In anticipation of their bar and bat mitzvahs, nearly six hundred 6th grade students participated in the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit's annual Tzedakah Experience known as the Penny Harvest, which culminated at Shaarey Zedek on January 27, 2008.  Students from fifteen congregation and day schools collected pennies over the past few months in recognition of charities serving those in need.

It’s a way of adding a special ingredient known as tikkun olam, or fixing the world, to their upcoming coming-of-age celebration.  Throughout the course of the Sunday morning Shaarey Zedek experience, students voted for the charities they thought most deserving of their collection efforts, and activities included Choose Your Own Adventure and the Mitzvah Mall, where charities went under mall-like storefronts with ‘pun-names’, some of which were painful, but funny.  Rainforest became Coinforest, Eddie Bauer was Eddie Giver.

Jennifer Greenhill, Senior Campaign Associate for the Federation’s Women’s Department, gave a thorough explanation of the Penny Harvest project as a part of Tzedakah experience:  “Tzedakah translated literally means justice, but here we use it to refer to social action projects.  By collecting pennies, we are teaching our young people to give to those in need and learn about our local social service agencies via volunteer projects.”

Suzi Terebelo, the event’s chair, echoed Greenhill’s enthusiastic belief in the Penny Harvest’s teaching method, reminding us of a quote made by the late philanthropist David Hermelin:  “Don’t give until it hurts… give until it feels good.  This is a way of teaching our children at an early age of the benefits of giving to the less fortunate.”

Indeed, biblical injunctions to protect the poor, orphans, widows and strangers abound, and Jewish Detroit has a remarkable institutional infrastructure supported by voluntary philanthropy to fulfill that obligation.  To see so many young people taking up such wonderful causes with enthusiasm can only bode well for the future of these institutions, to whom legendary local ‘givers’ like Max Fisher and David Hermelin have meant so much.