A summary of our podcast Students and Giving; Our Responsibility.
This past week we re-introduced our students to a concept we developed a few years back, inviting them to become Shareholders of Chabad at Brandeis at $10 a month. Becoming a Shareholder is a lot more than a financial gift, it’s a statement of value and partnership.
Judaism teaches that there are three parts to connecting. To understand (Torah), to feel (Tefillah), and to give (Tzedakah). It’s through the act of giving away something that belongs to and can be used for oneself, which achieves a connection that understanding and feeling alone cannot accomplish.
This is not about giving back though, which is the immediate knee jerk reaction students have, “You’ve given me so much, I’ll give you back.” Tit for tat. Rather it’s about valuing something by giving something up for it.
Disclaimer: This is not intended for those who have a very limited budget for their basic necessities. Thankfully though most students at Brandeis are able to spend money on pleasures, like movies, eating out, hosting meals or joining Greek life.
Students think along the lines of what provides them with immediate happiness and pleasure. It’s in this light that many also view Chabad; remembering the good times and memories they’ve had, and there are plenty. They will also continue to rave about Chabad as alumni.
What’s lost here is the engagement with Chabad in a thoughtful and mature manner. Thinking about what is Chabad’s impact on me, what real value, beyond fun and good times, did Chabad have on me? The $10 a month stimulates this type of thinking.
If it was about raising money for Chabad there are far more effective ways to spend our time raising even more significant funds. Instead, inviting students to join as Shareholders is about our responsibility as educators to our students, teaching them to develop their “thinking”, “valuing” and “giving” muscles.
A lot of students absorb in college, and even earlier, the message of how they are going to accomplish amazing things in the world. But for that you need an amazing character, which happens through one’s personal development, efforts, and at times, giving (up) of oneself. A mistaken assumption is that character development is magically achieved over four years, but in fact it’s not. Not at all.
So that even when students receive an income (which is a sentiment we hear often as to why they’re not currently giving as students) there’s no guarantee that they will become givers, after all, their expenses only increase.
Being a giver needs to occur in all areas of life, not isolated to finances. It’s what creates a mensch, what being human and, even more, being Jewish is about. It’s what brings to us and the people in our intimate orbit, much harmony, happiness, and purpose.
For some it’s easier, for others it’s harder, but for all it’s a choice. To be a giver or not to be a giver.
As educators we won’t shirk from our responsibility to teach it.
Listen here to the full 12 minute conversation.
Neither publicly, nor for that matter privately, have I ever shared this; after fifteen years of leading the Chabad House at Brandeis I was burnt out and ready to seek an alternative. Chanie, my wife, also shared some of these feelings. This was in the Spring of 2017, concluding our sixteenth year, though it developed over the previous few years.
A convergence of various factors led to that point; tired of the constant departure of students from our lives as they graduate, financial instability, a noticeable change in the students over the years, and a frustration of raising a family in the isolation of Waltham.
At that time I met with my spiritual mentor (a mashpia in Chassidic terminology), and after a long conversation I left with the realization that a decision with long term consequences needed to be made. Either balk, taking the talents and gifts that Chanie and I have been endowed with by G-d and direct them in another direction, or alternatively remain in what we always dreamed of doing, directing a Chabad House and impacting young people’s lives.
We chose the latter. However we knew it needed be done differently because the current model was unsustainable.
The first thing we did was reflect on our original motivations in establishing the Chabad House. What were the assumptions we had coming in? Which proved true and which false? Finally, what had our sixteen years of experience taught us?
After exploring these questions in detail, including writing a fifteen page manifesto, we arrived at unexpected conclusions which delightfully motivated us to restart (in a sense) our Shlichut (Chabad House). This time we were using our insight, not assumptions, to guide our foresight.
It required us also to draw on an authenticity embedded deep within Chabad philosophy and tradition that somehow we lost sight of.
A year later we recorded this reflective conversation. Whether one agrees or not with what we shared, there is value to be drawn by all.
The world of podcasts is cluttered like my grandmother’s basement. Practically every item she comes across is stored there, from hair pins, to floppy disks, to vacuum cleaners. In the same way every idea, in any area, exists in the “basement” of podcasts. Nonetheless I noticed a void, if only in my small orbit of life, for a new podcast. One that provides authentic and deep conversations with individuals from all walks of Jewish life. After craving such public discourses for the longest of times I’ve decided to create a space for them to occur. For now, it’s called Podcast with Peretz.
To provide an environment for honest talk the guests will be anonymous and have their voices altered if they prefer. They won’t be concerned with how others judge or view them and therefore won’t withhold or manipulate themselves to appear acceptable to others. Which often is the case in our conversations with others and what we share on social media.
My first guest is a first-year at Brandeis. He shared how, “[At Brandeis] there isn’t enough conversations going on about things that matter… [and] the only time that there was serious conversation was when people were discussing their mental health..their anxiety or depression.” While he acknowledges that it’s amazing that these conversations are no longer stigmatized, coming to college he was seeking additional substantive conversations. Ones ranging from Jewish identity, Zionism, to broader issues of politics, philosophy, and matters relating to the larger world. Though he admits that there are certainly individuals who engage in these conversation, as a whole, it does not exist in the campus culture.
Then we went on to discuss his abandonment of the Orthodox lifestyle he grew up with and how he rediscovered his Jewish identity and pride during his year in Israel prior to coming to college. At the end, I challenged him to explain why his Jewish identity cannot be replaced by either his American or human identity?
For a moment I’d like to reflect on the the lack of substantive conversations amongst students. This is a phenomenon that Chanie and I have observed and having it confirmed by a student made it all the more astounding and troubling. Troubling because growth and maturation occurs only through these types of encounters and when they do not occur amongst students in college, really the only time in one’s life when one has the freedom of time and mind to engage in this opportunity to grow, then our future is in peril.
In part two our conversation continues and my guest asks me to explain my take on this phenomenon and challenges me to tell him what I am doing about it. Stay tuned.