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Messinger speech re-opens debate: Should we spend money on Jews or on helping others?

The president of the American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger, reopened a longstanding debate when she spoke at the ordination ceremony at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York last month.

Messinger, the onetime New York mayoral candidate and longtime social advocate, has steered the AJWS into the lead on the international Save Darfur movement and is a major player in trying to help the desperately poor in the developing world. Through AJWS, thousands of Jews have helped out on the ground in parts of the world — and, according to Messinger, it is the Jewish mission to do so. And while much of the organized Jewish community is pumping millions of philanthropic dollars into fancy identity-building programs, Messinger believes that a commitment to helping to heal the world may actually bring about a Jewish renewal organically by inspiring Jews.

Click here to read or listen to Messinger’s speech:

“We are of a faith that reminds us daily of our responsibility, of our need to act, of our need to help save some or any one of these children. We are taught that to save one life is to save the world.

We must do this because we are Jews and because we are creatures of God, a part of global humanity.  We must address the needs of all people because we are the boundary crossers, told to help the other and the stranger, directed not to stand idly by.  We must do this because we have a voice while others may not. We must do this, as one wise 10-year-old in a day school classroom said to me a few years ago, "We must do it because we can!"

But the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News — one of the country’s finest Jewish newspapers — has taken issue with Messinger’s sentiment in his latest column.

Andrew Silow-Carroll’s understanding of Messinger’s speech is that there are essentially two major schools of thought when it comes to Jewish philanthropy: either focus Jewish money inward, and spend a lot of money on identity-building projects such as day schools and Birthright Israel, or use Jewish money to help bring good to the greater world — in the case of AJWS, by helping to feed, clothe and educate the poor in the developing world. And he took Messinger as saying that we should be primarily devoted as a people to doing the latter, an idea with which he takes issue.

He writes:

Consider the mission statement of United Jewish Communities, the network of federations: “improving the quality of Jewish life worldwide, nurturing Jewish learning, caring for those in need, rescuing Jews in danger, and ensuring the continuity of our people.”

In the UJC framing, four of its five core mission points are directed at Jewish needs, and only one, “caring for those in need,” has a universal thrust; support for Israel is a given. In Messinger’s talk, Jewish tradition now compels us to be almost wholly outer-directed, and Israel goes unmentioned.

Silow-Carroll writes that he is surprised that he has not read more about Messinger’s comments on the blogosphere — and in fact he only heard about the speech from a federation leader who took issue with Messinger’s ideas. He continues:

But even I, someone who thinks the case for Jewish “peoplehood” is often overstated and overly nostalgic, felt Messinger had taken the universal argument too far.

The AJWS says it agrees with 95 percent of Silow-Carroll’s column. Though at this point Messinger is not planning on issuing a written response to his column, the organization wants it understood that neither Messinger nor the AJWS is saying that doing charitable and social justice work outside the Jewish community precludes helping out Jews. The two are not mutually exclusive.

As for the Fundermentalist? Here’s my take:

All one has to do is look at the variety of ways in which Jewish philanthropic money is spent. The spectrum is broad, ranging from the billions of Jewish foundation dollars per year that go to secular, non-Jewish causes to the billion dollars or so that flow to Jewish causes through the Jewish federation system, to the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that flow from private pockets into day schools synagogues and other Jewish projects.

We should embrace all of those dollars as Jewish. When a Jew gives $10 million to a hospital, that is Jewish money. When a Jew gives $20 to help feed a child in South America, that is Jewish.

And when we look at the entirety of our giving as one whole collective, I think we will see that we have it all pretty much covered — and that is what it means to be a Jewish people.

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