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Does Charity Begin at Home?

October 3, 2011 – 9:46 pm10 Comments

A volunteer from Jewish Aid Australia with Indigenous youth. Image source: JAA

By Keren Tuch

Does charity begin at home? It’s an issue many of us have grappled with, and a significant consideration for the Jewish community.

Recently, I attended a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival exploring this very issue. The panel comprised: an academic and ex-politician, a human rights journalist, and an activist currently working in Fiji. To my surprise, there was an overwhelming consensus that charity should begin at home.

The discussion began with an assessment of the Queensland Flood appeal, moving to a consideration of how much foreign aid Australia should be giving. Gareth Evans, the academic on the panel, argued that Australia is wealthy enough to provide for people in need both locally and abroad.

Evans referred to a study asking Australians how much they think the Australian government is spending in foreign aid. The average response was 10% of GDP, when actually it’s 0.35%. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has committed to raising that figure to 0.5% of GDP by 2015, which is $8 billion.  The UN would like to see all wealthy countries giving 0.7%, of GDP, which Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have already surpassed.

Of course, helping those in need is not just about throwing billions of dollars at the issue. In considering where to give money, it is imperative to consider the difference between long-term sustainable aid and short-term emergency aid, which is delivered immediately after a disaster strikes.

Additionally, the public needs to be better informed about issues. Currently East Africa is suffering the worst famine in 60 years. A projected 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti are affected. Images of skeletal infants have been proliferated in the media. Jo Chandler, the writer on the Melbourne Writers’ Festival panel, suggested there needs to be better, and more, reporting that goes beyond the horror story.

It was also suggested it may help to highlight the individuals in need, rather than the overwhelming mass of starving people – this issue is explored by New York Times writer Nick Kristof, in Save The Darfur Puppy. Kristof sugges the evidence is overwhelming that people are more inclined to give money to an individual than to 12.4 million malnourished Africans.

This panel discussion made me think about charity and the Jewish Community.  As a whole, we are a wealthy community. And while I would agree charity at home is important, it should by no means end there.

Perhaps Rabbi Hillel put it best in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, when he said:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Keren Tuch is Education Director at Jewish Aid Australia

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10 Comments »

  • Andrea Cooper says:

    An extremely valid question to put at this time of year.

    One of the issues our community has(which you have also fallen for) is the myth that we are a ‘wealthy community’. Certainly there is great wealth across our community, but there are also many on extremly low incomes, who all too frequently fall through the community net.

    Living, especially if it is long term, on a low income alienates one from the community. In fact if you’re on a low income and don’t have a strong commitment to judaism/& the community, it is very easy to disappear all together. Even with such a commitment, it is hard to stay in touch, let alone participate.

    Yes we have welfare programs, but to recieve ‘support’ you need to already belong and have the courage (and lack of pride) to ask for help. You need to make yourself ‘known’. Then also be lucky that you approach somone/organisation who can help/has resources to help.

    A big part of the problem is our perception that we are a wealthy and caring community. Whilst on many levels this is very true, it is this ‘back patting’ that is also our downfall. Many work hard to be helpful, provide services and money. Yet all too often the perspective is without any true empathy or understanding. Too often we lack awareness and don’t see what is in reality is in front of us.

    I often think of the quote from ‘Hillel’, for all it’s strength and wonderful value, it stops short of any guidance for the next step.

    To help others we need to be able to see and recognise need, to be aware of need, to be willing to go beyond our comfort zone or frame of reference.

    In recent years the concept of ‘social inclusion’ has arisen. This can be defined as ” a society in which all feel valued and have the opportunity to participate fully in the life of the society”.

    In my own experience (professional and personal) one of the biggest difficulties is being able to feel you belong, being able to engage and have a voice. When life is down to basics- health, familiy issues, tzurus, lack of income – how do I pay the rent and basic overheads, put food on my table. The last thing one has energy for is to reach out and be active and participate in community life.

    So my point, as we go into Yom Kippur is not just to consider ‘Ani l’dodi, v l’dodi li’, but to open our eyes- look at those around us, our neighbours, local area, community- seek to understand and ‘see’ situations, look also for those that aren’t visible. Put yourself in the shoes of others- then do something ACT.

    Even before providing material aide, people need to feel valued, be acknowledged. They need to be listened to and understood, empowered to have a voice. Then we can start to provide ‘material’ help and assistance.

    Gemar Chatima Tova

  • ariel says:

    This raises an interesting ethical and economic question.
    (I don’t want to say halachic because the Australian government is not bound by halacha).

    The question is whether an entity – in this case the Australian Government – is obliged to give (forget oblidged, is it right to give?) financial aid with money that is not hers.
    That is, right now, the government is nearly $200 million in debt to China. By definition, the government has no money of its own. So, should it borrow more money to aid other countries? It seems counter intuitive to do so: first get out of debt, then help others.

    The US is $14 trillion (!!) in debt, yet continues to borrow money from China to provide aid. They can’t seem to say no.

    Yet by definition, the US Government is itself in dire financial straits! Australia not so much, but still in the red.

    So should such entities be expected to help others?

    Moving to the halachic question as pertaining to individual Jews, I venture that one who is in financial crisis is not expected to give as much as someone who has an asset base.

    SO perhaps the answer is for the Australian Government to provide large incentives (not necessarily financial) to those individual Australians in good shape who give to African causes, etc.

    What to people think?

  • Sam says:

    It is interesting that many first world countries have significant loans from China.
    What is the situation then with China providing foreign aid herself, as it appears that China is more “cashed up” then almost any other country?
    Checking fairly reliable sources on the net describes China’s foreign aid not so much as gifts of money but concessional loans and foreign investment funds into mainly resource projects. That is clever as China is building up goodwill in poorer countries that are rich in natural resources. She is probably also gaining a stake in these projects, thus ensuring supply of ores and minerals for herself.
    There is an opinion that Chinese citizens might not look favourably on their government just giving money away when China still receives some forms of aid.
    This does seem a lot more wise than the US which has recently gone close to bankruptcy technically, borrowing even more to give away to third world countries.
    I am fairly sure that we are witnessing a gradual changing of the guard with regard to who will be the number one world economy.

  • ariel says:

    Sam, I agree.

    It’s interesting to note that most aid that Israel gave in it’s formative years was human aid, ie there was no money to give, so they sent experts in agriculture and engineering to teach locals how to thrive under their conditions.

    Teach someone to fish…

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    I must say that I was taken aback by Andrea’s belief that we are not a wealthy community. By any objective world standard we are all rich – we have more clothing food, living space and heat than we need. And given that our community sends more than $10million each year to Israel and maintains a large number of local charitable institutions, we can be seen to be a wealthy community.
    However, having said that I am mindful that the Gen08 survey found that 30% of respondents considered themselves to have less than sufficient for their needs and I am also aware that Melbourne Jewish Charitable Fund and the Mizrachi Charitable Fund between them distribute some $1.6million each year in financial grants for food, clothing, rent and electricity.
    Drilling into the figures for charitable donations however,reveals a rather different situation. The pat-on-the-back mentality mentioned by Andrea is false because the vast bulk of the monies received by these various charities comes from a remarkably small number of super-wealthy donors. Where are we? What is our individual commitment to tzedakah? One dollar put into a pushke each day amounts to $365 per year – it is quite painless for most of us and for the large proportion of professional and entrepreneurial members of our community, larger daily amounts cause no pain.
    Andrea is quite right that we all need to be more aware of the need that surrounds us in the midst of this prosperity.

  • Jake says:

    Ian – I fully endorse your sentiments, and not that it makes a great difference in the scheme of things, but the figure you quote for the Melbourne Jewish Charity Fund and Mizrachi Charitable fund is highly overstated , and is actually about half the figure you quote.

  • Andrea Cooper says:

    Thanks Ian for falling into this with far too closed eyes and a broad paint brush.

    You are totally correct if we look in context of the wider world.
    I’m however looking much closer to home, under our own noses.

    We have a wonderful embedded ethos for charity/zedakah, but we actually need to begin at home. It needs to begin with open eyes even before $s!

    I love the figures from the Gen08 survey- 30% is almost a third of the community. Tell me does the $1.6mil you quote (or whatever it might accurately be) truly go anywhere near far enough to help this 30%!!! Of course we also need to look at the whole Gen08 survey- for all their good efforts to broaden the range of participants, it is highly likely the survey is only reflective of those who feel empowered to participate /identify in the community.
    This will always be a difficulty with any research.

    Yes we are a wealthy community- but of the 70% what percentage have the ability or mindset to put that a dollar a day away???? I suggest that you come from a privileged section of our community. Kol ha Kavod to those who do act as you describe- but reality is most can’t or don’t. You have fallen for the exact ‘pat on the back mentality’ I am referring to.

    You talk about the two funds- great if one knows how to or has the courage to apply to them- I’d be more interested in knowing how many people they help – rather than the total dollars they able to distribute.

    I challenge you and others reading this to look beyond those you know – is there someone out there who could perhaps need help…. We need to look- those in need are often either invisible or the need is not obvious.

    Do you know that the single unemployment benefit works out at $243.40 per week plus rent assistance (if eligible) to a maximum of $132.70 week. That adds up to $375.10 a week for – rent, food, power and everything else… Just to live in a basic one bedroom flat near the Jewish community costs at the very least 60% of this!!!! Yes I actually know people living in this situation (Aged pension and disability benefit is $100 a week more!).

    So here we have our individual or family (who do get a bit more than above) desperately trying to get onto their feet- their energy consumed by daily survival and roof over their head…issues that are made greater if they choose to live near/within the community, keep kosher and shabbat.

    So what am I about? We need to be thankful for the good as a community that we do- but also we need to remove our rose coloured glasses, be more aware and do even more. The first step is to SEE.

    I know the wonderful custom (of some) to put money in an envelope under a doormat still goes on. (acknowledgement and thanks to those who do this).

    However, more may not be just $s. Often more can be accomplished in other ways. Have you ever tipped off a charity that someone might need help? Have you been personally inclusive, thoughtful and caring. How many of us have just knocked on someone’s door to say hello, taken someone out for coffee, invited a person/family for a meal, included them in an activity (even picking them up and covering the cost).

    These are also important part of ‘doing for others as you would have them do for you’.

  • Jake says:

    Andrea – your interest in how many people are helped as opposed to how much money is raised is misguided. Surely you would not want to see more people helped with a paltry sum, rather than less people with a more meaningful amount.
    Perhaps you should contact the two charities involved – the MJCF by far being the greater, and simply ask the question.
    They are open about their total receipts and where the monies go.
    Applying to them for help, is initially picking up the phone.
    This can be done by either the person/s themself/ves or another person as is often the case.
    I am aware that aside from assisting needy people with regular expenses/bills, they also work on special projects where required. These special projects fall outside the ‘regular business’, and may involve tens of thousands of dollars for say a specially fitted motor vehichle or a house modification for a disabled person.
    We can never do enough, however, your post gives the impression that we are doing far less than is done in this community.
    Give credit where it is due, but dont become complacent.
    Are you aware of the amount of food (one of the three basic requirements we have of shelter, clothing and food) is distributed within the community each and every day/week ?
    You are correct when you state that not all charity is monetary, but again, I ask you to look at the infrastructure that we have and give encouragement for that to grow.

  • Andrea Cooper says:

    Jake,
    Thanks for your comments- I’ve no doubt you’re correct. However, as someone with familiarity with some of those in need- I have only vague awareness of these funds, let alone any idea how to contact them!!! One needs very solid communbity connections to know of these funds. I have my own connections but obviously not strong enough… and that is one of my points…. you have to already be well connected or known to ask (if you have the courage) for help.

    My point is that I’ve no doubt they do fantastic and essential work- but I suspect that they only reach the tip of the real community need.
    We most certianly need to storngly support such organisations BUT we also have a responsibility to ensure we find and connect with the ‘unseen or unempowered’ who have a need.

    By looking and reaching out we can at least do our indvidual bits to INCLUDE people… though dollars (including raising them) are essential, so too are other rights such as recognition and assisting people belong and be part of community. Such assistance goes equally as far as $s to help and empower people to ultimately be able to help themselves!

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    Hi, Andrea.

    I really don’t know how to answer you adequately, and given that it is some days since you posted, you may not revisit this post.
    You are of course quite correct that tzedakah is not just about money; there is a contingent of old and lonely people in our community who are not needy of money but desperately need attention and love.
    However, I have a family to which I must pay attention and give love; my granddaughters are small, they make noise and they demand attention, so I cannot ask old people who also demand attention and are intolerant of noise to share a shabbat or yomtov table with my family.
    I have no idea how many people are helped by the charitable funds, just as I have no idea how many people are admitted to Jewish Care’s program teaching budgetting and household management. To know these things is to threaten the anonymity we allow to welfare recipients in order to preserve their pride. Whereas in the small, closed communities of pre-war Europe, everyone knew everyone else’s business the poor could afford neither pride nor shame, our Australian suburban setting quarantines them from our inquisitive stare and we have a sophisticated social welfare system funded by taxes to provide them with a basic living allowance. True, government allowances are probably insufficient for kosher food but even the most punctilliously observant are not obliged to buy prepared food – it is far, far cheaper to prepare from basics and it is not at all unreasonable to expect that hard-up people should as far as possible “cut the coat according to the cloth”.
    Welfare work is never ending – I find it remarkable that in Australia, where we often experience labour shortages, whe have as large a proportion of people who feel themselves to be poor as were actually dependent on the community in pre-war Poland where there was a chronic labour surplus.
    My point about the $1 per day in a pushke has nothing to do with my socio-economic status but is to demonstrate that insignificant amounts can be husbanded to good effect. As to privilege, it is irrelevant. I believe that the better-off 70% of the community is not giving sufficient and is riding on the coat-tails of the super-donors.

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