A few months ago, as my 40th birthday began looming larger by the day, I recalled a book I had reviewed in 1988. Entitled Israel: The First Forty Years, the coffee-table tome contained black-and-white photos chronicling the life of a remarkable country.
“In the grand scheme of things.” I had written, “40 years is little more than an historical pit stop. But for the people who’ve lived it, 40 years can be an eternity— whether it has been spent wandering in the desert or building a nation.”
Eleven years later, the belief that 40 is an important milestone both personally and Jewishly still resonates with me. This feeling was reinforced by my gynecologist, who in January, a month before my birthday, intoned, “after 40 it’s all downhill fertility-wise. I don’t care whether you’re single or married, just get pregnant!” I went home and wept.
To rouse myself from the doldrums, I recalled the Biblical “Exodus” story, which I have loved since childhood. When I was young I imagined myself trekking through the desert for 40 arduous, spiritually cleansing years on the way to the Promised Land.
These were some of my disjointed musings as I considered how to mark my 40th birthday. Part of me wanted to fly to Europe and escape the day entirely; the single woman part of me wanted to register at Macy’s, to receive all those great dishes and toaster ovens engaged women believe is their birthright; and a very small part of me remembered an article I’d seen, about a rich young man who’d thrown a big charity ball for his birthday. Thanks to his efforts and his friends’ deep pockets, they’d raised enough money to feed thousands of poor people.
Too poor myself to fly to Europe and too embarrassed to register at Macy’s, I chose the third option, though at a discount. Unable to give a great deal of money to charity on my salary, and knowing that my friends are equally strapped, I decided to organize a modest fund-raiser on behalf of new immigrant children.
While researching an article on Ethiopian immigrants last fall, I visited the Givat Hamatos trailer-home park on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There, I saw two- and three-year-olds playing with pieces of broken glass and rusted metal. When I entered the tiny trailers, I learned that most of the park’s 400 Ethiopian and Russian children don’t have a single doll or ball to play with. Almost three out of four Ethiopian children in Israel live below the poverty line.
Later, when I informed a few friends that I intended to organize a musical evening on my birthday to purchase some toys for the kids, the effusive reactions made me squirm. My family rabbi once said that the truest form of tzedakah is that which is given anonymously. So I began telling others about the fund-raiser, but withheld the part about my birthday.
The evening itself cost $250, for the rental of a lovely coffee-house and providing some refreshments. Upon hearing of the event, my parents asked if they could split the cost, in honor of my beloved grandfather’s yahrzeit. Three musician friends and two talented but complete strangers donated their services for a rousing night of klezmer, pop and folk. The Jerusalem Post Toy Fund graciously agreed to issue receipts and to help me purchase the toys at a discount, or to present parents with toy-store vouchers.
We raised $500—not nearly enough, but not bad by Jerusalem standards.
If I had it to do over again, I would have worked harder to publicize the event, and would have employed more guilt in recruiting funds. Only 40 people came, when we could easily have accommodated 80.
Still, I’m pleased that I nixed Macy’s in favor of the fundraiser. Thanks to the conceit, the coffeehouse manager has decided to throw another evening on behalf of the children, and several people who could not attend have sent checks to the Toy Fund. During some future speaking engagements in the States I plan to make a pitch for more money. My goal is to raise $4,000 by summertime.
As I told my friends that evening in February, my first 40 years of wanderings were pretty self-centered. During the next 40 years I hope to give something back to the community that has so nurtured me. This modest fundraiser was my first, tentative step.
Michele Chabin moved from New York’s Greenwich Village to Jerusalem 11 years ago. A reporter for USA Today, The New York Jewish Week and the National Catholic Register, she has twice won first-prize Rockower Awards in the field of International Reporting.
Those wishing to help immigrant children can make a tax-deductible contribution to: Friends of the Jerusalem Post Toy Fund/Givat Hamatos, 401 North Wabash, Suite 521, Chicago, IL 60611. Indicate that the money is earmarked for the new immigrant kids at Givat Hamatos.