Since I began my search for what makes my life a particularly Jewish one, I have found myself concentrating on two things: mitzvot in general, and specifically the giving of tzedakah (“charity” or “justice”).

Although I was not brought up in a home that observed many Jewish traditions, when I was very youngMy grandparents were always generous and visited my grandparents in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, they modeled for me the importance of doing mitzvot and giving tzedakah. My grandparents were always generous with the family and their religious community, and, of course, there was always a pushke (charity box) in the home.

But my most vivid memories were of times when an accident or misfortune was, by the grace of G‑d, avoided. My grandmother would take my hand, and we would walk around the corner from the apartment on Crown Street, up Brooklyn Avenue, to the Home for Crippled Children. There my grandmother would give a generous donation. Not only was she giving tzedakah and honoring G‑d’s goodness in our life, she was performing the mitzvah of supporting an organization solely given to caring for this group of children with special needs.

I know from family stories that my grandmother did this all the years her own daughters were growing up. It was an important lesson for me.

In the late 1980s, when my children were young, we lived in Colorado. Often, on Friday nights, I would take them to services at a chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The services were joyous, and we sang the prayers. One thing was lacking: The Torah covers were old and frayed, and needed to be replaced.

I was not in a financial position to do this, but a conversation with my grandfather swiftly resulted in my grandparents sending the funds to purchase gorgeous new covers. I was thrilled when the names of my grandparents as donors were embroidered inside the covers. This giving of tzedakah to purchase the Torah covers, and the beautiful mitzvah of doing so to benefit a group to whom they had no direct connection, was a lesson not only for me, but for my children as well.

When I was in my 40s, I lived in Warner Robins, Ga. Although it was a military town, there were many homeless people and families in desperate need. Across the street from my home was a pastor who had organized a soup kitchen. I was asked to help out and finally agreed, with some trepidation, to be part of that effort. My own life was one of comfortable privileges, and I could not begin to understand what it was like to have no food, no clean clothing, no place to take a shower, and no way to protect minor children.

I stepped into that world with preconceived notions of folks who just didn’t try hard enough … and I was so wrong! The pastor was not well-off and couldn’t provide much in the way of financial assistance for the soup kitchen. So my husband and I decided that we would help with that, as did the wonderful woman I worked with who became a mentor and friend. She didn’t live comfortably, but never failed to give what she could anyway.

Together, a black Christian woman and a white Jewish woman put our heads together and decided that soup and sandwiches were not enough. We pooled our limited funds and our time, got some donations from a food pantry, and twice weekly cooked hot meals for people who constantly went without not just food, but everything the rest of us take for granted.

The giving of money to this effort was certainly tzedakah. Serving the people who came to eat was also part of the mitzvah; it was an eye-opening and heart-rending service to G‑d that humbled and changed me. Families with little children came in ragged clothes. People with severe mental illness came, wild-eyed and wild-haired, sometimes loud and often lacking in social skills. People with AIDS and other illnesses also came. What all of them had in common was a need for food, a place to sit down and rest, and the comfort that came with knowing that someone cared enough to cook for them and serve them, and listen when one of them stopped to say a few words to us.

I remember one man in particular. Kelvin was a tall, gray-haired, distinguished-looking man. I never I never learned why Kelvin was homelesslearned why Kelvin was homeless, only that he had five sons, one of whom was apparently wealthy. When I suggested he might live with one of his children, he always demurred. He was a proud man who even in his current state wanted to live his own life and take care of himself. It was hard for me to understand; yet I admired Kelvin’s need for self-sufficiency, however limited that might be.

I helped that soup kitchen for a year until it was forced to close. But what it gave to me far surpassed what I gave to it. I learned that every mitzvah requires humility; and that tzedakah must never be given with a grudging heart, but rather with enormous gratitude that I have the means to give it. I learned that service to my fellow man was and is service to my G‑d. And although I have used my own story to illustrate how mitzvot play such an important role in our lives, I have also learned that it is best to give tzedakah quietly, without fanfare. I learned that it is the act itself that lifts my heart.

As I look back, these were my grandparent’s legacies. I see clearly that tzedakah was inextricably entwined in all their mitzvot, as beautifully woven together as a Havdalah candle and equally bright. Over and over again (and with a very human sigh of relief that my life is so blessed), I have the opportunity to vigilantly emulate the lessons my grandparents taught me and help to make this world a better place.