My son just started kindergarten. He has 22 kids in his class, which means he has up to 22 birthday parties to attend. As any parent knows, the birthday party circuit can be a grueling experience. Shopping for the right gift in the right price range takes hours, wrapping the present and preparing the card is more time, not to mention the month of Sundays eaten up ferrying my beloved invited guest hither and yon for the event itself. If you have more than one child, birthday-party Sundays increase at a nearly exponential rate. Then you must plan your own kid's party, putting other parents through the same rigmarole.
A few thoughtful parents are seeking a better way. Alexandra Farber turned 6 in October. She, too, just started kindergarten and wanted to include her entire class at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., in her birthday celebration. The thought of receiving and unwrapping 22 gifts felt overwhelming for Alexandra's parents, Eve and David. "These kids all attend private school, so they certainly don't need more toys, some of which may be duplicates," Eve Farber noted.
"My husband was the one who thought of the idea," Farber says. Instead of gifts, the children were asked on the invitation to bring money for tzedakah (charity). But how do you approach a child and ask her to give up her birthday gifts for tzedakah?
"We waited until she began learning about tzedakah in school. She brings in money for tzedakah every Friday," Eve Farber noted. Once the foundation was laid at school, the Farbers approached their daughter with the idea. Alexandra agreed and worked with her parents to choose a charity. She could choose from charities dedicated to helping old people, children, or sick people, as her mother put it. As it turns out, the youngster chose the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America because "it helps mommies with bad tummies," and Eve Farber, who belongs to a Conservative congregation, suffers from the disease.
On party day, Alexandra excitedly greeted her guests with a tzedakah envelope in hand. Her mother reports that all the guests contributed, and the contributions ranged from $1 to $50. A few people brought gifts as well. All together, $250 was collected for the foundation. Thank-you notes to the guests and a letter to the foundation will complete the tzedakah party project. Speaking like a typical 5-year-old, Alexandra enjoyed adding up the money on the calculator, and she was excited about sharing her experience with her friends and earning a leaf on her kindergarten class "mitzvah tree."
Another mother, Rocky Brody, didn't wait long to introduce the concept of tzedakah to her child. Akiva celebrated his second birthday in late October, and his party invitations asked each guest to bring a penny for tzedakah. During the party, following an arts and crafts project, Brody called the children to sit in a circle. They learned a tzedakah song, then each child took a turn putting a penny in the tzedakah box. Certificates Brody handed out said, "I did a mitzvah [commandment or good deed] at Akiva's birthday party," and the children could take them home to color later. Each child also received a sticker with a silver medal on it to reinforce the value of giving tzedakah.
Teaching our children that it's just as important to give as to receive isn't easy. But once they understand the concept, the rewards can last a lifetime.
Seven Tips to Help You Plan Your Child's Tzedakah Party
1. Know your child. Not every child can be expected to give up presents altogether at a birthday celebration. Discuss with your child different ways the party can become a means to give and not only to receive.
2. Plan a party activity that could itself be a tzedakah project. Consider making bag lunches for a homeless shelter or potting plants for a home for the aged.
3. Ask your guests to bring tzedakah either for a specific charity or to drop in a tzedakah box. The tzedakah doesn't have to be money. In the winter months, collect children's gloves and mittens for needy families. In the summer, ask guests to bring school supplies for children who cannot afford them in September.
4. Ask your child to donate one old-but-working toy for every new toy that he/she receives. Not only will this put smiles on the faces of needy kids, but it will also clean out your shelves and closets.
5. Don't forego all gifts entirely. Children deserve something special on their birthdays. A few choice presents from family members--brothers, sisters, and grandparents--will still make the birthday child feel special.
6. Don't force your child to do something just because you say so. Introducing tzedakah concepts is tough. If your family is not actively involved in charitable giving, you will need to start slowly and build up to a major project like a tzedakah birthday party.