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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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