My name is Fran Katz-Sekela and I was born and raised in Newark, NJ — an American Jewish shtetl. That Jewish Paradise came to its end in the late 60s; however, the place received a new immortal life in the Philip Roth novels. Philip and I attended Weequahic High School where 90 percent of our classmates were Jewish kids leading a traditional Jewish life, which always included sharing with the less fortunate.
Our family wasn’t poor, but we definitely weren’t rich. I vividly remember that each major Jewish holiday when my beloved, av shalom, mother Dora set up the table there were always at least two extra plates. I was only five and so excited that I learned how to count using my fingers, that I couldn’t stop myself from counting everything. When I saw the extra plates for the first time, I suspected that my mother made a mistake.
“Look, there is my twin sister Jo, my little brother Jerry, you Momma, Daddy and me. It makes five, but you set seven plates down on the table,” I tried to correct my mother when she told me, “It doesn’t matter how poor you are, there is always someone who has much less than you have. Please remember that being Jewish means to know how to share your good fortune and luck with the people who have less. That is the reason why I put additional plates and invited two of your father’s employees to share our holiday meal.”
My parents started to teach us about charity at a very young age. In the old Austrian cupboard that used to belong to my paternal grandparents, next to our best china had been sitting a huge cookie jar where my mother put her change after doing her grocery shopping and where my sister, brother and I were told to put loose change and some portion of our weekly allowances. At the end of the year, on Rosh Hashanah, my parents helped us to take down the heavy (pishka) jar to our local synagogue and donate that mountain of coins and paper money to charity. Of course, my father Sol never forgot to write a generous check to go along with his children’s collection. My father, Sol Katz, firmly believed that it feels far better to give than to receive. He was such a giving person, but frankly speaking I don’t remember him receiving from anyone up and until his dying day. I know for a fact that when my father got an incurable cancer and was admitted to the hospital, he begged the local rabbi to visit him and collect his tzedakah.
Down the road I made my daughter Cheryl and son Seth aware of my parents’ beliefs about charity and its significance. My granddaughter Danielle, the oldest grandchild, is the offspring of a wealthy family from Persia; however, she didn’t think twice before spending her summer break in Israel helping Moroccan-Jewish refugees to improve their Hebrew and English. She wasn’t paid, and upon leaving Israel she unloaded her backpack and divided her trendy stuff among her students. I realize that even a small contribution will help strengthen my congregation and community and give someone a second chance in life.
I’m grateful to be able to contribute to the Jewish community and to sign the Book of Life.