The Tzedek Program

By: Jody Bloom
from The Brandeis School of San Francisco

Real-World Learning

Subject(s) of entry:


Grade(s) to which this was taught:
7, Middle school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
5, 6, 7, 8, Middle school

The year-long Tzedek Program gives 7th graders a deep understanding about their obligation to give tzedakah. Armed with this knowledge, 7th graders will be will be able to make their own educated philanthropic decisions in their own community of San Francisco based on their understanding of the needs and priorities through a Jewish lens.

Entry Narrative

The Tzedek Program is implemented over the course of the seventh-grade year within Judaic Studies at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. The spring before their children enter 7th grade, the parents are invited to learn about the Tzedek Program; see the presentation here. This is my fifth year as the Tzedek Program manager and I have tried to have social justice truly encompass everything the seventh graders do. I created a curriculum of 23 lessons to teach about all the different areas of need and Jewish texts that center around our obligation to give to those needs. I expanded the program by bringing in up to sixteen different local NPOs (non-profit organizations) each year to help raise awareness as to the organizations that exist within our community (see the invitation email to speakers here; the confirmation email here; and the communication to parents here). In preparation for each speaker, students learn about the NPO in order to ask in-depth questions; see the assignment here. Each visit is written up by students on Our Tzedek Blog. Our blog began in September, 2014 and covers the last 4 years of the program. It includes student articles about tzedek speakers, service learning days, our annual outdoor education retreat, the student chosen NPOs, our allocations process, and our culminating event the Tzedek Tefillah. Students receive their blog assignments and a reminder a few days before their assigned blog date.

I created a tzedek elective where students travel to a local Title I school to read with their second graders each week. I created a tzedek minyan, during our weekly prayer time, where students visit and deepen relationships with their senior buddies at the senior home down the street each week (see article here). I also created a tzedek elective where students travel to The Jewish Home to celebrate Shabbat with their senior buddies and work together on a weekly project (see article here). I created four service-learning days where we leave behind the comfort of the school campus and go out into the community to provide direct service to those in need (more information on our blog). I give extra credit each semester to any student who participates in formal or informal volunteer work for at least ninety minutes (see opportunity here); and I provide them with list of family volunteer opportunities and individual teen volunteer opportunities as a resource. I reformatted our experiential outdoor education program to incorporate the themes of leadership and tzedek. The Tzedek Program has been written up by Ron Lieber of the New York Times and by Ben Sales of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

My hope is that the teaching and practice of philanthropy impacts the positive growth of the adolescent. Adolescence is such a self-centered age. My hope is for them to look beyond themselves and beyond the here and now. In learning about the needs that exist around them, they will feel fortunate, be able to put things into perspective and want to help those in need. I love inspiring my students towards a life of social justice. For our middle school tefillah the students were feeling disconnected from the traditional prayer service; they wanted to make a difference. I created a tzedek tefillah where “we pray with our feet” centered around the senior home down the street from our school. The students have had such a lovely time, sharing their histories with the seniors that they have continued their relationship with them after our program ended. Three seventh grade boys began walking over after school every other week to spend time with Bill, their senior. When they found out that Bill’s wife had died they attended her memorial service. I want to share with you an excerpt from a letter that Bill’s daughter, Claire, wrote:

“The day of my mother’s memorial service at Alma Via, I was touched to see three boys walk up to my father and give him long and heartfelt embraces. They told him how sorry they were that his wife had died. I was moved to tears. I soon found out that these 3 boys had “adopted” my dad through a partnership between their school and Alma Via. My dad had already mentioned these boys to me…but I hadn’t understood their relationship until that moment. How could these three 12 or 13-year-old boys give a crusty old geezer like my dad such genuine hugs and such unconditional love? I was astounded.  After the memorial service, these boys spent a long time looking at photos of my mother and speaking with my father, my sister and myself.  Such remarkable poise.  Such generosity of spirit. The gift these boys and their families have given to my dad is unable to be measured or quantified.  It is a boundless gift and I am forever humbled and grateful.” That story reinforces my belief in the amazing ripple effect tzedek can have on the entire community.

After learning all semester about the different areas of need through the tzedek curriculum, and interviewing the adults in their life as to their philanthropic priorities (see assignment here), the students each select a topic of concern in their pre-choosing essay (see assignment here). They choose a wide range of topics that reflect their savvy about our world and its challenges. The students examine environmental, social, medical, and human rights issues. After selecting their topics, the students find the Jewish context- a mitzvah or category of mitzvot to connect back to tzedek and tikkun olam.

The students then work in their assigned pairs based on partner preferences and philanthropic priorities (on this linked document) to find six non-profit organizations that work in their area of concern; they can choose from my list of Bay Area NPOs or find one I have not yet connected with. They gather program, client, budget and mission information to compare and contrast the organizations (on this linked chart) and choose the one (on this linked document) that they feel most passionate about. This will be the organization that they will present to their peers in preparation for the allocation process. The 2018 chosen NPOs can be found here.

The students begin by researching about their NPO (see organization summary). They also research about their area of need (see current event article). They work with their parents to find out their driving availability in order to have a face to face interview with their NPO (see the 2018 form here). They call their organization to set up an interview utilizing this document. All the information they need to prepare for a successful interview can be found here. Their project checklist helps guide them along this process. The students then begin working on weaving all of this information into a research paper/persuasive essay (more information along with the assignment, rubric and samples can be found here).

Our allocations process begins with each of the NPOs being presented to the entire grade through a video presentation (instructions here; rubric here). The students upload their video presentations to a google drive folder. You can find the 2018 student created videos here. The students then have a week to individually watch the 21 other videos (they do not watch and grade their own) and fill out a feedback form following each viewing. Within each video the students describe the problem, how their NPO is working to solve the problem, and persuade their peers to help through success stories, Jewish quotes and values. Then the students individually assess each NPO rating them on a scale of 1 to 10 on whether they find this NPO to be an effective organization, whether they believe the need for this NPO is important and whether they believe this NPO is deserving of increased funding. A sample of the google form used to rate each NPO can be found here. You can find the 2017 student created tzedek videos and their corresponding forms to rate here. Based on their ratings, our 22 NPOs are narrowed down to 11 finalists.

The second step is to vote on how much money should go to the top 5 NPOs, and how much should go to the other 17 NPOs. Students used the following allocation of funds google form to vote (that was compiled after students suggested the different amounts based on the amount in the 2018 Tzedek Fund). As a community, we decided $2,700 would go to each of the top 5 NPOs, and $1,000 would go to each of the remaining 17 NPOs.

In the third step the students meet as an entire grade for the morning in order to narrow down the top 11 NPOs. The students are asked to change from being individual researchers for their own NPO to a singular team that agrees on which 5 NPOs should get the extra funding. The Tzedek Program allocations guiding deck can be found here.

The fourth step is to decide how we were going to grade the top 11 NPOs to narrow them down to the top 5. The students are asked which categories should be used to rate the NPOs. Students brainstorm and then voted on their top 3. Based on their votes, in 2018 the categories were narrowed down to 6: (1) unique approach, (2) do they carry out their mission, (3) what percent of their funds do they give to programming, (4) the long-term effect, (5) is it an important problem, and (6) the impact of the donation.

The fifth step is to look at the top 11 NPO presentation boards (assignment and samples of presentation boards can be found here) and grade each NPO on all six criteria from 1 to 4 (1 being the lowest, and 4 being the highest) on their handout. Next the students get into 5 groups and talk about how they graded the top 11 based on the criteria. Here they have the opportunity to change their scores if they are so influenced. Finally, in the sixth step, I count up all the scores too see which 5 NPOs have the highest score.

During our Tzedek Tefillah, the students are given the opportunity to teach their middle school colleagues about the different local non-profit organizations that they chose (see the student produced script for 2018 here). Twenty-one out of the twenty-two non-profit organizations came to our culminating event and the students had the unique experience to hear from them as they spoke about what they do and how they help make our world a better place. The students had the opportunity to give their organizations donations from our Tzedek Fund and hear about how our donation would impact the cause. We get to experience different types of mitzvah categories, and organizations with many different goals and views, and how each are working to positively change the world. In addition to that we also get to expand our knowledge on organizations big and small, and create an everlasting bond between Brandeis and the organizations the seventh grade choose.

My goals for the seventh-grade participants in the Tzedek Program are (1) to become knowledgeable philanthropists in learning to identify NPOs to support based on their program, client, budget and mission information, (2) to form stronger relationships with their peers, their community and with themselves, (3) and to become aware that they individually can make a difference and therefore volunteer more in their community. They begin to live and breathe social justice (see my speech at the Tzedek Tefillah here). The students love being able to utilize their own creativity to benefit the world in their own unique and personalized way. “This project helped us realize that we can make a difference, it’s not just our parents who can save the world, we as children have the power to make the world a place we want to live in and we want to leave for the next generation. This project gives so much to both the world and to the local community and we are proud to have been a part of it,” said Jonathan, Sophie & Julia (current 8th graders reflecting back on the program).

Entrant Bio(s)

Jody Bloom has been a teacher for 18 years. Currently she is a Judaic Studies teacher for sixth and seventh grade at The Brandeis School of San Francisco. She is also the program manager for the nationally recognized Tzedek (Social Justice) Program. Jody received her B.A. from Brandeis University in Near Eastern Judaic Studies and earned her Massachusetts State certification in Elementary Education. She received her M.Ed. from Teachers College Columbia University in Private School Leadership. Jody was awarded the 2016 Helen Diller Family Award for Excellence in Jewish Day School Education. She is working on her Ed.D from Drexel University in Educational Leadership and Management to be awarded in June 2019. Jody lives in San Francisco with her husband, Josh, her son, Matty, and her daughter, Meriah. In summer of 2016 Jody gave birth to her niece, Ella, as a surrogate for her youngest sister.