitating Group Dynamics: Providing a Safe Structure for All Participants

In the past when I’ve taught mixed groups (classroom teachers and youth group workers), I’ve done my same-old-same-old, just periodically remembering to add, “Oh, this works in a youth group setting, too, by the way. All you have to do is….”

I decided this time, if I was going to model how to include both types of learners, I had to use language that 1) was intentionally exclusive; 2) flowed easily; and 3) really was applicable for both situations.

It was harder than I thought it would be.

I could easily identify which words I wanted to remove from my presentation: teacher, student, classroom, texts, principal/ed director, class. I wasn’t so sure what I would substitute – or how I could make the language flow easily instead of awkwardly. I played with a lot of phrases in my mind and was beginning to panic, when I reread the subtitle one more time: Providing a Safe Structure … The light bulb went on: STRUCTURE!

And so, I built an analogy between the structure necessary in order to allow for positive group dynamics in a safe, protected environment….and building a house! Here are some of the comparisons I made:

  • Examine your site => find out about your setting
  • Consult an architect => check in with your program director
  • Subcontract, if necessary => know who your resource people are
  • Build your foundation => identify the key values that will guide your work

In total, I outlined 13 steps, ending with “Give them the keys/Empower group members to be responsible for implementation.”

It ended up being great fun to prepare for the workshop – and the group that participated in the workshop really got into it. One of the best discussions ever! Here are links to .pdf files of both the PowerPoint and the Participant Workbook. Enjoy!