Giving to those in need is an essential and basic component of Jewish tradition and daily life. That is why JCS’ Pushke Project is so important to longtime JERI (Jewish Eldercare of Rhode Island) volunteer, Herb Meister.
Pushke is derived from the Polish word, puszka, which according to Leo Rosten, an author and Yiddish expert, means “a little can or container kept in the home, often in the kitchen, in which money to be donated to a charity is accumulated.”
Many Jewish families drop coins – generally on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays –into a decorative box, a blue-and-white tin can or some other container. Whether called tzedekah boxes or pushke boxes, these donation containers were often young children’s introductions to charitable giving. Pushke is derived from the Polish word, puszka, which according to Leo Rosten, an author and Yiddish expert, means “a little can or container kept in the home, often in the kitchen, in which money to be donated to a charity is accumulated.”
These days, many people make their charitable donations online, but seeing the pushke box sitting in his home inspired Herb, who now lives in Middletown, RI., to share his idea with some members of the board and staff at Jewish Collaborative Service (JCS). With the hope of encouraging community m
embers to donate money from their pushke boxes toward JCS’ Jewish Eldercare of Rhode Island (JERI) program, the Pushke Project was launched.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions keeping so many seniors isolated and lonely, JCS’ JERI Coordinator, Susie Adler, and her colleagues have been traveling the state – month after month – to deliver matzah ball soup, chocolates, knishes, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah goodies, and more – to residents in nursing homes and elsewhere. JCS staff and volunteers also call these individuals, so they know they have not been forgotten.
States Susie of the Pushke Project, “since the JERI program at JCS goes into nursing homes to visit your loved ones, the change from your pushke in your home will make a change by supporting the JERI program.” In addition to supporting JCS’ JERI program, a program which is near and dear to his heart, Herb wonders what will happen when his grandchildren are grown up and have children of their own? Will the next generation even know what a pushke is and the importance of giving?
JCS asked Herb and his youngest grandson, Marc Thaler, age 16, to talk more about the Pushke Project, and Herb’s commitment to tzedekah. Their comments – lightly edited – appear below:
Marc: How did you come up with the idea for the Pushke Project?
Herb: After I saw the pushke box on top of the refrigerator, I dusted it off and wondered why it was still there. When you and other family members came to visit me, we talked about the pushke box and wondered why the money hasn’t been put to good use (Herb enthusiastically rattles the coins in the box).
When I was a little boy, I remember a rabbi coming to collect coins from our pushke box from my mother, and I wondered: Why can’t we bring this idea up-to-date, and use the money to help Jewish people in need?
Herb: What’s tzedakah? (Tzedakah also means charity or acts of lovingkindness.)
Marc: Donations of coins.
Herb: Could be paper money, too. It goes back in American history as far as I know, and maybe European history, too.
Marc: You’re 89, and you’ve done so much. Do you ever think about relaxing? What drives you to keep helping people?
Herb: That’s a big question and hard to answer. Life’s been good to me; I’m a God-fearing person and I’m trying to pay back (my good fortune).
Marc: Why does tzedakah matter so much to you?
Herb: People who are fortunate enough to have money and to help people should make a tzedakah box and donate the collected money. We need to get more people from the Jewish community to participate. You don’t do this from your head, but from your heart.
Herb: We have a strong family commitment to tzedakah. How will you continue it?
Marc: You taught my mother and she and you both taught me. I’ll teach my children someday; it’s what we do. We help others, we pay back, we volunteer; it’s instilled in us.
In that spirit of “generation to generation,” a group of JCS staff members are brainstorming how to roll this out to engage as many families and individuals, including the younger generations in our Jewish community as possible. “We hope to visit the Jewish Community Day School and the Providence Hebrew Day School early this fall to discuss tzedakah with students, perhaps make pushke boxes with them,” said Susie. “We want to ask students: What is your family’s history and experience with tzedakah? When and why do you and your family give tzedakah?
With the hope that community members might donate their pushke boxes to JCS’ Jewish Eldercare of Rhode Island (JERI) program, the goal of The Pushke Project is also to encourage generational giving.
Do you have a pushke at home? Tag JCS in your generational pictures using #JCSPushkeProject.
Interested in sponsoring a delivery of holiday food or goodies to our seniors or have pushke box coins to donate? Contact Susie Adler at 401.486.3890 or Susie@jfsri.org