9.21.2007

One out of three ain't bad!

[Poke around here if you don't understand the reference in the title.]

Teshuva [repentance] and tefilla [prayer] aren't going to so well this year, or at least not as well as they have in past years. However, I am trying to make up for it with tzedakah. Now that I live in Washington Heights, I can, once again, afford to give a chunk of change to the causes that I care about. In addition to the fact that giving tzedakah (usually translated as "charity," but from the root meaning "justice," because in Judaism, charity is not just a nice thing to do, it is the only just thing to do) is a mitzvah, it is one that I particularly enjoy. I sift through the appeals, toss most of them, and do further research on the ones that make the initial cut, doing my best to make sure that their overhead:services ratio is fairly low. I grew up with tzedakah as a very strong value at home, for which I will always be grateful.

When I first moved to New York in August 2003, and realized that, given my salary and my rent, I was going to have to choose between giving tzedakah and putting food on my table, going to the dentist, buying necessary clothing for work, etc., I was not happy. I thought about downgrading my lifestyle so that I could continue to give tzedakah in the manner to which I had become accustomed in high school and college, when I scrupulously gave 10% of my income away each year. In retrospect, that is part of why I had very little savings after college--I had been using savings from times of plenty (when I worked for a semester during a semester away from college) to give tzedakah during the leaner years (when I was a full-time student with a part-time work-study job). If I had thought more about it at the time, I might have done differently. Conversations with friends/mentors convinced me that it is no mitzvah to give so much tzedakah that you put yourself into a precarious situation financially, nor is it a mitzvah to downgrade your own by all accounts modest lifestyle to be able to give tzedakah. That is, if I was doing my best to live with in my means, I shouldn't feel like I had to impoverish myself (say, by eating only rice and beans, or never going to a movie, or moving into a shoebox-sized room) to give the recommended amount of tzedakah.

Thus, for the past four years, whenever I found myself with extra money, I put some into savings and gave the rest to tzedakah. At first I thought I might be able to at least give 5%, but that was actually impossible, too. So I gave what I could, when I could. I always gave a little bit more before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach, and if someone made a personal appeal to me and it wasn't on the street or in a subway, I gave a little extra then, too. (I don't usually feel that it's safe to open my wallet in the subway or on the street. I have given food to people when they've asked for money and I've had food on me to give. Once I even went up to the apartment, heated up some leftovers for someone, and brought them down to her on my street corner. So I'm not totally heartless.)

Now, however, that I pay much less rent, I am finally, once again, able to give without impoverishing myself. And, give I did. I write this not to brag about my philanthropy, but to raise some issues with small-time donors such as myself, and to share the names of charitable organizations of which I am particularly fond in the hopes that some of you might support them, too. (I rarely give more than $54 at a shot, and most of my donations are for $18.)

This will hopefully be the topic of an entirely different post, but, first, I joined a shul at the full requested price (which was half off for new members) for the first time in my life yesterday. I gave to local, specifically Jewish, organizations, including: Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, UJA-Federation of NY, and the local Hebrew Free Loan Society. (I give more money to fewer organizations in this case.) I don't think that this is as critical, but I also give to the Drisha Institute, which I love and which gave me a possibly-life-altering scholarship for the High School Program in 1997. Boston isn't local, but it's still local to my heart, so I always give something to the Yad Chessed Charity Fund, which does tremendous work in the Jewish community of Boston with very little overhead (which they raise separately--100% of donations go straight to poor people, many in the form of interest-free loans, which they repay and are distributed again). It was started by a close family friend and is proof-positive that you can change the world even if you have a full-time job in computers, a wife, and two kids.

Then I gave to my usual general-New York City charities (which, aside from being the right thing to do halachically, are the only way I feel I can legitimately and without too much guilt not respond to requests on the street): City Harvest, Urban Justice Center, Sanctuary for Families, Inc., Coalition for the Homeless, Citymeals-on-Wheels, Dress for Success, and the American Red Cross in Greater New York. Less locally, I give to: Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Table to Table (through P.E.F. Endowment Funds, they do food rescue and redistribution in Israel), Miklat-Bat Melech (shelter for religious women and children in Israel), the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and Trickle Up (which gives micro-loans to people in developing countries to help them start their own business so they can become self-supporting).

(I gave to all of these through Network for Good, which I highly recommend. If you're giving a lot at once, as I did, you can pay directly through your bank and the fee is then minimal. And I also give to some random shuls and cultural/educational institutions and the Central Park Conservancy, but I'm not 100% sure I think of those donations as tzedakah in quite the same way.)

Here's my question, and one reason I wanted to blog about this: Is this an intelligent way to donate my not-so-substantial funds? I love the work that all of these organizations do, but would I be better off giving all this money to, say, three organizations instead of seventeen? Say, one Jewish in New York, one Jewish in Israel, and one general in New York? Is it silly to make seventeen different organizations enter my information, deal with my electronic donation however that happens (as automatically as possible, I hope), and send me a letter at the end of the year?

On a related note (also about economies of scale), is it more efficient to give to large grant-making organizations, such as the UJA-Federation or Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, or directly to service-providing organizations? I can see reasons for both. Large grant-making organizations should, overall, be more efficient, but by giving to them, I am adding an inefficiency into the system, namely, requiring service-providers to write grant proposals and myriad follow-up reports to get their money. (Having written and read these reports, I know that they are quite time-consuming, but necessary for the grant-providing organization to make sure that their money is going to the right places and not being wasted.)

In some cases, such as with Trickle Up, giving to this grant-giving organization makes sense, since there would be no way for someone in Manhattan to find the poorest of the poor in India, Africa, and South America to provide micro-loans directly. In all cases, there are intermediaries between my money and the recipient, the question is only when do economies of scale make sense and when do they stop making sense? Is it always true that larger organizations are more efficient? (I don't mean every organization, I mean overall, on average.) Don't they have to waste more time holding interminable meetings and dealing with vast reams of paper? Isn't me giving directly to a poor person the most efficient way to give, me giving to three people who go around giving to poor people the next-most efficient way to give, and me giving to a committee of 100 who require grant proposals one of the least-efficient ways to give?

Finally, if I were to give to one environmental organization outside of Israel, which one should I give to? Who does the best work for the money? I am interested in organizations that work to protect wildlife by preserving their habitats, lobby for environmental legislation, and/or actually do the hands-on work of cleaning up polluted areas. I am less interested in having my money go to public awareness campaigns, although those might be necessary as well.

This is perhaps not as well-developed a thought as I would like it to be, but it is after 2 pm on erev Yom Kippur, and I must sign off. May we all merit happy, healthy, solvent, and generous 5768s. Gmar chatima tova!

9.18.2007

Lucid dreaming

It seems like I might be a prime candidate for learning to dream lucidly, as per this article ("Living Your Dreams, in a Manner of Speaking") from today's New York Times. The idea of being able to control my dreams without waking up from them is exciting, as is the idea of being able to have only nice dreams, and no nasty ones.

For almost as long as I can remember, I have had vivid, narrative-heavy dreams that I often remember in great detail when I wake up. There is often a story in which I figure prominently. It's usually clear what made me dream that particular dream that night, since real life, in one form or another, pops up. I have a lot of anxiety dreams, or at least those are the ones that I remember most clearly. Sometimes I just have nice dreams that I don't want to wake up from, but I am usually happy to wake up from my dreams to find myself in bed, with my life intact.

Often, strange things happen in the dream and I therefore understand that it must be a dream. Once, when I was in junior high, when I had a dream that I was running away from the Nazis with my little sister, I realized that it was a dream and promised her that it was a dream. I told her that I would prove it to her by pinching myself and waking up. I did, and I did. (Aside: I wonder how common it is for Jewish children who are learning about the Holocaust in school to have dreams that they are being chased by Nazis or otherwise personally experiencing elements of the Holocaust.) More recently, I was being chased by a miniature rhinoceros in a dream, and I thought to myself, "That's ridiculous. There is no such thing as a miniature rhinoceros and if there was it certainly wouldn't be chasing me," and then I made myself wake up, since I was tired of running away from a miniature rhinoceros. (It looked just like this, which is courtesy of someone's imagination and Photoshop.) A British-style red phone booth also appeared in the dream, and I don't remember what else.

Most recently (over Rosh Hashanah and right afterwards), I had three anxiety dreams. In one, I was walking through the halls of my high school when a song started playing over the PA system. I don't remember the specifics, but I think that the song, which was about me, was broadcasting my lack of athletic ability and general nerdiness. I somehow knew who was behind it (two boys, both of whom exist in real life, although one of whom had my brother's initials instead of his own in the dream--sorry, bro'). I went over to one of them and said, "Seriously, this is the best thing you can think of doing with your time?" and then I walked away, disdainfully. I felt sort of empowered through the dream, like other people could waste their time trying to make my life miserable if they wanted to, but I was having none of it and furthermore, I had better things to do with my time. Sad? Maybe. I'm glad I'm done with high school, that's for sure.

In the second dream, I was going to a wedding, but I was doing something else first, so rather than wear nice clothing all day, I wore very casual clothing (jeans and sneakers) and put my wedding clothing in a backpack. When I arrived at the wedding hall, the skirt that I was going to wear was impossibly wrinkled and I had entirely forgotten to bring nice shoes. So I had to wear a wrinkled skirt and white sneakers to the wedding, and it was very embarrassing. That was a fairly short dream.

In the third dream, I was back in college. I was almost done. I only needed to take four more classes. There was one class that I had tried to take many times in college, but the professor always gave a lot of reading right at the beginning, and he expected students to be able to answer questions about the reading in class. (He called on students without asking for volunteers--sadistic!) I was always behind by the second week of class and I was never able to catch up, so I kept dropping the class rather than continuing and being hopelessly lost. Finally, it was my last semester of college, and I was bound and determined to take this class, which was a biology/neurology class of some kind, but with no prerequisites. Just a lot of reading. I went the first day, and when the pile of photocopied readings landed with a thump on my desk, dread washed over me. I could almost feel the color draining from my face in the dream, that's how intense it was. There was no way that I was going to be able to do all of this reading that week (or any week), and I didn't know what to do. I really wanted to take the class, it was so interesting, but I couldn't do the reading. In real life, of course, I would have taken the class pass-fail or audited it (and then stopped showing up halfway through, because what full-time student actually attends lectures for an entire semester for a class for which they receive no credit?). However, these options did not exist in the dream. I woke up feeling kind of trapped, as I often felt in college as I got further and further behind on work as the fall semester progressed.

I used to have anxiety dreams about school all the time. In a classic one from high school, I showed up for class and realized that I had forgotten that we had a test. (That actually happened to me once in college. Luckily, there were three midterm exams and the lowest score was dropped, so I got to drop my 36% and keep my 89% and 92% grades! The teaching assistant told me that it was the most improvement between midterms that he'd ever seen!) The high school unprepared-for-test dream involved my Navi [Prophets] class, which is kind of funny, since, with the exception of my senior year of high school when I skipped Navi class to take naps and work on the school paper, those tests were not that difficult. (It's okay. I studied at the end of the semester and aced the final. I still don't know those long names of the prophet Isaiah's symbolic sons, though.)

However, I don't think I've ever had an anxiety dream about college, and her I am, five years out, having one! I am an anxious person (can you tell?), and both college and high school had their anxious moments, but in high school it was more stomach-churning anxiety about whether I would get a B+ or an A- and in college it was more about would I pass my classes or not, or if I would finish my senior thesis on time. College also involved far more tense personality conflicts/run-ins with teaching assistants. (It was more with them than with professors.) (With one exception, I passed my classes and I finished my 116 page honors thesis with minutes to spare! Multiple minutes!) Either way, I don't appreciate such dreams at all. If I'm not in school, I shouldn't have to be anxious about school.

So, why all the dreams? What do they mean?

I haven't felt more anxious than usual lately, unless you consider the thought of facing your Creator and being judged to be anxiety-producing. Truth be told, that thought hasn't been going through my mind very much, either. This season has been much more about me hanging in there and sort of wistfully yearning for God's presence from afar than any sort of spiritual or liturgical heavy-lifting. (There are some lovely selichot [penitential prayers] that express this long/yearning aspect of the High Holidays very nicely.) For the past few years, I have been really into the whole repentance thing, and have made major personal strides during this time of year, but this year, it's all I can do to keep unpacking my apartment, eating, sleeping, and keep my head above water at work.

I hope God understands and has a better year in mind for me for 5768. 5766 and 5767 sure were doozies. In addition to the stuff y'all know about, like my cousin dying, me falling into the subway, my grandmother dying, and my somewhat-more-stressful-than-normal move, a close relative was diagnosed with cancer (is currently recovering from surgery with a sparklingly good prognosis--yay for that!), and I was diagnosed with a chronic illness in early May that is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but as far as I understand, not really dangerous, due to my good fortune at having health insurance that covers things like doctor's visits and prescription drugs that keep it under control. Still, it takes some amount of time and energy to manage, and I haven't been great at that given, oh, everything else that's happened since early May, so it's gotten worse. Also, I broke my toe in January, which, compared to all of this stuff, is so laughably minor as to be almost entirely inconsequential.

Here's to a better 5768 for everyone! (If your 5767 was already quite nice, may your 5768 be even more fabulous!)

Great news for readers of the New York Times online

According to Slashdot, "The New York Times has announced [yesterday] that it will end its paid Internet service in favor of making most of its Web site available for free."

Yay!

9.17.2007

Judgment, Regret, and Forgiveness

I had no idea if or when I was going to think of something seasonal to write. Then I read Steg's post about judgment and I got all kinds of interesting ideas in my head. But I have way, way too much work to squish into this rare 5-day workweek to have time to blog. Ack!

So, in lieu of a real post here, go read Steg's beautiful post, ruminate a bit, read my comment there, and hopefully I'll have time to actually write something about judgment, regret, and forgiveness before Yom Kippur.

Shana tova to everyone! Happy New Year!

9.06.2007

Torah completed!

My friend Jen Taylor Friedman finished writing her Torah! Well, it's not her Torah, exactly. It belongs to United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis.

She is an accomplished, professional Torah scribe, amongst other wonderful attributes. Here is the information on her website about women and sofrut.