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SANDY BANKS

Lessons in Selflessness and Love--From a Kid

November 23, 1999|SANDY BANKS

She is not your typical philanthropist. There are no grant proposals cluttering the dining-room table in her Hermosa Beach home, no stack of checks waiting to be mailed out.

By all accounts, Julie Byren is a pretty ordinary 13-year-old. She prefers art to algebra, loves shopping at Nordstrom, was thrilled to win a spot on the volleyball team.

And she's been more than a little bit surprised by her newfound celebrity, spawned by the spate of interviews and television spots that catapulted her into the news last week. You may have read about her in The Times . . . how her $800 gift to Dorsey High allowed students at the Southwest Los Angeles school the luxury of a book-buying spree.

Julie had been moved by an essay in The Times, written by a Dorsey High teacher, urging big-time philanthropists to spread their wealth beyond churches and universities, to help impoverished public schools.

No big-time philanthropists replied. But Julie and her mom visited Dorsey, met teacher Alfee Enciso and left behind a check big enough to stock the shelves of two ninth-grade classrooms and allow 20 students to shop for books of their own.

I sought out Julie to satisfy my own curiosity. After all, $800 is not chicken feed. That's a closet full of Abercrombie & Fitch, a raft of Backstreet Boys CDs. . . .

What would make a teenage girl spend that much of her money to buy books for a bunch of kids she'll never meet?

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It's a central tenet of Jewish law, the concept of tzedakah, or righteous giving.

"It's often translated as 'charity,' but it's really more 'justice' or 'righteousness,' " explains Tamarah Chancellor, office manager at the Byren family's synagogue, Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.

"Recognizing that everything comes from God and that, for some reason, he's given some people more and some people less. Tzedakah is [the way of] evening things out," she says.

It is among the most important of the commandments Jews are called upon to obey, Chancellor says. "The Talmud teaches that tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined."

And the Byren family takes that responsibility quite seriously.

"Julie's family is one that has a strong commitment to the ideal of caring for others," says Debi Rowe, the synagogue's director of education. "They take to heart certain values that other people in the world, Jewish or not, just don't."

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Most synagogues encourage Jewish youths to do some sort of community service in preparation for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony that will usher them into adulthood. There are toy drives for needy kids, visits to convalescent homes, volunteer work at soup kitchens. Some kids--like Julie--do more and donate some of their bar or bat mitzvah gifts to charity.

For her service project, Julie spent four months tutoring a first-grader at a local public school.

"She worked with that child every week," says her mother, Laurie. "And she saw what a difference it made, how she actually helped that little kid learn to read."

So when she decided to donate a portion of her bat mitzvah money, the Dorsey High book purchase seemed a natural fit.

"What sets Julie apart, what makes this special, is not an issue of money," Rowe says. "It's not about $800 . . . although that's what we focus on because money is sort of a cultural icon in this society.

"What's important is that she did more than she was required to do. And she upheld the ideal--and it's a truly American ideal, as well as a religious ideal--of caring for others, of reaching out into the community."

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It never ceases to amaze me, the spirit of generosity that flows from the unlikeliest of sources to aid the most esoteric of causes.

We write about a group of troubled, inner-city teens who are trying to create a school library. Books by the carload arrive at their door.

A 7-year-old in Santa Monica pries open his piggy bank, hands his mom all the money he has saved in his life and asks her to send it to Central America, to help families left homeless by Hurricane Mitch.

Dozens of kids from across Southern California respond to a column on Pokemon with offers to share their precious trading cards with a little boy in East L.A. whose mother cannot afford to buy him cards of his own.

And this middle-class girl in Hermosa Beach says "thank you" for her comfortable life by sharing her good fortune with other teens who have more needs and fewer means.

It looks a lot like tzedakah to me . . . and a lot like what we call "thanks-giving."

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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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