By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
A tzedakah is a special box used in the Jewish faith to teach the importance of giving. Whether it’s a simple wooden box with a slit in the lid or something more ornate, the purpose is to instill in family members the importance of giving to others – a sense of responsibility for the whole community.
As a child, Matt Flagler remembers vividly taking his allowance every Friday night and putting a portion of it into the box along with other family members’ contributions. Being part of the family’s doing good in the community left him with a sense of pride that has translated to the giving back he does today through United Way.
“The tzedakah is part of growing up Jewish,” Flagler said. “It was part of learning about charitable giving. You did it as a duty, as something you would do, no matter how much or how little you had. It was just something you did.”
Growing up, Flagler watched his father, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Worcester, Mass., demonstrate the difference giving could make, even if it was just a smile, especially with senior clientele.
“My father taught me you never know who you’re talking to,” Flagler said. “By caring for others, for example seniors in an exercise program, you can detect early warning signs of other issues.”
His father taught him to understand there was more behind first impressions of a person, and you never know their story until you engage with them.
That lesson stayed with him even as the family moved to Jacksonville so his father could take over the directorship of the Jewish Community Alliance. Flagler was beginning eighth grade – a time that can be tough for any student.
He has come to love Jacksonville and its potential.
Flagler sees his role in giving back as definitely hands-on in making Jacksonville a better place to live. Atlantic Circle chair for United Way of Northeast Florida, Flagler has played a pivotal role in getting young professionals throughout the city involved in helping others. He also served as a United Way Upstream coach, encouraging a team of University of North Florida students to develop their project addressing the stigma of mental health.
“Working with Atlantic Circle is just unbelievable; it’s such a dynamic group,” Flagler said of United Way’s young professionals group. “For a lot of young professionals that want to stay in Jacksonville, whether or not their neighborhood is OK makes a difference. They want to help knowing that professionally, personally they won’t achieve until we bring the community with us.”
Flagler takes pride in the members who are engaged in projects like a Valentine’s Day Build-a-Bear day that served more than 80 children in an afternoon.
“We had expected about 35 and then to realize that there were 80 who were there because they were homeless really hit home,” Flagler said. “It was a reminder that our work is never done.”
Flagler said he is lucky to have two mentors to try to emulate: David Miller and David Stein. Miller is the Co-Founder and Chairman of Brightway Insurance and has been a guiding force and leader behind Upstream. Stein helped Flagler see the partnership between business and philanthropy.
“David Stein taught me there’s never an outcome that’s guaranteed, and any real success is geared toward helping future generations. David Miller’s work with Upstream showed me when you want to fix a problem, go to the source.”
Flagler has taken the lessons learned from the two men and his personal faith and put them to work with United Way, giving above and beyond to others to make Northeast Florida a better place.