We Are the World by
(177 Stories)

Prompted By Charity

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We are the world,
We are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving.
Oh, there’s a choice we’re making,
We’re saving our own lives,
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me.

This song, written by Michael Jackson and sung by an ad hoc group of prominent musicians calling themselves USA for Africa, was released in March 1985 to raise money for famine relief in Africa. This was probably the beginning of celebrities using their clout to support important causes. It was also one month after my first child was born, a time when I started worrying about what kind of world she would grow up to live in.

Thinking back to my childhood, I don’t know for sure whether my parents gave money to charity. I assume they did, but money was something that was never talked about in our house. I didn’t know anything about how much money came in or went out. I did know that a lot of my father’s patients paid him in ways other than money. There was one man who paid in steaks, so we sometimes had a freezer full of them. A woman crocheted blankets for us, one for every member of the family (I still have mine). Another woman cleaned our house on a regular basis. I knew that my father never turned anyone away because they couldn’t pay. So I was very familiar with that form of charity, giving services to people even when they couldn’t pay for them.

I also knew that my mother belonged to two Jewish philanthropic groups, Hadassah, which raised money for Israel, and the Brandeis Women’s Group, which raised money for Brandeis University. Brandeis, having been founded only a short time before, in 1948, was too new to have the wealthy alumni/ae to make donations the way older universities did, and formed these women’s groups all over the country to support it.

However, I would have to say that I don’t remember ever being taught anything specifically about the importance of charity.

When I was in my twenties, the women’s movement was the most important element in my life. After law school I started volunteering at two local women’s organizations, the Sacramento Women’s Center and Women’s Stress Alternatives. Eventually I was asked to be on the board of directors of both of them. I provided legal services to women who needed them, although as a brand new lawyer, I’m not sure how valuable that was. But at least it was free. I actually went to court twice representing Women’s Center clients, one who was having a custody battle, and one who was fighting with her ex over a car that he had given her. I honestly can’t remember the outcome of either case, and after I was hired by the Attorney General’s Office, I was no longer allowed to represent private clients. I was sorry I couldn’t do that any more, because it felt good to help people who couldn’t afford to pay, just like my father had done.

As far as giving money to charity, I sheepishly admit that it was only when I started paying my own taxes, and learned about charitable donations as a way to decrease tax liability, that I started writing checks to various organizations, beginning with the two on whose boards I served. However, I now make donations regardless of whether they are deductible or not, if they are causes that I care about. Over the years I have found many worthwhile organizations that I wanted to support financially. When my children were younger, we tried to involve them in deciding what organizations to contribute to when we made our end-of-the-year donations. There would be dozens of solicitations that came in the mail, and we asked them to go through and pick one that they wanted to support.

The synagogue I belong to now is very active in social action, following the Jewish precept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. I never learned about this when I was growing up, probably because my parents allowed me to drop out of religious school after one year. As an adult, I only decided to join a synagogue when I had children whom I wanted to send to religious school (ironic, I know, but there it is). I am so grateful for my wonderful rabbi, who embraces social action and often gives sermons about what we can do. I have learned so much from her, and from others in the congregation. In recent years I have gotten involved in temple projects to collect clothing and household goods for refugees, give blankets to the homeless, sing and visit with the elderly at a senior center, create and support a summer daycamp for refugee children, and many other activities.

With the current political climate, it seems more important then ever to get involved in repairing the world. As it is stated in the Talmud, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”


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Characterizations: been there, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    A great story of the evolution of your charitable works, Suzy. It was particularly interesting to me because your parents were so circumspect about their own charitable giving and activities. (My parents were the opposite, especially my mother.) And it is clear that your synagogue activity embodies charity in many wonderful ways. Tikkun olam is indeed a precept that we should all live by. You obviously do.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I remember “We Are the World” SO well. It was all the rage when I was pregnant with David so my strong association is watching the group sing it, as I awaited my first child. Months later, I remember Bob Geldorf’s huge Live AID event performed in July, televised across the globe. We were on Cape Cod and I was positively rotund as I watched that on our friends’ couch, feeling as if I would explode (but David was 10 days late, so I still had over a month to go…hard at that time of year when you gain 40 pounds!)

    Your first remarks about your father never turning down a patient and what he might take as payment reminded me of Atticus in “To Kill a Mockingbird”; he would barter, but not turn away clients. Your father sounds like a wise man and, as you know from my story, our mothers belonged to the same organizations.

    Though I focused on the two main institutions of my life for my story, the first organization where I gave money was, and continues to be, Planned Parenthood, as I visited there (in Harlem, over Intersession my freshman year at Brandeis, with a dear camp friend) for my first exam and birth control. Though we were the only white girls at the clinic, they treated us with dignity and respect and I think the work they do is CRITICAL for all women everywhere!

    I applaud the work you have done as an adult and love that you ended your story with a quote from the Talmud.

    • Suzy says:

      Betsy, thanks for your wonderful comments. I started to write about Live Aid in my story too, but then felt reluctant, because while I loved watching all the performances, I don’t think it motivated me to donate money or take any other action. Of course, I did have a five-month-old at that point, so just taking care of her and occasionally myself was a full-time endeavor!

      I totally agree about Planned Parenthood. One of my first jobs in college was working at their national headquarters, and I always give them money.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, your father’s form of charity as a doctor is truly inspiring. Probably a better example of charity than I grew up with in a home where money was also never discussed. My main memory of giving was putting money in the charity box at Sunday School, although they never said where it went. Kudos to you for all you have given, both of yourself and financially, to important causes. These days, between the political solicitations and year-end appeals. my in-box overflows. I do what I can but wish I could do even more. There is so much important work to do.

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, it’s interesting that money was never discussed in your home either. There was probably a Tzedakah box at my Sunday School too, but since I only went for one year, at age 5 or 6, I don’t remember anything about it. And yes, the political solicitations and year-end appeals fill my inbox and my actual mailbox, and I wish I could give money to everyone. This year I think the political issues will take precedence, because the 2020 elections are crucial to everyone’s well-being!

  4. Suzy, I was eager to see your song title this time — all I could think of was “Sweet Charity” and it’s a movie without a theme song.

    Your beautifully written story made me feel so deeply the need for parents to instill sharing in their children’s lives. I do remember delivering a turkey to the home of the man that worked for my dad and being shocked by, and more than a little afraid of, the rundown neighborhood, but that’s about it. My parents were kind, but I don’t recall them as being particularly giving, at least not outside the family. And so it goes. I love that you included your children in your year-end donation decisions — what a perfect way to teach.

    There’s no excuse for not sharing. We hear stories about janitors who leave fortunes to the unfortunate. Your story inspires me to give deeper.

    • Suzy says:

      I did think about Sweet Charity, which I saw on Broadway with Gwen Verdon when I was 15. Great musical, but not actually much to do with charity. The best song is “Hey Big Spender” which might be something you would say to a charitable donor, but is not what they are actually talking about in the show.

      I love your story about delivering a turkey to a home in a rundown neighborhood. I never did anything like that, as a child or an adult, and I think it’s probably something that everyone who is lucky enough to be financially comfortable should do. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Suzy, Wonderful story of your journey to Tikkun Olam. I too never thought about charitable giving as a child, I know my parents supported the ACLU and I was a bit of a red diaper baby, but had been pretty apolitical myself somehow.

    But now my husband and I have causes we care about and support – our alma maters, animal rights, Literacy for Incarcerated Teens (www.LiteracyForIncarceratedTeens.org on whose board I proudly sit) and human rights groups – pretty damn vital in today’s political climate!

    • Suzy says:

      Thank you, Dana. I was a red diaper baby too, learned at an early age NEVER to cross a picket line, but it didn’t translate to giving time and money to causes, at least in my young mind. That came later. Thanks for the website for your Incarcerated Teens group, I just looked at it and I see that you are doing important work!

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