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.