by Etta Zimmerman
I often wish that Oprah was Jewish, hence the Oprah effect of bringing to light the significant needs of our times and helping people take ownership of the issues, across the miles. I think of the illumination that has recently been placed on the documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” an uncomfortable light has looked at the cracks in the American educational system and heightened awareness and resulted in significant actions. Mega philanthropists have taken ownership in what will be a long term process of repairing a very outmoded and broken public educational system. Thanks to the Oprah effect, along with the Angel Network, Bill Gates and others, we have been informed, enlightened, and now are compelled to act in ways that acknowledge that. While the educational system could use Superman to save it, it can no longer wait and we must all participate in the saving of the system. In making a difference through action and dollars and changes of behavior, we will, in essence, be saving the future of America. Nobody seems to be shirking from this lofty goal.
So, while taking yet another journey with Oprah I started to wish that she could help the Jewish world, just as she has built a girls academy in Africa, raised funds for earth shattering disasters, and helped ordinary people feel they can and do make a positive difference in this world. We all acknowledge that the last few years have been challenging for Jewish organizations to meet revised fundraising goals to take care of the most basic, essential needs. So while the reader may think I am digressing about the Oprah effect, I am envious. It takes great passion to make long term needs compelling. Have we in the organized Jewish world gotten so comfortable with our routine that we are unaware that we also need a superhero?
I imagine cameras that followed Elie Weisel and Oprah to Auschwitz into a dilapidated post Soviet era building, with paint chipped and stairs worn thin, only to find a frail elderly woman, alone. She is alone and barely is surviving with medical challenges and because she is bedridden, she has no socialization. Then Oprah, stunned from the lack of fresh air and the woman’s milky eyes that are mostly blind asks her about her life and leaves in tears. She is in tears because despite this woman having a roof over her head she has little else. Oprah and her viewers know that this woman has sacrificed what was left of her personal dignity to shine the light on a lonely and scant existence. No, it is not Haiti or even a village in Africa, but it makes the viewer uncomfortable. To the woman in the apartment, with the crumbs of her Matzoh box, she doesn’t know who this is, yet seems grateful for the visit. The viewer is moved to dialogue and more education and possibly realizing that they also can make a bit of difference for the good.
This scene may be applied to other areas of the Jewish world where the need is consistent and at this point, perhaps becoming a bit mundane to the Jewish audience. But the cause has now been elevated. The entire world is watching, we the viewer and the Jewish world are compelled to act.
Oprah is not alone in elevating causes, just a few weeks ago George Clooney was in Washington concerning the Sudanese. A few months ago he held a concert for Haiti. He made a dire situation come to light and the endorsement of his time and passion snowballed to help bring light and much needed intervention to these causes. They are not alone; many use their celebrity for good causes, day in and day out. I respect each and every effort.
I am clearly not diminishing the profound philanthropic vision and benevolence that has shaped modern Jewish philanthropy. Amazing things have happened from day school funding to Birthright to Jewish camps and numerous other worthy and course altering endeavors. These collective efforts and commitments have propelled Jewish identity to new and amazing heights. Additionally, the very famous have embraced the memory of the Shoah, this also is course altering. While elevating the memory and articulating the history, there is limited engagement on the unspoken subject that communities still grapple with the needs of the dwindling Survivors today.
So, I may digress about the desire to have a superstar shine the light on these issues, clearly time is not on the side of the needy recipient. We can no longer wait for a superhero to fix what is broken with the Jewish world, it is up to us.
Etta Zimmerman serves as a Board member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is a past Chair of the Board of Director’s of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County and an alumna of the Wexner Heritage program.