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With an Outstretched Hand

February 11, 2010 – 10:34 am30 Comments

Volunteers on the job in Nepal

By Keren Tuch

The first Australian Jewish international volunteer program has now been launched and completed, thanks to Jewish Aid and AUJS in conjunction with Tevel B’Tzedek – an Israeli NGO working in Nepal. It involved a one week orientation in Kathmandu where there was an intense learning program of the Nepali language, culture, history as well as preparation for the volunteering period.  The group then went out to a remote village for the next 3 weeks to volunteer in the school, work with women’s groups, teachers’ training and small construction projects in the village itself.  The Volunteer Nepal program was the first of its kind dedicated for Australians, and as the madricha of this program, if I may say so myself, it was a raging success.

But what bothered me and the six participants of the program, was the sentiment which surfaced when we tried to explain that as representatives of the Jewish tribe, we would be trying to help and learn from members of a different tribe, in fact a very different tribe that don’t know that our tribe even exists. One participant’s (Jewish) doctor scoffed at the idea of the trip, claiming there were so many disadvantaged people in Israel and that we should volunteer in the Holy Land instead. Another participant’s father echoed these concerns. After discussing this issue with the group, I felt that this topic – whether Jews should be helping non-Jews in light of our own problems – is one of the issues that causes a magnetic repellent from the Jewish community for a sizeable portion of young Jews today.

Growing up with a Jewish education, the mantra “Love Your Neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18) was drilled into me. What was not exactly defined or discussed was who exactly are your neighbours. Technically speaking, my neighbours happen to be Anglicans of Italian descent, and whilst I do enjoy saying hello over the fence and playing with their cute Shih Tzu, I highly doubt this is what is meant by “neighbours”.  Is it the people in your neighbourhood, community, town, country? The Hebrew word for neighbour, “re’eicha,” is probably better translated as fellow, but this still doesn’t answer the question. Perhaps in more testing times, a fellow or neighbour might be interpreted as a fellow Jew, but to me this interpretation of the Biblical verse is just that: an interpretation. Today in a more universal world, where images of foreign cultures that were previously oceans away from us are exposed two metres away on our television sets, perhaps our neighbours now encompass everyone.

Despite the commandment to love our neighbour being the biggest golden rule of Judaism that can be said standing on one leg, what should be more overwhelming is that the commandment to look after the orphan, the widow, and the stranger is mentioned a whopping 36 times. This is more than any other commandment in the Torah and is considerably important because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. And who is the “ger “(stranger)?  Well, the ger is from the same root as gur, to live. Rashi defines Ger as “one who was not born in the same country (he now resides in) but came from another country.”   According to the 12th Century philosopher and physician Maimonides in Hilchot Melachim 10:12, he states “one ought to treat the resident stranger (ger) with Derech Eretz and Chesed, just as one does a Jew”. In modern times, this might be the new golden rule of Judaism given that there is an abundance of “strangers” in our midst, as well as beyond our midst, just a (relatively) short plane ride away.

There are many texts throughout the Talmud that deal with this issue of treatment of both Jews and goyim, some favourably and some not so favourably, potentially because the Jewish community was persecuted and in exile during the time of writing. There is one particular text from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, that explains who we should decide to lend money to.

“If the choice lies between a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [I.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights.”

Now for me this makes sense and it is a natural phenomenon to be concerned more for your family and then community before worrying about the plight of Eritrean refugees. My family will come before any of you dear readers. My friends, acquaintances and contacts will take precedence over strangers. But this text does not give us religious licence to forget or neglect those that are not in our immediate universe of obligation.

But then it becomes complicated when you ask, do I give to the poor from my city first, or to a Jew in another country? Does the organisation that supports my disabled cousin become the recipient of my tzedakah, or the Malawians in extreme poverty who struggle to feed their kids every day? How do I divide my resources? These baffling problems are complex and each requires deep thought. It is important to remember that although you can’t help everybody, there are people who don’t have anyone else that can help them, and it is still our responsibility to fill the void.

One of the reasons the volunteer Nepal program was so successful, was its ability to combine education about Nepal and the developing world with an opportunity to volunteer within a Jewish context. We spent shabbatot belting out kabbalat shabbat tunes while  the sun set on the rolling hills. We spent hours discussing our Jewish identities and our universe of obligation. This program has the potential to mobilise a currently dormant force in the Jewish community to help the less fortunate while strengthening our own identities. I’m sure the aforementioned doctor would refrain from making any negative comments if he knew that this program is more than a cultural exchange or volunteer opportunity, but also a space to inspire strong Jewish identities.

The Australian Jewish community is increasingly looking outwards to help others. There has been a recent increase in the amount of local Jewish organisations that assist in universal aid efforts. Nothing But Nets is an initiative of the Union for Progressive Judaism that raises money for bed nets to prevent malaria in Africa. Derech Eretz offers opportunities to volunteer in a rural Indigenous community during the school holidays. Jews for Social Action is an initiative which mobilises volunteers to help with Aboriginal literacy programs and at an asylum seeker refuge centre. Jewish Aid Australia has been around for more than 15 years to create awareness and opportunities to donate and volunteer with various projects in the wider community. It is time to stop spouting the rhetoric that we only need to look after ourselves, and instead divide our time, money and resources wisely to fulfil our obligation to help others as well. And maybe, just maybe, we might attract a number of young Jews who have previously been unaffiliated due to the insularity of the community.

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  • Michael says:

    Good one Keren. Here’s a link about the same phenomenon in the Jewish community when taken to more frightening extremes:

    I am sick to my stomach and deeply ashamed of a fellow co-religionist. I was standing in line at the Walmart waiting to pay for my items, and chatting with the lady behind me, a member of the tribe. I don’t know her personally, but recognized her from “around”. When it was my turn to pay, I asked the cashier to please add a 10 dollar donation to the Red Cross to go to Haiti. The cashier thanked me very much. The MoT that was behind me came up to me and in a loud stage whisper said in a scathing tone “do you really want to give all your money to the schvartzers when there are Jews starving here at home?”


  • ariel says:

    Michael, the story you describe is strange. It seems the woman who made the comment defines all non-Jews as “schvartzes” and she is clearly racist. Personally, I would have waited until we were outside and said quietly “the Red Cross may not be the ideal organisation to give your money to and you should next time consider giving your to MDA”.

    It should be noted however, that “schvartz” literally means “black” and is not derogatory in itself, although in recent times, yiddish speakers have used the word “Afrinkaner”, literally “Africans”, when speaking about African Americans. But not all black people are African. So, the way I see it, if it’s okay to say in English when describing a black person, “he’s black” then it’s equally fine in Yiddish or German to say “ehr ist schwarz”. Nothing derogatory in that at all and you can’t expect languages to drop words just because some people use them derogatorily. The word for black in Spanish is “negro”, which has obvious racist connotations in English, but to the Spanish, it’s just a word.

  • ariel says:

    i had a far more relevant comment posted directly about Keren’s work but it seems to have disappeared!

  • Michael says:

    So you essentially agree with the woman (minus the “tone”)?

  • Michael says:

    Or did you mean give to the MDA’s Haiti campaign?

  • ariel says:

    Michael – yes to your second question for reasons posted in my original comment which disappeared! (i’ll try to remember what i wrote and repost later…)

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Michael, sure her comment was racist, despicable and totally abhorrent. I heard a teacher at Yeshiva college in Melbourne make a similar comment when Barak Obama was elected. Yes there are racists and indeed chauvinists Jews, even frum ones, who should know better. The chauvinist ones really rub me the wrong way. But at least Jewish racists are less likely to smash in your scull like racists from other groups.

  • nice report, glad to see more and not less tikkun olam in the world.
    arnie draiman

  • I doubt if anyone would suggest, on the basis of that Talmud passage, that we may ignore the plight of those far away until we have fully discharged our duty with respect to locals. Rather, it establishes a clear priority of one over another, implying that one should expend more effort helping local causes than those far away. So to those intrepid volunteers in Nepal, Haiti, or wherever, the Talmud is a reminder: “don’t forget those close to you!”

  • Michael says:

    True but there are plenty of other passages that can easily be interpreted as saying non-Jews aren’t meant to be helped at all and hence ignored.
    Also I’m sure most readers will disagree with me but I don’t see how religious Jews should be less racist than secular ones (on average of course) given the overwhelming emphasis on Jewish exceptionalism in a heap of classical sources. If anything I’d expect racism to be more common (although whether this is the case and how much more common is more suitable for empirical study than my estimates or anyone else’s) amongst the religious community.

  • There is a huge difference between “exceptionalism” and “racism”. Believing you are chosen by God and/or have a closer/special relationship with God is no licence to be racist.

  • Rachsd says:

    It really depends on how you interpret different parts of the tradition and which bits are emphasised – well not you but the religious people in question.
    In some ways, Judaism is a very accepting tradition, in that it doesn’t promote the idea that everyone should be Jewish, which leaves room for robust respect of other traditions/cultures/peoples.
    But perhaps even more relevant, the tradition is complex enough to support multiple views and even values, which means that there is diversity amongst religious people just like there is diversity amongst secular people.

  • frosh says:


    Is there something ironic about someone making implicit accusations of racism against a particular cultural group?

  • Michael says:

    \Frosh, so by that standard it’s intolerant to criticise intolerance if it’s perceived to be present within a “cultural group”? Do you think there’s also ironic to think that Islam is not a religion of peace and tolerance and can contribute to making one more intolerant?

    Rachsd, of course but I guess my point is that there is plenty within the “classic” Torah Judaism textual tradition that there is perfect fodder for racism and other forms of chauvinism. There is of course enough for the whole spectrum although it’s hard to weigh up what there’s more of.

    Keren, I think the idea of treating the “stranger” well is a bit more complex than that because from what I know in halacha a ger is generally interpreted as one who has accepted the 7 Noachide laws (and not just any non-Jew who has settled in Israel). Also the full verse is “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” In this context the interpretation that neighbour means “member of your people” seems more plausible.

  • Daniel says:

    I’m just happy to be part of Keren’s family – I get helped first!

  • red says:

    I think that what Keren and her band of volunteers did is wonderful.   I believe that the majority of jews, quietly believe in helping others whether they are Jewish or not, and helping with modesty.  Therefore the loud minority making comments about giving to schwartzes should be ignored.  Instead be proud of the fact that Jews are generous donors to many varied causes.  I am very proud of the fact that our community now also has an International volunteer program. Kol hakavod.

  • Chaim says:

    It is actually in the commentaries on this week’s parsha.  Jews  are not absolutely required to show exceptional consideration to non-Jews. This (to me) mean we are required to show “non” exceptional consideration and as per the pirkei Avot, we are encouraged to go often beyond the letter of the law and the should show exceptional consideration even though it is not halachically required.
    But if a Jew will lose out because you are diverting resources to a non Jew – the halacha is obvious although it depends on the particular situation e.g. life threatening to the non Jew as I believe was the case in Haiti.  Start local and personal and broaden your horizons from there.
    Also we should consider where, by whom and how the money we donate is really being utilized.

  • Chaim says:

    Keren – nice.  Agree with Red. Kol hakavod!
    You are utilizing and promoting beautiful yet currently rare characteristics of compassion, hope, self-sacrifice and charity/giving. We should all learn from you.
    Note Tzedaka is Hebrew is not really about “charity” but about justice and righteousness i.e. an obligation.

  • ariel says:

    Here is finally a rehashed version of what I tried to post yesterday but got deleted:

    Keren, what your group is doing is wonderful, however as the sources you quote suggest we should probably be using most of our resources to help fellow Jews. For example, if your group spent time helping the Benei Menashe in North India on the Nepalese border, I think it would complete your mission.
    I think helping Jewish causes should be the priority also out of logic:
    1) There are plenty of non-Jews in the world who will give time and money to a variety of non-Jewish causes
    2) There are a limited number of Jews in the world
    3) Non-Jews are far less likely to help Jews; this is not a criticism, just an observation of the natural order of things.
    4) Therefore, we should focus our limited numbers and resources on helping Jews. If there’s some left over, we’ll help others.

    Michael, regarding MDA’s Haiti campaign, I see it like I just described it. I know that MDA primarily operates in Israel. If on occassion they launch an emergency project to help others, that’s great and I’m happy to contribute. On the other hand, if I give money to Red Cross – which won’t visit Gilad Schalit nor accept the Magen David as an equal symbol to the Muslim Crescent – it’s adding to an already filling pot of money: Joe Blogs donates his spare change to Red Cross and so does Yankel. Meanwhile MDA sits with an empty pishka. So whocan they expect help from, Joe or Yankel?
    (to be cont’d)

  • ariel says:

    The other point I had made, Michael mentions briefly.

    Keren talks about the concept of ger. Rashi’s definition of a ger can be summarised in one word: immigrant.

    The Nepalese are not immigrants; they live in their own land. In fact when you go to Nepal, you are the “stranger in a strange land”, albeit as a visitor, not an immigrant. So I don’t see how flying to the other side of the world to help those in need – be they in Haiti or Nepal – has anything to do with helping the ger. It is nonetheless noble.
    As Michael points out, many commentators explain ger as someone who comes to live in Israel and rejects idol-worship (and even accepts the 7 Noahide Laws and even in some cases it refers to a complete convert). In a more contemporary setting, I have heard rabbis explain the concept of a ger as an immigrant who accepts the rule of law and respects the culture of the land they move to and is not hostile to it (c.f the ever-present debate about immigration/integration in Australia).

  • Keren says:

    Thanks for all the positive feedback.
    The example with the Bnei Menashe -Firstly, there are already organisations there.  I’m not completely up to date with their situation, but what specifically are we helping them with?  Are they illiterates that struggle to get enough water for their family or is the need to serve them with Jewish education? 
    And you are right about ger meaning immigrants.  So great, let’s see more Jewish organisations/Jews welcoming all immigrants – Jewish and non-Jewish alike with open arms in Australia – there is certainly an abundance here.  Ger doesn’t have anything specific to do with Nepalis (unless you are actually in Israel where there a lot of Nepali gerim!), but I guess the article was trying to encompass a general attitude of helping others.
    Ariel and Chaim –  I agree that we should help ourselves first. I guess the point where I feel a little frustrated is that there will never be a point where we will ever say that there are no more Jews to help, whether it be visiting the old folks in the Montefiore Home, donating to a peace initiative with Arabs and Israelis that fosters harmony or wanting to provide scholarships so young students can study in Israel.  So then when do we start giving or helping others?  If you think that then well maybe we shouldn’t really bother helping others, then again I think this would detract a lot of Jews from Judaism, including myself from the otherwise great tenants of Judaism.
    It is great and reassuring to see a Jewish response to the Haitian tragedy, but again what bothers me is that why does there have to be a natural disaster to mobilise people into action?  Thousands of kids, are dying unnecessarily every day but because there was no precipitating earthquake, we are somewhat immune to their suffering and need to act. 
    But I agree, it is important to consider where the money is going, and how it is being spent.
    Michael –
    As for your neighbour being “your people”  –  As society changes, the application and interpretation of halacha also adapts to the context, and maybe I’m going to get myself into a bit of trouble for having my own interpretation, but perhaps considering globalisation and the cross cultural and integrated ways of contempory life, maybe ‘your people’ also encompasses the wider community.  I would like to think it is anyway.

  • ariel says:

    Keren, you’re concerns are very valid.
    I suppose my question is less from a Jewish moral/halachic point of view and more one of efficiency and distribution of scarce resources, both human and monetary. Ideally everyone should be helping everyone else, but it can’t be sustainable if Jews help everybody inlcuding themselves and nobody else helps Jews (or other minorities). In other words, ideally I’d like to see an Australian non-Jewish organisation set up to help widows and orphans in Israel (American evangelicals have numerous such organisations which greatly reduce the burden on the Jewish community). 
    As you say/ask: “It is great and reassuring to see a Jewish response to the Haitian tragedy, but again what bothers me is that why does there have to be a natural disaster to mobilise people into action?  Thousands of kids, are dying unnecessarily every day but because there was no precipitating earthquake, we are somewhat immune to their suffering and need to act.”
    Again, we are not immune to their suffering, we just have scarce resources and unfortunately have to save them for a rainy day because perhaps others aren’t giving as much as they should (Israel was unbelievable in their response in Haiti, whilst the oil-rich Arab states sent less than 5c between them). Are we suckers? No, just doing our moral duty, but spending wisely.

    Re immigrants: I always welcome new immigrants to Australia. As long as they come here with an understanding that living here is a privelage, not a right; contribute positively to society; accept democratic values; and have respect for all other cultures in Australia. Just like you, me and our grandparents do/did. If someone comes here and advocates for replacing the Australian Constitution with Shari’a law, I will not embrace them; I will tell them they came to the wrong party.

  • rachsd says:


    You can say that there is a culture of racism in a certain group, but this would have to be based on evidence that it the culture of racism exists. Based on Keren’s article, there is absolutely no evidence that there is a culture of racism amongst religious Jews – she doesn’t specify whether the Jewish doctor, or Jewish father that she describes are religious or secular. From your link to an American blog with a single anecdote involving one racist person, there is also no evidence that this culture exists amongst religious Jews.

    I don’t think you can say that a religious tradition like Judaism or Islam produces racism a priori. This is because both traditions are complex enough to hold a diverse range of people, communities and cultures. It may be the case that there are sub-cultures in certain communities of the Jewish and Muslim faith that are racist and breed racism and intolerance, but if you are not specific about your allegations, you end up sounding as though you are prejudiced against religious people (or in this case specifically religious Jews?).

  • Peace says:

    Keren, I should clarify.
    You  gave of yourself in a very narcissistic, egocentric and selfish society.
    You actually fulfilled a need and a deed in reality while others talk and postulate.
    I have absolutely no criticisms of you is any way but rather applaud you!

  • Chaim says:

    sorry that was me.  A friend had used this computer last..

  • Michael says:

    Rachsd — I said my prior expectation would be that racism would be more common for members of religious traditions that contain teachings of chauvinism/exceptionalism (which includes most major religions) — not sure how you interpreted that to speak of a “culture of racism”?
    Keren — agree completely that you have your own interpretation which I happen to think is a better one. However you yourself have said that you expect people to have a problem with you contradicting the rabbinic tradition. That I think is one of the problems — as Rachsd correctly said there are many strands within the Jewish tradition with different levels of tolerance. However, when so many Jews consider the classical position to trump everything, moral progress (in terms of the less tolerant teachings being worked out of the system) becomes a lot harder than within a tradition that does not have such automatic reverence for the Sages.

  • rachsd says:

    Hi Michael,

    The world / secular society also contains teachings of chauvinism / exceptionalism, so I would take exception at your expectation.

    There is no such thing as “the classical position,” certainly not in the Jewish tradition, which is full of divergent views on law, morality, theology, and even history.

  • frosh says:

    Michael, your wrote:

    Frosh, so by that standard it’s intolerant to criticise intolerance if it’s perceived to be present within a “cultural group”? Do you think there’s also ironic to think that Islam is not a religion of peace and tolerance and can contribute to making one more intolerant?

    No Michael, what would be ironic is if one were to espouse either of the following:

    “I dislike racists and I dislike religious Muslims/Jews.”
    “I dislike racists, and the most racist people of all are religious Muslims/Jews.”

  • Eitan says:

    The Aruch HaShulchan, a late 19th century halakhic work, discusses the same text about prioritising different recipients of tzedakah that Keren brings, and identifies the same problem that she does:

    “… If we explain the texts that I have cited according to their simple meaning – that certain groups are prior to others – they imply that [one may distribute the entirety of one’s tzedakah money to one group within the established hierarchy] and need not give at all to those who fall outside of that particular group. But it is well known that every wealthy person has many more relatives who are poor, and how much more is that true for people whose tzedakah funds are scant! And if this is the case, poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation. Now how is it possible to say this?…” (Yoreh De’ah 251:4)

    He goes on to suggest that the hierarchy is about the amount of resources an individual should give, but that one is obligated to give to *all* of the groups in the hierarchy.

    The point is a relevant one today: Every person of means has her or his potential beneficiaries who are somehow close to them (because of family, ethnicity, geography, religion, political arrangement, etc etc). And yet, there are always those poor people who are not connected to any rich people at all. Those with the ability to assist them, he argues, must be obligated to do so, regardless of affinity. Because if the wealthy only ever give to those with whom they have some connection, the extremely poor would be left to starve, the responsibility of no one.

    The Aruch HaShulchan’s argument is, in my opinion, rather convincing.

  • Yaakov says:

    I came across the same sort of argument during our recent work in India http://www.vikasana.net. I think the true answer is, charity begins at home but need not stay there. I started my dvar torah last Friday with a reference to the stork being an unclean animal. Of course we should be kind to those closest and in degree of urgent need, the home wins. It’s a matter of balancing the urgent need.

    elephant@vikasana.net Yaakov

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