photo by Katriona McCarthy
I don’t like to state something as a fact unless I have a reliable source, but I will go out on a limb and declare that I am the only Jewish guy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida who got a goat for Christmas.
I assume I am the only one, anyway. And since the folks who run my downtown condo frown on keeping livestock on the premises, I should note that it is more accurate to say that I gave a goat. But the more interesting question is: Where does a guy who runs a financial planning firm get a goat?
I got my goat from a vending machine in Salt Lake City. And so begins my Christmas tail. Er, tale.
At the heart of Salt Lake City lies Temple Square, hub of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose adherents are more commonly known as Mormons. Next to Temple Square stands the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, originally built in the early 20th century as the Hotel Utah, now a beautifully restored facility for restaurants, banquets, genealogical research and church offices.
The church – highly adept at social media, which it deploys effectively in its evangelical activity – sponsors an annual campaign during the 25 days up to and including Christmas under the hashtag #LightTheWorld. The goal is to encourage acts of service, whether big or small, local or global, in the spirit of the holiday.
That’s where the vending machines come in. And the goats. At the start of this year’s campaign, church leaders unveiled four machines stationed in the lobby of the Joseph Smith building, where they are scheduled to remain through Dec. 31. One, which is free, issues cards with a suggestion for a service activity on one side and a verse from the Scriptures on the other. A second, sponsored by a couple of local charities, allows donors to purchase small food items, eyeglasses and eye exams for people in need. A third accepts donations of bottled water, and the fourth, sponsored by care.org (the organization that originated CARE packages after World War II) fosters anti-poverty efforts and emergency relief in more than 80 countries around the globe.
For $75, care.org says it will provide a goat to a family for whom the animal represents a source of milk and future income. Just $25 gets a couple of egg-laying chickens. Other options allow the user to purchase shoes for a child to wear to school and similar everyday items that most of us take for granted.
A few New Yorkers might find the bright red machines and their unusual inventory familiar. One of the machines made a brief appearance last summer on the sidewalk outside the LDS temple in Manhattan, across the street from Lincoln Center. It was juxtaposed with a conventional vending machine, which was labeled “Get.” The charity machine was labeled “Give.” As shown in a church video, bemused passersby stopped to consider the unusual sight and then, more often than not, chose to purchase a good deed rather than a goody.
I was in Utah last week to attend a benefit performance organized by country music artist Maddie Wilson and her family’s company, Music for Good, to benefit a local food pantry. Maddie, who regularly participates in #LightTheWorld events, performed along with two Nashville acts that have Utah roots: Dustin Christensen, a singer-songwriter who gained national attention on The Voice, and sister duo Mersi Stone. More than 400 people packed into a local school auditorium for the show.
Maddie and her family are among the many Utah residents and visitors who lined up to patronize the charity vending machines. Her father told me they already had their own goat. I considered diversifying our group’s efforts with perhaps a half-dozen chickens instead, but I had my heart set on that goat.
So before I left Utah to return to the East Coast, I made a point of stopping at Temple Square, visiting the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and fulfilling the only Christmas wish I have ever made.
Of course there is nothing uniquely Christian about encouraging charity or service to the community. The texts I used in Hebrew school promoted “tzedakah” as a fundamental obligation of Jewishness. Although usually translated to English as “charity,” the Hebrew word has its root in the concept of righteousness, underscoring that acts of charity are expected and not merely discretionary. I am no theologian, but I expect most other major religions have similar charitable imperatives.
Of course, charity can be purely secular. My local Publix supermarkets in Florida often have promotions at the checkout counter that allow me to buy a bag of groceries or school supplies for local families. I often add that to my tab. Why wouldn’t I? It’s such a small thing to do, and it seems like a suitable way to thank the universe for the fact that my children never lacked anything they needed. I recoil at the thought of a parent going to bed or a child going to school hungry.
Still, I am pretty happy about my Christmas goat. It was a nice addition to my customary Jewish observance of Dec. 25, which usually consists of vicariously admiring friends’ trees and decorations, and going out for a movie. There are 339 days until the next #LightTheWorld campaign kicks off, but the ideals behind it are worth keeping in mind all year long, no matter what faith or other motivation inspires us to kindness.