Dena Shaffer and Morgan Jawitz


As an educator and Rabbi, Dena Shaffer teaches her students about community service. She also takes them to give back directly. This interview showcases Dena and her student Morgan Jawitz who are committed to giving back to Haiti. They are traveling to Haiti this summer.

What was the first gift you ever gave?:

Dena: I think the first contribution I ever made was at the time of my bat mitzvah.  I had been to so many receptions (I was young for my class so I was one of the last to go through the ceremony myself) and seen this stupid candle lighting ceremony dozens of times.  The basic premise was interesting – the bar or bat mitzvah would, in an attempt to honor the meaningful relationships in their lives that got them to this point, speak about said relationship and then invite friends and family to come up one by one and light a candle in their honor.  I thought that this could be a little bit more significant so my parents encouraged to me to make donations to organizations that I thought related to each person I wanted to honor.  I did, from my own money, and honored my friends and family this way instead.

Morgan: My bar mitzvah – I did a fundraiser where I made lamps from recycled wine bottles and auctioned them off for WWF (World Wildlife Foundation).  I was really into helping animals and animal rights.  Now I know that I can also benefit our environment by building environmental consciousness and encouraging others in these practices.

 

What is your charity of choice?:

Dena: While every cause has merit and worth, right now I am focused on “CBI Builds.”  CBI Builds is a service learning opportunity for Jewish teens from Greater Hartford, CT.  It is sponsored by Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford (my congregation) and in July we’ll travel with 15 teens to Haiti where we’ll spend the week building houses for families in need and learning through this experience about Jewish values related to social justice and global poverty.  We partner with two amazingorganizations that are fabulous and responsible charities in their own right.  The first is One Small House (www.onessmallhouse.org) here in the States and the second is Little Footprints Big Steps (www.littlefootprintsbigsteps.com/) which chooses our recipients and provides continual support and oversight in the ground in Haiti.  The stories of these two charities are incredible and I really encourage people to take ten seconds online and find out more about them!

Morgan: One Small House/Little Footprints Big Steps – One Small House because I’ve had experience with this foundation first hand as I’ve gone on their builds.  I see directly how they benefit family and community needs directly – there’s no red tape and no separation between what I give and the needs that are met.  The same is kind of true for LFBS.  Also it’s impossible to say “no” to Morgan once you meet her and hear her story.  Because I know the people that I’m helping my connection to this work is just so much stronger.  This work is something I stand for so the good feeling I get when I do this work or give to these organizations is indescribable…it’s just amazing.

 

Who inspires you to give?:

Dena: My grandmother (may her memory be for blessing) is the person who inspires me most to give.  She was an incredibly responsible philanthropist. She and my grandfather worked really hard and always lived below their means so they did quite well for themselves but they were also very quick to open their hands to individuals and organizations whose needs aligned with their own values.  Though she never sought accolades or acknowledgement for her giving, my grandmother did try to give as often as possible in front of my sister and me, or to let us know about it – not in an attention-seeking way but in an instructional way. “If you can give, you must give,” she always taught us.  It made quite and impression on me.

Morgan: My rabbi! And also society itself.  When you look out and you see people that need help or you see people who are helping you aspire to be like those who are helping and you are inspired by those who need it.  Going to Haiti really opened my eyes to how much need there is in our world.  There will always be people who need help so there always be people who need to help – it’s just the flow of things!

 

What motivates you to give?:

Dena:Besides honoring my grandmother’s legacy I am motivated to give by my Jewish values. Over and over and over again the Torah reminds us that we have a responsibility to take care of those most vulnerable in our midst – because we know what it was like to be vulnerable ourselves.  With economic power, sacred text reminds us, comes the responsibility to do justice. The rabbis streamlined this even further by profoundly stating, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being” (Pirkei Avot 2:5).  To me that is as simple as it gets. The ability to give back, to show kindness, to lift up others is the very purpose of our existence, of our humanity, of our creation.

Morgan: It allows me to feel more connected to people in my community.  Sometimes I struggle to feel that connection and giving back allows me to.  Paul Stanley (the guitarist from KISS) – “In Judaism we do good not because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t, but we do good because that’s just what you do.”

 

How do you give of your time?:

Dena: Well, I’m really fortunate in that my chosen occupation enables me to do this. A rabbi named Rav Chaim of Brisk once claimed that a rabbi’s job is to “restore the honor of the forlorn and the forsaken, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”  Only in my wildest dreams would I actually accomplish this every day!  Yet I’m really lucky that I get to spend my time trying!  Every day I get to give my time to people in need of support, personal growth, comfort, or advice.  I also get to usher people through some of life’s most profound moments from cradle to grave.  My door is always open to anyone, not just to members of the synagogue, Jews and non-Jews, so quite often I get to interact with someone who needs help who randomly made their way to our institution.  It’s great to be able to spend time with those who find their way to us and not just focus on the need or the thing that brought them there.

Morgan: I go to Haiti or partner with other charities.  I also teach at my synagogue to give back to my community.  Also through my friendships and relationships with others.  This is often overlooked, but these relationships are two-way road, they give to you so you are bound to give to them, by spending time and giving back.

Here’s a gallery of their efforts giving back:


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About

Julia Levy, Founder, has a decade of development experience, including working for a philanthropist, a small nonprofit and now a large nonprofit. She has raised significant dollars for numerous causes, from education to religion and from donors of all ages. Julia holds a Certificate in Fundraising from NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Julia has taught fundraising workshops, most recently at Brooklyn Brainery and coached development professionals.


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