By Maayan Jaffe
“For I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22).
It is a quote straight out of the Torah, but one wrought with meaning for the Jewish community of Australia. The Australian Jewish Community has the highest number of Holocaust survivors in the Diaspora and today, according to Gary Samowitz, that history “informs our Jewish identity and the way we see the world.”
Samowitz is chief executive officer of Stand Up, Australia’s only Jewish organization that focuses on the aboriginal and refugee communities, as opposed to Jewish needs.
“When we came to Australia, we were refugees who just survived genocide. We didn’t speak English. Now, we are a well-established community paying it forward,” says Samowitz.
The organization supports the aboriginal community who was mass prosecuted more than 200 years ago under British colonialism and advocates on behalf of refugees who are trying to establish themselves in the down under. Stand Up is a member of Olam, a new organization and collaboration of the Alliance for Global Good, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Pears Foundation.
Olam promotes stronger Jewish engagement in global humanitarian issues, according to Dyonna Ginsburg, the organization’s executive director. However, as an international organization looking to define tikkun olam, Ginsburg says the team is finding that tikkun olam means something different in different parts of the globe.
Samowitz, for example, says, “I don’t use the word tikkun olam often. There is a perception that tikkun olam has been hijacked by the progressive movement as their sole expression of Judaism, and that the term tikkun olam has been taken out of its original context.”
Instead, Samowitz focuses on words like chesed and tzedakah, which resonate with a more traditional Jewish population. Roughly 70 percent of synagogues in Australia are affiliated with the Orthodox movement. The country sends the largest number per capita of young adults to study on a gap year in Israel.
“People may say that doing social justice is one element of their Jewish life, but they cannot disconnect Judaism from Israel, the Holocaust, the Torah and all of the other facets they make up their Jewish identity,” Samowitz explains.
But the work is the same: caring for strangers and repairing the world.
A network of more than 200 volunteers and 15 full- or part-time staff work throughout the country to engage Indigenous youth to discover, develop and achieve their potential through programming that explores the fundamentals of personal development, well-being, leadership and teamwork. They run homework clubs and women’s groups and teach job skills to the unemployed. An education department teaches Jewish youth about giving back through a distinctly Jewish lens.
“We are drenched in Jewish values,” says Lillian Kline, director of development for Stand Up.
Kline quotes Ethics of the Fathers 1:14, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”
“The younger generation understand this,” she says.
Melanie Schwartz now serves as Stand Up’s chair of the board. She says she is daily inspired by her peers, who both volunteer with their hands and their money. Between 70 and 80 percent of organization funds come from donations, according to Kline.
Schwartz also takes inspiration from the people Stand Up serves.
“The indigenous community is very resilient and there is a lot of resurgence of culture and lots of humor in the community, the ability to see the lighter side in difficult situations,” says Schwartz, noting a particularly striking strength amount indigenous women.
“I think in terms of who is keeping the culture alive and the family strong, I think it is very much like Judaism: strong women at the center of families and communities,” she says.
“Anyone and everybody is able to roll up their sleeves and get involved,” notes Kline. “The time is now.”