Legions of Hebrew school graduates have vivid memories of the tzedakah box, that little charity bin in every classroom that felt more like a moral obligation than an inspirational font. Often it was nothing more than a bland blue-and-white tin box with a coin slot on top — the ubiquitous “pushke” of the Jewish National Fund.
But the American Jewish World Service hopes to change that.
This week, the group will close off submissions for a tzedakah box design competition that tries to re-imagine the object for the 21st century. In addition to a category for a redesigned tzedakah box, it has created two other categories: one for a digital device, like a website or app, that helps people think more deeply about to whom they give and why; the other is for a work of art, like a sculpture or painting, that might simply stir philanthropic feeling.
“We decided to tap into the creative potential in the arts community,” said Aaron Dorfman, the AJWS vice president for programs who is partly in charge of the project, officially titled “Where Do You Give?” “Ultimately, it’s a means to an end of stimulating a national conversation about philanthropy and what tzedakah means.”
The competition website, WhereDoYouGive.org, also features a blog with posts discussing the meaning of tzedakah, philanthropy and Jewish values. The site is also hosting a separate design competition for students under 18, and features middle-school lesson plans about tzedakah.
The idea for the competition was in part inspired by the success of Sukkah City, the international design competition in 2010 created by the Jewish nonprofit Reboot. More than 600 applicants from around the world submitted designs for a re-imagined sukkah — the temporary structure built during the holiday of Sukkot — that had to adhere to strict religious laws. A star-studded panel of architects and artists chose the 12 finalists who had their models built in Union Square.
“We started having conversations with Josh Foer” — the author and an organizer of Sukkah City — “and he helped us a lot,” said Sasha Feldstein, an AJWS program associate who is a lead organizer of the “Where Do You Give?” campaign.
“We were definitely inspired by Reboot and their success,” added Dorfman. But he said that AJWS competition had at least one important difference: unlike a sukkah, which has strict religious rules governing its construction, the tzedakah box is a cultural object, unhindered by religious law.
“The tzedakah box doesn’t have a whole lot of halachic constraints,” Dorfman said. “We can really blow it open then in terms of design opportunities.”
So far there have been about 100 submissions across all three categories. A panel of designers and Jewish communal leaders — including professors at the design schools of Harvard and Yale, the director of the Israel Museum and a Reboot staffer — has signed on to pick six finalists and a grand prize winner, which will be announced in May. Three other finalists will be chosen by a public poll on the competition’s website, which begins March 15 and closes at the end of the month.
“When I first heard about the idea, I thought it was really exciting,” said Amelia Klein, the associate director of Reboot and a judge for the “Where Do You Give?” competition. “I grew up in a very traditional house where we had that blue-and-white tzedakah box, you know what I’m talking about, with the Magen David. … But now we often give online, locally and globally, so I’m really interested in seeing what the participants come up with.”
Asked to comment on the rethinking of pushke design, the Jewish National Fund’s communications manager, Ariel Vered, said via e-mail: “JNF supports anything that encourages people to give tzedakah. We are proud of our iconic Blue Box, which epitomizes tzedakah boxes and the spirit of giving.” The AJWS has not yet decided whether it will mass-produce the winning tzedakah box or set up the digital device for actual use.
The grand-prize winner will receive $2,500, and each of the other eight finalists getting $250. The entire project is being funded by $275,000 worth of grants. Finalists will be also able to travel with the AJWS to one of several regions where the organization has projects, like Kenya, Haiti and Sri Lanka. And their designs will be part of a traveling exhibit about tzedakah that will tour the country beginning this summer.
“This project, it’s not really a fundraiser for us,” said Dorfman, noting that the AJWS raised $49.7 million in 2011 for all its projects, which largely focus on fighting poverty and disease, and promoting human rights, in the developing world. “It’s really an effort to spark a conversation about tzedakah.”
For Eli Geller, one of the digital design applicants, it was certainly that. Geller grew up in an Orthodox home in Newton, Mass., and remains Orthodox. Though he tries to give about 10 percent of his income to charity each year, he had not given much thought to what organizations he gave to, or why, until he entered the competition.
“For me, it’s been instrumental to my thinking about giving, to whom I’m giving, and where,” said Geller, 33, who went to Brandeis as an undergraduate and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in software design there.
Geller heard about the competition from a college friend of his who works for AJWS and suggested he enter the competition. Geller then asked a non-Jewish colleague at the software company where he works if he’d want to help. Soon, a whole conversation opened up about what tzedakah means to him personally.
“I feel like it’s given me more dimensions to think about giving, from a local or national level, for instance. Am I giving to an Israeli charity, a Jewish charity, to something local?” Geller said.
He and his design partner, David Bilotta, created a website that breaks down charity to “three W’s” — where, to whom, and how much. (“‘How much’ isn’t really a ‘W,’” he admitted, “but it has a ‘W’ in it.”) The site locates where you are by GPS, and gives you the option to donate to a local charity, for instance. It then lists several charities in your area, or national or global ones, and last, suggests amounts you might want to give.
To make the amount less abstract, they’ve added a mechanism that calculates exactly what the amount might purchase. “So if you want to give to Doctors Without Borders,” Geller explained, “it might say something like, ‘$100 buys you five polio vaccines.’ I’m making that number up, but that’s the idea.”
“It’s definitely given us material, food for thought,” Geller said about the competition. “It’s been neat to give a modern twist to something ancient.”