The Real Meaning of Collective Responsibility

Last week a resource development colleague of mine, Ron Allswang, received the following from a donor. I want to be clear that Ron was not soliciting the donor and the donor wrote to Ron:

“Here is my question: why don’t I see any Israeli organizations making any effort to help raise funds for the people in the Five Towns, Bell Harbor, Seagate, etc? Why does the money only flow in one direction? Why are Israeli mishulachim still knocking on my door only a few days after the storm?”

Given the context of the Jewish community coping with the aftermath of hurricane Sandy this comment raises rather serious questions about the meaning of Jewish Peoplehood and the concept of collective responsibility. At the present time a great deal is being written about the interdependent relationship among Jews throughout the world. A crisis in one of the communities in Eastern Europe, South America or Western Europe it is followed by an immediate response from the American Jewish community. This is a tradition that goes back to the beginnings of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee when it responded to the needs of the Palestinian Jewish community in August of 1914. At the time $ 50,000 was raised and sent to assist the fledging settlements during the outbreak of World War I.

This is part and parcel of the fabric of the organized Jewish community in the United States and the Jewish communities around the world through the Keren Hayesod. Historically, the beneficiaries of these funds were referred to as “communities in distress.” There was a tacit understanding that it was the responsibility of the Jewish communities in the western world to respond to calls for assistance. Following the establishment of the State of Israel there was a unified effort to provide the necessary funds for a variety of projects and programs spanning the establishment of agricultural settlements to building community centers and schools.

There was never a doubt in the minds of the philanthropists and more modest donors that it was important to provide the resources to strengthen Jewish communities around the world or to participate in the building of the State of Israel. Throughout the post-World War II period and into the 1990’s large sums were raised that provided for social programs, neighborhood rehabilitation, the absorption of almost two million immigrants, among other programs. There was never a time when world Jewry did not respond to a call for assistance or join in partnership with the rising number of Israeli philanthropists.

At the end of the last century, The Jewish Agency established a mass fundraising campaign to reach out to Israelis, the Spirit of Israel. Originally, the focus was on developing local Israeli donors who would contribute to the ongoing programs of The Jewish Agency for Israel. It soon became apparent that they were reluctant to contribute unrestricted funds and the focus changed to include the needs of specific groups, for example children-at-risk that were beneficiaries of JAFI’s programs.

The Spirit of Israel even includes a women’s campaign, The Israeli Lions of Judea, and it mirrors the campaigns in Jewish communities. The leadership of the Israeli Lions, as they were called, not only solicit contributions but also fund the projects and programs that reflect their priorities. Every attempt is made to connect with JAFI’s priorities but occasionally there are differences and the women manage to assert their position since they raise the funds.

The major theme of the fundraising efforts around the world and in Israel has been meeting the present and emerging needs of the Jewish people. However, when the need occurs in the United States or other communities who have been able to provide funding when needed there is not a major effort on the part of the Jewish communities around the world to respond to their needs. Yes, when Katrina hit the southern part of the United States, and even now with Sandy, the Israel Trauma Coalition (that receives allocations and donations through JFNA, among other sources) provided professional consultation and was available to assist the staffs of the local agencies in the Jewish community.

However, this does not represent an outpouring of support that reflects a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood. There is no sense of collective responsibility from the Jewish communities in the four corners of the globe. Does this mean that we only talk about Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh meaning all Jews (or all the people of Israel) are responsible for one another only applies when approaching the communities that have historically been the ones to contribute funds?

The world has changed and if we truly understand the meaning of Jewish Peoplehood then it implies that there should be a worldwide Jewish response to the needs of all communities. It means that the mishulach knocking on the door at hurricane Sandy would be there to offer assistance and not to solicit a contribution. The Spirit of Israel, Matan (the United Way of Israel), and other organizations need to respond in a way that is not limited to financial contribution nor limited to the professional consulting services of the Israel Trauma Coalition.

What is the appropriate response to an event like hurricane Sandy that truly reflects our commitment to Jewish peoplehood? How does this special bond translate into the collective responsibility we should have for each other? These questions should be answered with the plans for action that have to be implemented by the major organizations in the Jewish world when there is a crisis in any community.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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  1. says

    Special recognition should be given to the young graduates of the Ein Prat Pre-Army Leadership Seminar (“mechina”) who left their homes, work, and studies to travel to New York immediately after the hurricane hit to assist elderly Jews stranded in their apartments and homes in Far Rockaway and Staten Island. During their two week stay in the area, these volunteers, men and women …. all former combat soldiers and officers … brought their expertise from the IDF and other emergency situations to assist New York Jews most in need.

  2. says

    The question is a legitimate question, and deserves an appropriate response.

    In the 25 years that I have been working in the non-profit, primarily raising funds for overseas projects in th Former Soviet Union and most recently in Israel, I have learnt a few lessons.

    The first is, we need to first look inwards. Its always easier to blame others and point or look in the other direction. We here in the United States, and especially not for profits from Israel and other global communities, have mastered the art of presenting the needs of Jewry of the FSU or Israel at the highlight and top of American Jewry agendas.

    In fact, many recent articles in this very publication have dealt with the fact that Israeli non profits have surpassed and in a sense, “taken over” or beat the Jewish Federation system in raising funds directly for their causes.

    Unfortunately, whether out of pride or negligence, here in the USA, we are known as “givers” and less as “takers”. We will often “take off our own shirt” to help families in Israel, who in fact, may be living better lives than some of us here in Brooklyn.

    From 1990, even before establishing the Global Jewish Assistance & Relief Network (Feb ’92), I was raising funds here in the USA for projects in the FSU and continued to do so up until today. However, when people here discovered the öligarchs” of Russia and Ukraine and began asking why we are putting so much emphasis on Russia when there is even bigger money there, we soul searched and changed our modus operandi. In essence, we turned over most, and eventually all our projects there, to local communities and gave them the task of maintaining projects we founded or helped them start. If we still fund new projects there, as we do from time to time, it is clearly with the implicit understanding that we are helping them kickstart a project but only on the condition they can show their ability to maintain it for the long term.

    When we moved our primary focus to Israel in 2000, and with the understanding there are perhaps more per capita millionaires in Israel than here in the USA, we looked to set up a program where we can provide the leadership, framework, technology and know how and very minimal funding, with the bulk of funds coming from within Israel itself. Of the 20,000,000 ILS + provided in FOOD CARDS this past year to help feed the neediest amongst struggling Israeli families, more than 90% of the funding comes from within Israel.

    The second lesson I have learnt, is that even when justified, blaming doesn’t help or advance one’s own cause. Advancing one’s own cause does. Should the “meshulach” be a little more sensistive? Most certainly, but he may not even be aware. In the best of circumstances, we might have had a little respite, at least for a few weeks or months? But that alone would not answer the question of “communal responsibility”.

    For years I complained to myself that our programs were more viable, transparent, more dignified and even more cost effective than many of our “competitors”. There was no one I could share my grief with regarding now publicly alleged embezzelment of funds by other “better known and more respected Israeli charities”!

    If the only way to reach the top is by squashing everyone beneath ourselves, we are no more than perhaps a diamond in a pile of rubbish. Sully and dirty with less or little value. Only an expert will appreciate our true value once prolerly washed, shined and set in beautiful display.

    For years, meshulachim went to Argentina to collect funds as well. When they were hit by their financial crisis, they were not ashamed to ask for help overseas. And yet while they received assistance from the JDC and others, local individuals were still supporting other overseas projects.

    And that is not a contradiction. In fact, that is the very meaning of being part of a global community. An individual needs to give locally, “the poor of your own community come first”, but that does not mean he/she can no longer support their favorite overseas charities. Nor does it excuse other Jewish communities from around the globe from coming to their aid.

    Just this morning I was asked by members of the Seagate Jewish community, “where are all the donors who gave to Japan, to Haiti, etc”? Does the fact we live in New York mean we don’t need help? Japan is richer than America? What about our own “tikun olam”? Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers for him either. Perhaps I too am guilty of looking for an easy way out claiming that I need to focus on our core mission and cannot provide for everyone.

    Hopefully, my thoughts here, coupled with my efforts so far to help some of these communties, will in fact be meaningful.

    Finally, ITC is not the only Israeli organization to have offered assistance after Sandy, ISRAID in fact continues to provide assistance with a volunteer team from Israel right here in Brooklyn, just as they did in Haiti, Japan and elsewhere, and there may be others.

  3. says

    Thank you, Stephen, for raising this issue in a respectful way. Your post challenges us to think about the relationship between global peoplehood, tzedakah and volunteerism. Another scenario that will stretch the resources of U.S. Jews is the aging of the Jewish community. Clearly, that’s not a crisis and the impact will not be immediate, but your post also points the way to discussions that need to happen.

  4. Chaim says

    As it just happens, Israel DID send aid to some of the affected parts of the USA after Sandy, and was the only nation to do so.

  5. Stan says

    Israel was evidently the only country to send aid teams to the affected areas.

    Where’s the Coverage? Israelis Help Hurricane Sandy Victims…/11/wheres_the_coverage_israelis_h_1.html

    Israeli volunteers head to N.Y. to help in Sandy relief efforts | JTA ……/israeli-volunteers-head-to-ny-to-h... – United States

  6. says

    As a US expat living in Israel, I relate to this article but find it somewhat lacking. Our shul held special prayers for our brethren impacted by Sandy, and I as well as my neighbors donated (within our more limited means) to Sandy relief efforts.