By Ilan Preskovsky
There are few acts in Judaism more fundamental and more important than the act of giving, and few qualities of character more fundamental and important than being someone who gives. The most obvious manifestation of this is the giving of tzedakah, charity, to those less fortunate than ourselves. But giving comes in many forms and takes on many different guises. Yes, there’s giving money, but there’s also giving someone employment; giving of your time as a volunteer; and even giving just enough of yourself to brighten someone’s day: as little as a warm greeting or a friendly smile.
While most chesed organisations work primarily through the act of giving (usually in the form of money, or goods, or volunteering one’s time), GIFT – Give It Forward Today, to give it its full name – works somewhat differently. Yes, it gives – and it gives a lot – but GIFT is very much about matching the act of giving with the cultivation of a giving character within those in its sphere of influence. In particular, GIFT is about teaching the young how to not only give back to their community, but to become natural givers, after experiencing the real joy and meaning to be found in these acts of selflessness.
GIFT was started in 2004 by Rabbi Naftali Schiff who returned to his native United Kingdom in 1999 to head up Aish UK after living for many years in Israel. As is so often the case, his short stint away from Israel became a major turning point in his life. Two years quickly turned into an indefinite stay in the UK, as he went from taking Aish UK to new heights, to creating a wide portfolio of organisations under the umbrella of the Jewish Futures Trust that would specialise in educating different portions of London’s wildly diverse Jewish community in various different aspects of Judaism through a mixture of education and experience.
Joining Aish UK as the first of these organisations, GIFT was founded to teach young Jews across the religious spectrum the value of giving in an increasingly “me-centred” world and its centrality to living any sort of Jewish life. Working with Jewish schools, youth movements, and communal organisations, a curriculum has been in place since the early days of the organisation where kids would learn about the value of giving through a series of workshops and courses. At the same time, GIFT works with these organisations to create practical programmes where school-going kids and teenagers would have the opportunity to volunteer their time to help tackle real causes that affect their communities.
Working off the idea that ‘you become what you do’ – so the more you give, the more you become a natural giver – these programmes are designed to be of great benefit to the needy in the community, while creating a culture of giving within the young people who take part in the programmes themselves. The idea is simple: 300-400 kids spread out through London to visit hospitals or needy families, often to do little more than spend some time with lonely patients or help out troubled parents by playing with their children. These small acts of kindness add up to a real impact on the London Jewish community, as they change the lives of the kids taking part; young, impressionable youth who witness first-hand just how much can be achieved just by giving a little bit of their time on a Shabbos afternoon.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. (Head on over to the GIFT website, www.jgift.org, to see a full list of the programmes offered.) Among GIFT’s many great achievements are programmes that provide food baskets for some two thousand people a week; a Tutouring Club, where older students help younger kids who are struggling with their school work; and Helping Hands, where needy families are assisted by young people with some free time on their hands.
The incredible success that GIFT has enjoyed in London has seen the organisation spread to other parts of the UK (notably Manchester), the United States, and Israel. How long before a version of GIFT begins in our own communities?