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Online Tzedakah — N.j. Group Auctions Charity Boxes on Ebay

March 10, 2005
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Artist Joanie Rosenthal will exhibit her latest piece in an unexpected place: eBay. Rosenthal, a New Jersey artist who has drawn illustrations for Time, U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times Magazine and created book covers for Scholastic, Penguin Putnam and other publishing companies, has decorated a metal tzedakah box as part of a fund-raising campaign for the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.

Ten New Jersey artists, including Rosenthal, have decorated boxes to be sold on eBay, the most popular online auction site. The proceeds will go to benefit the federation’s 2005 campaign.

The auction comes as Jewish groups increasingly turn to online auctions as a way to raise money: This week, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America announced a new agreement with an Internet company that will make it easier for JCCs in North America to use online auctions for fund raising.

Rosenthal was inspired by the simplicity of the plain, round metal box she was given. "When I saw the tzedakah box, I appreciated how beautiful it was, standing on its own," she said.

When deciding how to decorate the box, Rosenthal reflected on her roles as an artist and a volunteer.

"Artists don’t always know why they are creating, they just do," she said. "No one knows if they’re going to find a gallery to show their work — they might not, but it doesn’t matter, they still create.

"The same is true of tzedakah. Everyone knows the concrete reasons for doing volunteer work, but they don’t always know why they decide to do it. No one’s going to give them an award, they just keep going."

Rosenthal saw her project as a way to involve the next generation in the process of giving.

Using a metallic paint, she draw the Hebrew word tzedakah — charity — on her box.

She speaks no Hebrew, but her children, who are students at a Jewish day school, do. They made sure that she spelled and lettered the word correctly. For Rosenthal, this connected to her understanding of art and tzedakah.

"I’m not sure why I send my kids to a Jewish school, the same way I’m not sure why I create or volunteer. I just do," she said. As she designed the box, "These three things came together. It didn’t need to be complex."

The federation project is simple, too. As part of the greater United Jewish Communities’ mission to encourage "generous living," cylindrical metal tzedakah boxes were distributed to various federations, with no specific instructions for their use.

The central New Jersey federation had a novel idea. It distributed the boxes to local artists and asked them to decorate them.

Some of the artists did not know what to expect when they took on the project. Debra Livingston, whose work has been shown in such places as the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, had "envisioned a rectangular box, but got a circular one instead."

Once she adjusted to the shape, Livingston decided she wanted her box to appear "precious, because a tzedakah box is something to save and pass down from generation to generation." She decorated her cylinder with gold leaf, mirrors, and the word "give."

"When you’re holding this golden thing, I want you to look at yourself, reflect inward and then remember to give back out," she said.

Meryl Greene Salmon, who has designed and illustrated many medical journals, and who has been making party decorations for nine years, decided on an intricate design. Her box is covered with beads, each of which "had to be glued and placed individually with a pin."

Salmon placed golden Jewish stars on a background of dark blue beads, because, she said, the stars are "the proud symbol of an ancient heritage that stresses unity and helping out one another."

Most important, Salmon wanted to design something beautiful. "I wanted to make something people would leave out, not hide away." That way, she added, when people look at the box they will remember to give tzedakah.

All the artists involved in the project donated their time and materials. Federation representative Naomi Lipstein said that the campaign has not set a financial goal.

"It is very much about raising awareness," she said. "We are just trying to highlight the federation in general, and how we make a difference in day-to-day life."

Bidding on the tzedakah boxes begins Thursday morning on, and a launch party will be held that afternoon. Bidding will last for one week, and the minimum bid for each box has been set at $118.

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