Instead, each blue card was a golden ticket of sorts. There was a collective gasp of surprise when Silverberg and nine others were each given an envelope containing a $100 bill.
The only catch? They had to give it away.
The windfall at services last month was a Thanksgiving experiment in generosity. Herman gave the winners a month to pass the money along in some way that would “make a difference in a person’s life.”
At the Ethical Society’s annual Thanksgiving “stone soup” celebration Sunday, they reported back on what turned out to be the surprisingly complex challenge of giving away someone else’s money.
“I stayed awake the first night thinking of what we do with it,” Patricia Langermann, a sociology professor at George Washington University, said after the service.
“At first it seemed like there was a million things you could do with it,” said Jill Brantley, Langermann’s partner and a fellow GWU professor. “But the amount seemed to shrink. How could we best make a difference with $100?”
They considered everything from the random-act-of-kindness approach (making the day for 10 panhandlers) to the drop-in-the-bucket donation (the Washington Animal Rescue League is a favorite charity). They even thought of giving it to a political campaign, but they decided any candidate who needed $100 in late October was probably beyond help.
Eventually, unable to decide, they added $100 of their own and split the gift between a craft cooperative for homeless women in the District and a tiny grass-roots lobbying shop working to end mountaintop coal mining.
“We decided it had to be a small enough group that $100 would make a difference,” Langermann said. “A hundred dollars may actually help them keep the lights on for a few months.”
One recipient gave his $100 as a first birthday present to the daughter of a political activist he admires, hoping the money would help pay the bills of an idealistic-but-struggling young family. Another donated $100 to D.C. Thrive, a homeless aid organization, and got a friend to donate another $100.
A visitor to the Society on that Sunday — who was surprised to be given cash — reported by e-mail that she had sent her money to Heifer International. There, $100 can provide a family in the developing world with a goat or three hives of honeybees or a fifth share of a milk cow.
Mary Bauer immediately mailed the money to her mother’s neighbor in Annapolis, an elderly retiree who is living “check to check,” she said.
“I felt so touched by this opportunity,” said Bauer, a retired Prince George’s County librarian. “I wanted to give it to someone close to me. She was just choked up when she called.”