Wertheimer: Don’t forget about the Jews who need help


Writing in Commentary about the high cost of Jewish living, Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America argues that Jewish philanthropists should focus on their own community rather than "invest even more funding and direct still more volunteers to nonsectarian causes":

… The rationale for the latest push to involve Jews in universal causes now focuses specifically on young Jews, and goes something like this: Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s are deeply invested in contributing to the world at large—a commitment, we might add, many have imbibed from their parents. To get their attention, Jewish organizations must harness this idealism and teach young people that their quest to aid fellow human beings is in fact congruent with the deepest teachings of Judaism. In this way we can do good for the world, while simultaneously bringing together Jews of different backgrounds and educating them about their traditions.

One could ask, of course, why this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews? Proponents of Jewish service learning express great confidence in the sufficiency of resources in the Jewish community to address all needs—a demonstrably incorrect assessment, as we have seen. Alternatively, they will say that young Jews do not want to be bothered with their fellow Jews. If we are to attract anyone outside the committed core, they argue, programs must direct young Jews to nonsectarian causes, bearing out the truth of Cynthia Ozick’s dead-on observation that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” And so, based on these rationalizations, an entire set of organizations under Jewish auspices now seeks to rally Jews to help everyone except their own co-religionists. …

Before they invest even more funding and direct still more volunteers to nonsectarian causes, Jewish philanthropists should consider a different path. Think of what they could do for the cause of Jewish literacy by creating a Jewish Teach for America. Such a program would serve the dual purpose of deepening the Judaic knowledge of volunteers, while simultaneously directing much needed personnel to the understaffed field of Jewish education. Philanthropists could also create a Jewish Service Corps with the mission of sending volunteers to Jewish communities in the United States and around the world where poverty, inadequate Jewish education, and social problems exist. Imagine what several thousand dedicated volunteers serving in Jewish educational and social-service institutions for two years might do to lessen the two-fold crises of affordability faced by families and understaffing afflicting most major agencies. 

New initiatives might also strive self-consciously to teach Jews what they need to know, not only what they want to hear. They could begin by explaining that Jews, too, suffer from poverty and illiteracy. Remarkably, this obvious point is not widely understood. After working in a service program aiding Jews in the former Soviet Union, a volunteer expressed amazement that in all her years in a Jewish day school, she had never heard about poor Jews who require help. With some knowledge, idealistic young Jews who have grown up in the suburbs of the large American cities will discover that they do not have to trek around the globe to find human beings living in poverty; all they have to do is look in their own communities to find Jews trying to make ends meet and who could benefit from their help.

A program of serious Jewish education could also open some eyes about the unique perspectives offered by traditional Judaism. There is, for example, a rabbinic injunction proclaiming that “all of Israel is responsible one for the other.” Another fundamental teaching regards the study of Torah—deep Jewish knowledge—as equal in value to all the other commandments combined; the corollary is that helping people learn Torah by offering them scholarships is a communal value, and ignorance of Jewish tradition is woeful.

To cite but one more example, we might broadcast the fundamental Jewish belief, widely understood until the day before yesterday, that when Jews guide their lives in accord with the religious commandments, they fulfill God’s will. Jewish values are expressed through a lifetime of observing specific religious rituals and active participation in a sacred community, not through episodic service activities. Something quite important and enduring could come from spreading such basic Jewish teachings: not only would many more Jews be enriched by exposure to authentic Jewish values, but they might also enlist to address the physical and spiritual poverty afflicting their own people.

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