Living Generous Lives: A Conversation with Susan Kramer
Susan Kramer, the JWRP’s Director of External Relations, calls herself a "shlicha of tzedaka,” and has been encouraging people to live generously for over 20 years. From her work in the field, Susan has seen that when people open their hearts and do acts of kindness for others, they enrich their lives, as well as the lives of those around them. In this interview, Susan shares the transformative powers of generosity, as well as tips for women who want to start giving.
How did you first become passionate about generosity?
I first got hooked on giving after hear two amazing women speak about their lives.
When Gerda Weissman Klein, the writer and human rights activist, survived the Holocaust and came to the US, she could not believe her good fortune when she was able to buy an entire loaf of bread. Later on, Gerda became a role model for many about the importance of showing gratitude and giving back. She had survived so much and believed that it was her responsibility to give to others less fortunate than herself. Then, I heard Sharon Faulkner, the photojournalist, speak. While photographing Jews in the Former Soviet Union, she learned that many elderly Jews could not afford both food and medicine. So, Sharon “adopted” a few individuals and made it her mission to ensure that they would always have both. Both of these women inspired me to become a more generous person.
Why is generosity a Jewish value?
Giving is intrinsically counterintuitive for people. When babies are born, their fists are clenched, and then we spend our whole lives accumulating things. When we give, we exercise our philanthropic muscle. The more we give, the stronger we get. Giving also brings us closer to being G-d-like. We have the opportunity to be givers, and we can show our appreciation by living generously — and showing dignity and respect — to those around us. Having a generous heart helps make the world a better place.
How can we be generous in our daily lives?
Every day, we see opportunities to help people and do acts of kindness. I’ve started carrying around Pez containers. When I see a homeless person, I hand them one, and it always brings a smile to their faces. At my local drive-through coffee shop, I also often pay for the person’s coffee in the car behind me. Now, the barista has even begun paying it forward — giving me free coffee every once in awhile! Anytime my friend, Debra, sees a uniformed police officer or soldier, she picks up his or her tab. Once you look at the world with fresh eyes and recognize the needs that are right in front of you, you can begin doing small acts of kindness each day and spreading generosity and positivity.
What are some ways that we can encourage our children to be generous?
When our families see us exhibiting a generous heart, they will feel inspired to do the same. We can tell them how to be generous people, but they really need to see us doing it ourselves.
What is your advice to women who want to live generous lives, but might not know how to begin?
First, identify the values that are most important to you. Then, identify nonprofits that speak to those core values. For example, when my children were younger, I donated to organizations that supported early childhood education. Then, when my son was a lone soldier in the Israeli Army, I contributed to organizations that supported lone soldiers in Israel. Just as your values shift over time, so too will your giving.
What is the benefit, if any, of giving anonymously?
According to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, one of the highest levels of giving is when neither the giver nor the recipient knows of each other’s identity. This means that if I donate to a scholarship fund, the recipient should not know that she specifically received my contribution. Nor should I know the recipient’s specific identity. This protects the dignity of individuals. However, it is beneficial when donors put their names on their donations because it encourages other community members to follow the example they set.
What is the highest level of giving?
The highest level of giving is helping people support themselves through a gift, loan, or an employment opportunity. Then, they will no longer require further assistance.
Making generosity an important part of our lives may feel scary for women who are new to giving. What’s your advice for facing the fear and giving?
When the Jewish people stood before Mount Sinai, ready to hear G-d’s commandments, they began the conversation by saying, “We will do, and then we will understand.” Just start doing. Give yourself a challenge to do an act of kindness every day for a month — whether that means bringing someone dinner, carving out time for someone who needs it, or making financial contributions. Start living generously and then you will see how wonderful it makes you feel, as well as the positive mark it leaves on the world.