Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Material Gifts vs. Do-Good Gifts: The Debate

Gift-giving is a big part of life in a family or community. It is certainly a way to acknowledge relationships and celebrate special occasions; unfortunately it's also a way to spend a lot of money on things the recipients don't want, need, or like - ultimately a waste.
One occasion which calls for gift giving is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, marking the age of Jewish responsibility at 13. It is a Jewish custom to give charity for happy occasions, so I adopted a custom from my friend Sharon. I split our gift budget in two, giving a material gift along with a signed blank check and instructions for the kid to donate the check to his or her favorite cause. This was a great idea, but it had some flaws. 1. More than a few of the kids lost the checks. 2. We've gotten on some weird mailing lists as a result of these kids' picks! 3. And then there was the kid who made the check out TO HERSELF. Best cause she could think of, apparently. I was attached to the idea that not giving a material gift was rude. However as I watched my kids' piles of gifts sit around collecting dust for the next decade, I rethought the whole process. Kids really don't care that much about the presents after the first few. And they are less greedy and more idealistic than adults give them credit for. Now we give a grove of trees in each kid's honor through Trees for the Future. They receive an inscribed certificate, newsletter, bumper sticker, and literature about the project and where the 450 trees will be planted. We've done this four times. Two kids thanked us politely. The other two were each totally psyched about this gift; one discussed it with me quite often during the year following his bar mitzvah, which really amazed me. We just gave a young lady her certificate the other day, and below (included with their permission) is an email from Sophia's father:

What incredible nachus [pride] I got tonight when I saw Sophia, literally, jump for joy when she opened your gift. "I hope I can go visit them one day," and "Oh, boy, I'm going to get this newsletter" and "Abba [Daddy], look, look" -- "the people from the area plant them."
So there are a lot of kids out there who appreciate gifts to causes they know are important. They're still going to receive lots of material gifts, so don't worry about their being deprived when you instead make a contribution. They are happy to help make a difference.
Here are a couple of suggestions:
  1. Pick a cause you think the kid will relate to. I recall receiving a contribution to the Cemetery Committee at my synagogue; that did not do it for me.
  2. An inscribed certificate is much more exciting than a notification. For one thing, it can be framed and displayed, so while the main gift is a donation, there is a material reflection of the good in the world happening on the kid's behalf.
  3. Giftwrap the certificate; an aesthetic presentation conveys that it's special.
  4. Give your gift in the days leading up to the event. The family will have time to be more attentive to what the exact cause is, and it sets a nice tone.
Okay, so what if this gift is a bomb, and the recipient and/or the family think you're weird? Well, what is the likelihood they would have liked a material gift you'd chosen anwway? Not that great. At least 450 trees have been planted, providing livelihood for villagers. Not so bad an outcome. There are worst things than being thought a do-gooder. What's the worse thing that could happen? They'll make a donation in your honor when you celebrate a happy occasion!

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