Reframing Our Understanding of Overseas Needs

by Jonathan Strausberg

Today, at the end of 2009, here is an abridged list of the needs that we have seen over the past year in the Jewish community: families struggling to make ends meet, adults out of work for the first time in their lives, seniors living in isolation without frequent socialization, seniors and children going hungry, families looking to form meaningful Jewish connections, young adults looking to connect to Judaism and Israel, kids taking part in high-risk activities, and more. What community am I talking about? These needs apply to virtually every Jewish community in the United States, but also pretty much every other Jewish community around the world. Whether we are talking about the former Soviet Union, South America, Europe, India, or Israel, the issues that the global Jewish community now faces are borderless.

It is not uncommon to talk about the needs of Jewish communities outside of North America as if they only exist “over there,” but talking with and visiting other communities around the world it become quite clear how universal our Jewish issues are. A decade ago, Argentina went into a financial tailspin that wiped out much of the wealth of its Jewish community. Families who had previously given much to charitable causes needed support just to buy food. Today, in the former Soviet Union, in places like Odessa, hundreds of thousands of elderly Jews (many of whom survived the Holocaust) survive on minuscule pensions and must decide between food and medicine. In Israel, conversations about Jewish identity are now taking place in terms of how young Israelis will develop their identity beyond saying “being Israeli makes me Jewish.” The are summer camps, family camps, young adult Jewish salons, and more that are taking place in communities around the world…and here at home. The opportunity now is not to break down the silos, but rather link the silos together.

We are bringing what we have learned overseas home, at least here in Baltimore. It used to be that Jewish communities in North America had Kosher food pantries. This took up space and those in need struggled with dignity as they walked out of buildings carrying grocery bags. This was the same issue in Argentina. There, Joint Distribution Committee began distributing debit cards so families could shop and receive tzedakah more discretely. Since then, that model has been adopted in many other communities. Here in Baltimore it is the Jewish Community Food Fund, which focuses on meeting those same needs with dignity for those in need.

The story isn’t any different for isolated elderly. As the American Jewish community ages, more older adults will live away from their families and run the risk of social isolation and not being able to age in place. In the 1990s, JDC developed the Warm Homes program in the FSU, which brings seniors together to socialize, eat, and stay connected. In Israel, through a partnership with the government, Eshel was created to provide supportive communities for the elderly so they could remain living in their homes while receiving basic general and medical support, which is far less expensive than moving to an assisted living community. The outgrowth in North America has been the creation of Naturally Recurring Retirement Communities (NORCs), like Senior Friendly Neighborhoods, which provides support to the elderly so they may continue to live at home in an affordable and healthy manner.

And then there is Jewish identity, which every community no matter where they are struggles with. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 250,000 young Jewish adults to Israel for the first time, has been one of our greatest programmatic triumphs. The Jewish Agency for Israel has played a major role in not only connecting the participants to the land of Israel, but also the people of Israel. One component of the trip, which provides some of the most lasting results, is the presence of Israeli soldiers on the buses as part of the trips to introduce the participants to living, breathing Israelis. What often isn’t said though is that these Israelis now see their country through a different lens. By spending time with non-Israeli Jews they gain an appreciation for their homeland and its significance to their own Jewish identity. Israel and Jewish communities around the world are working together to address how we will each individually and collectively define Jewish identity for coming generations.

Beyond Birthright, through MAKOM, which worked closely with Baltimore in the development of the Israel Engagement Summit and will consult in the implementation of ideas, summer camp shlichim (more than 1,500 served in North America last summer), and MASA, which brings young adults to Israel for long-term immersive experiences, JAFI is helping to build Jewish identity and develop a new generation of leaders around the world. Through these various initiatives and more, JAFI is exporting the greatest contribution that Israel has to offer to the rest of the Jewish world- the tools to ensure a strong Jewish identity for the future- and is importing a sense of global peoplehood that goes beyond any country’s borders. This is the vision that Natan Sharansky has laid out and is being carried out on a daily basis.

So here is our opportunity to connect the conversations. The services we provide and needs we meet locally in our communities and the support we provide overseas are relevant to each other. As we debate how to best use resources, human and financial, we shouldn’t be looking to reinvent the wheel. Much of what we are doing at home is relevant to communities around the world, and likewise much that has been done around the world can be applied to meet the needs of our own communities.

Jonathan Strausberg is the Israel & Overseas Planner for THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore; cross-posted with Baltimore, Israel & Overseas.