Small-change fund-raising unites U. of Michigan Jews

And now it's spreading to college campuses across the nation.

The idea for the campaign began in February 1997, when a small group of students at the university met with the executive director of the campus' Hillel, Michael Brooks, to discuss a new approach to creating community.

Their solution was a campaign that combined a contemporary campus phenomenon — the United Jewish Appeal's annual campus fund-raising drive — with a biblical mandate on creating community.

That mandate is found in Exodus, when God instructs Moses to collect a half shekel from each man counted in a census of the Israelites.

Counting by means of coins, according to the great 12th-century Jewish scholar Rambam, signified the individual worth of each person. But only a half shekel was donated because no individual is complete when standing alone.

When one associates with other Jews and goes out of the way to learn from others, help others and do for others, then one is a true member of the Jewish people, Rambam said.

That understanding of tzedakah and community is the root of the Half Shekel Campaign. Its simple goal: to reach out to each member of the Jewish community on campus — students, faculty, staff, and local residents — and create a single humanitarian group.

After examining the sources, the core group of students, joined by Brooks, developed a way to bring this ancient law into the contemporary lives of college students.

Instead of running a campaign that focused simply on raising money, which can be accomplished by getting large contributions from a small number of students, the Half Shekel campaign attempts to build community by taking small contributions from a much larger number of people.

In order to spread awareness about the campaign, the student organizers made circular pins, each displaying the half shekel symbol, and began to wear them around campus. Curious students who asked about the symbol would get a brief explanation of the campaign.

Students who wanted to participate would be asked to donate at least one dollar — the modern equivalent to a half shekel — to UJA and to wear a half shekel pin.

The campaign was on its way.

Simultaneously, posters were displayed all over campus with the slogan "Who Cares?" to spark student interest.

Membership began to rise and the goal of the campaign began to become a reality. Pins appeared on students' backpacks, hats and clothing. Jewish students began to comment that simply by seeing so many students wearing the pins helped make them feel united as a Jewish community on campus.

Soon a second set of posters was hung around campus with the message, "Because Everyone Counts." This slogan incorporated both the personal focus of the campaign and the overall goals of the UJA to help Jewish communities around the world.

By the end of the spring semester last year, 1,100 people had donated $6,000 to the campaign, by far the highest level of participation the school's Hillel had seen. The year before the first Half Shekel Campaign, 110 people contributed $1,000 through a campaign that utilized traditional fund-raising techniques such as bagel sales and phone-a-thons.

A secondary goal was now within reach: engaging and involving previously unaffiliated Jewish students.

"The campaign is more than fund-raising, it is a membership drive," said Stefan Malter, a University of Michigan senior who was the student coordinator of the campaign.

Encouraged by their successful first-year run, students on the campaign's committee wanted to repeat the project — with a few changes to make it more professional.

"We want to make it a more palatable product," Malter said, "because on a college campus there are so many other things to do."

In an effort to appeal to all students and actually bring the University of Michigan Jewish community together, a portion of the donations would be used to sponsor campus-wide events. These activities have included traditional Friday night dinners, community service projects and a Jewish singles night at a local bar.

Despite the campaign's success, it has generated some controversy.

Some students believe that the Half Shekel Campaign implies that students needed to participate in the campaign to show that they were Jewish. There also was some concern about the half shekel pins, which a few students compared with Nazi Germany's requirement that Jews wear yellow arm bands.

The organizers disagree.

"No one is forced to wear a button," said Malter. "It is your decision and it represents a sense of pride."

For sophomore Jamie Katz, "seeing people around campus wearing pins, really made me feel a sense of unity within the Jewish community."

On the national level, the Half Shekel Campaign is becoming contagious.

In Chicago last October, students from 13 schools — including U.C. Santa Barbara — attended a conference to learn how to start similar campaigns at their respective campuses. Michigan students led the training.