Time Over Money

[This post was originally published October 18, 2009 in PresenTense Magazines’ Philanthropy issue. As a part of our continuing discussion on Jewish philanthropy, we are reprinting.]

3988802550_9e58558f0dThe Elders of Zion had it right – money and Jews go hand in hand. Philanthropy runs through the Jewish world like veins run though our bodies. You can put your multiples of chai towards Jews in plight, gentiles in plight, volunteering in a third world country, your local Jewish Federation, disadvantaged communities in Israel, or strengthening the Jewish voice on Capitol Hill. Limited time and, even more, limited funds are dwarfed by the seemingly unlimited causes vying for our attention. As the economy shrinks, and with it the cash flow in the Jewish world, this question is more poignant than ever. With this in mind, three contributing writers tackled the task, each arguing for a particular approach to philanthropy from a Jewish standpoint.

Volunteering with non-Jews: Being Jewish and giving to the world are not mutually exclusive.
by Adir Glick

Why volunteer with non-Jews? Are there not enough problems in our own communities, and should we not help ourselves first? This way of thinking is deeply engrained into the Jewish psyche – and in the Talmud, which says to help the poor of one’s own city first.

For hundreds of years, Jews were not secure enough in their own place to help a world often hostile to them. One of the core beliefs of Judaism, that we are a people with a unique mission, became a source of isolation to such an extent that it became part of us to reject the outside world. But in the modern world, where Jews have a homeland and a state, this approach is no longer justifiable.

The old galut (Diaspora) mentality must be broken down. We need to embrace a new role within the tapestry of nations and cultures. For the past 14 months, I have been living and working with Tevel b’Tzedek (Earth in Justice), the only Israeli NGO in Nepal, which brings together diverse groups of Israelis and Diaspora Jews to help Nepalis.

Volunteers study Judaism’s traditions of social justice and are encouraged to give from a Jewish place. Founder and Managing Director Rabbi Micha Odenheimer is often asked, “Why go a thousand miles away to help a country with no Jewish community or historical connection to Israel?” He replies that, in the globalized world, “We are all part of an encircling economic system and the ‘poor of one’s own city’ is in flux.” Over 10,000 Nepalese now work as caretakers in Israel. Israeli backpackers visit Nepal by the thousands.

Yet, in engaging with the global community, we draw from our own unique religious, cultural, and spiritual heritage. In Nepal, when Tevel volunteers share their Judaism with the Nepalese, the cultural exchange and relationships are deepened. When we invite friends and co-workers to our Kabbalat Shabbat services after they have received us for their pujas (Hindu or Buddhist ceremonies), they are overjoyed and often tell us that this is what makes our organization different from others.

Helping non-Jews does not hamper our ability to deal with problems within the Jewish community. It is a declaration that we want to build bridges to the world so that we can help and understand each other rather than confront our turmoil alone. Helping others demonstrates our self-confidence as an emerging nation. It is the path for us to follow as part of our changing identity as we emerge from the galut and return to the Land of Israel.

How to pick volunteer projects: Think about how you can most effectively impact the people you’ve served.
by Maya Paley

3988813722_b01967c33cThe concept of giving was ingrained in me by my parents, who always welcomed people into our household and treated everyone like family. As a result, I was surprised to discover that the privilege of giving my time as a volunteer could cost me no less than $3,000.

Rather than go straight to college after high school, I idealistically moved to Nepal to volunteer and “make the world a better place.” I chose a generic volunteer abroad program that set me up with a host family, a support system, and a local school where I would teach English.

I had been told that the money I paid for this program would be primarily given to the school and family, but after deepening my relationship with the family, I discovered they received only $50 a month for housing and feeding me, and most of the money went directly to an England-based company. I’m fairly certain that the school did not see much money either, and whatever they did receive was not invested directly into the children’s education. Even a small sum of $100 per month could have tangibly improved the school: purchasing books for the kids, or better light fixtures in the dark, cement classrooms.

As Jews, we’re instructed to give to those less fortunate than we are, no matter our own financial standing. While this is a respectable notion, it is more important to give well than to just give. Rabbi Hillel taught us to take other people into consideration: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I still volunteer, but now think more deeply about how my actions will impact others, and whether or not there is a better means to the end. I value sustainability and efficacy, and look for programs run by locals, where the money is invested into the local community. Volunteering is not enough; it’s the manner in which we volunteer that makes all the difference.

Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life… but only if he can fathom a right to support himself.
by Tal Perry

3988801410_82cb84c45aThe poverty in India is so overwhelming that I quickly lost my will to give. Some people, less callous than I, keep giving the child beggar a banana and the mother carrying a rented baby 10 rupees (about 25 cents). Those who seek more than a clear conscience argue that these beggars should be taught a skill and thus be empowered to provide for themselves.

In Mcloud Ganj, I met an Australian woman by the name of BoomBoom who runs an amazing restaurant, the only place I’ve found a proper Dijon cream sauce and eloquent jazz. Her main goal is not to make a profit, but to teach the children from the Dharamsala slums how to be kitchen hands: peeling potatoes, chopping onions, washing dishes, and mopping floors.

She says it takes over a year to train these kids well enough to find work at Delhi hotels. It takes them a year, to learn to peel potatoes, chop onions and wash dishes, yet these are skills they have acquired at home. So what takes a year?

BoomBoom isn’t just teaching them kitchen skills, she is giving them a new state of mind: their first taste of dignity. India’s poor wash in contaminated water and sleep on heaps of garbage. They don’t expect anyone to help them beyond 10 rupees and they don’t hope for a better future. This state of mind, combined with a religion that says that what you have is what you must embrace and forbids breaking away from Dharma (the natural order of things), ensures that the last thing you can have is dignity.

The Indian poor don’t need a metaphorical fishing lesson. They need to think they are worthy of one. More than that, they must learn that it’s possible to break the “natural” order of the world: that they can and should support themselves enough to drink and bathe with clean water, eat clean food, and cease maiming their children to make them more pity-inspiring (and thus efficient) beggars.

During the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl pointed out the Georgian delegates as the paragon of the “New Jew.” The Georgian Jews were rich agriculturalists who had fought for their right to work the land. They were tanned and muscular from using their bodies as opposed to their intellectual, pale, and meek Western European counterparts.

The historical process that allowed the Jews to finally raise their heads and say, “I can change; I can be both strong like the Georgian Jew and smart like the Western European Jew,” was a very long one. Today through virtue and fortune we have all come far up from being meek, downtrodden Shylocks. The model of the Georgian Jews can be shared and implemented in India. Millions of downtrodden Indians could, and hopefully will, benefit. Jewish standpoint.

Maya Paley, a self-proclaimed woman of power, spends her time trying to control her cereal addiction, obsessing over future travel pursuits, and abbreviating as many words as she possibly can.

Adir Glick is a freelance writer, journalist, and filmmaker. He was in Nepal with Tevel b’Tzedek for over a year in 2008-2009.

Tal Perry lives in Tel Aviv, has been traveling in India for four months, and is looking forward to eating beef and using toilet paper.

images: Refugee Camp in Bhaktapur, Nepal, by Rachel Weinstein.