Giving from the Heart
by Judy Polan
“Upon three things the world stands — Torah, Avodah (prayer) and Gemilt Hasadim (acts of loving kindness).”
—Mishnah, Avot 1.2
On April 20, a group of excited first-graders gathered around a fantastical Tzedakah box being installed on a wall near the main entryway of the Solomon Schechter Day School of the Pioneer Valley (SSDSPV) in Northampton. Along with their teacher, Judi Glickman-Shnider, they discussed why Jews have a special obligation to help the less fortunate, and watched attentively as ceramic artist Emmett Leader completed the finishing touch, attaching the hinged door on the bottom.
Leader whose daughters Rachel and Amaliah attend the school, is a nationally known creator of Judaica earthenware who finds a tremendous sense of purpose — as well as an outlet for his playful sense of humor — in creating Jewish ritual objects. His whimsical tzedakah boxes, seder plates, menorahs, havdalah spice boxes, and mizrachs (decorative plaques hung on the east-facing wall of a home, indicating the direction of Jerusalem) are inspired by the paintings of 20th century Israeli primitivist Shalom of Safed, historical synagogue and shtetl village architecture, gravestone carvings from Eastern Europe, and favorite Bible stories.
Leader was inspired to donate the box, which represents about 60 hours of labor, after having heard tzedakah guru Danny Seigel speak at a weekend symposium at the synagogue adjacent to SSDSPV, Congregation B’nai Israel.
“Danny talked about taking your passion and running with it — finding ways to let your work have a positive ripple effect on the world,” Leader said. “His central teaching is to find what you are good at, and then fiure out how you can exercise your gifts to help other people. Donating this tzedakah box is my way of bringing this connection full circle.”
He is currently working on a differently-designed tzedakah box to donate to Congregation B’nai Israel.
Leader has gained a national reputation for his unique and meticulous glazing technique, which gives his ceramic work a lustrous finish and special character. Based on an ancient Mediterranean method of clay-grinding called “terra sigillata,” it is a process he had discovered while living in Israel. Working now in Northampton, he has devised a way to replicate the necessary materials in his studio. His signature colors are terra cotta, peacock green, and Mediterranean blue.
“My hope,” Leader said, “is that my pieces fulfill ‘hiddur mitzvah’ — the beautification of a mitzvah — and that they strengthen connections between our rich cultural legacy and contempory Jewish life.”
The Jewish ethics of tzedakah (charity) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) are woven into SSDSPV’s curriculum on a daily basis, throughout the entire school year. Glick-Shnider emphasis that “values are an integral part of a Schechter education; they are a way of life at our school. Sometimes we name them, and sometimes we don’t; but they are always incorporated. We often use the phrase ‘the Schechter way,’ by which we really mean — being a mensch.”
Each class has its own particular age-appropriate tzedakah curriculum for the year. The first-grade studies the concept in a general way, and for the past three years has been involved in helping a family of Somali Bantu refugees in the community. Second-graders focus on homelessness, third-graders on feeding the hungry, fourth-graders on the treatment of animals, fifth-graders on honoring the elderly, and sixth-graders on protecting the environment. Each class thinks through its plan of action for the full year and presents it in November, at a pre-Thanksgiving “Tikkun Olam Assembly.”
“This year,” notes Rabbi Nancy Flam, the school’s volunteer Judaics coordinator, “we had a special program with Danny Seigel on tzedakah and gemilut chasadim, which was extraordinary. Second- through sixth-graders participated. You can see evidence of the students’ inspiration in the hallways — lots of items collected for infants and babies to be destributed locally.”
She continued, “We announced the gift of this tzedakah box at the Purim assembly, just before a teaching on Matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor given at Purim time). The box is placed in the hallway, near the library, where all families and children will be encouraged to make tzedakah a steady practice, and where they can link their studying and their doing. We will work out a process whereby the whole school community will have a say in the periodic distribution of tzedakah funds collection in the beautiful box Emmett made.”
Judy Polan is an arts and features writer, chanteuse, music educator and occasional memoir essayist on WAMC/Northeast Public Radio’s “Roundtable” and “Midday Magazine” shows. She can be contacted via her web site, www.judypolan.com.
©Judy Polan 2005