Non-Zero Sum: Helping Others And Ourselves

Public Judaism

By Jill Jacobs

Published March 10, 2010, issue of March 19, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Should Jews first take care of our own, or first serve the needs of society as a whole?

In the course of a meandering and much-discussed article in the latest issue of Commentary magazine, historian Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary castigates the Jewish social justice world for prioritizing support for non-Jews over the internal concerns of the Jewish community. Into this latter category, he collapses social services for low-income Jews, day school scholarships and the affordability of institutions ranging from synagogues to Jewish community centers. With Jewish groups slashing their budgets, day school students transferring to public schools and Holocaust survivors struggling to make ends meet, he complains, how can Jewish social justice leaders possibly encourage Jews to put more money and volunteer energy into serving non-Jewish communities?

“[J]ust at a time when Jewish communal institutions are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad, the hot trend in Jewish philanthropic and organizational circles, incredibly, is to channel ever more of their resources to nonsectarian causes,” he fumes. (The emphasis is Wertheimer’s.)

With this argument, Wertheimer falls into the trap, common on both the left and the right, of assuming a zero-sum game in which Jewish needs and the needs of everyone else stand in stark opposition, competing for scarce resources in a cutthroat world. Those on the right often argue that “social justice” Jews care little about the interests of their own people and seek only to transfer Jewish money to non-Jews. Those on the left tar their opponents as selfish paranoiacs and point to the relatively high socioeconomic level of the American Jewish community as evidence that Jewish money is best directed outside its confines.

To paraphrase Tevye: “You’re wrong, and you’re also wrong.”

Instead of pushing us only inward or outward, the current economic crisis should force us to recognize that the fortunes of American Jews are intimately tied to the fortunes of all Americans, and even to the world as a whole. It is true, as Wertheimer points out, that too many Jews who are

elderly, immigrants or minimum-wage workers barely scrape by. As a community we must not ignore their existence or their needs. But their pain should also prompt us to ask broader questions: Why do so many elderly people live in poverty? Why do immigrants struggle so hard to survive? Why can’t minimum-wage workers support their families on their earnings?

The Jewish federation world has long understood that it is neither practical nor politically advisable to serve Jews alone. Supported agencies, such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services, therefore accept clients of all religions and ethnicities, including Jews, while local and national bodies advocate for government funding for social services across the board. Despite this broad-based approach, many Jews continue to think of these organizations as only assisting Jews (in large part because, in order to appeal to donors, these agencies sometimes only stress their work with Jewish beneficiaries in their promotional and fundraising materials).

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations with a more explicit focus on the world as a whole also view service to the Jewish community as an essential part of their mission. Many Jewish social justice groups do integrate Jewish education and identity formation into their programming. They do so out of a recognition of the inherent value of Judaism and the Jewish community. Moreover, Jewish groups that specifically advocate for health care, job creation and raising the minimum wage understand that policy change in these areas will benefit Jews as well as non-Jews. For some Jewish families, a new job, higher wages or a lower health care bill might even free up money for synagogue dues or day school tuition. And those of us who do not receive Medicaid, attend public schools or live in subsidized housing still benefit from having neighbors and co-workers who are healthy, well-educated and safe.

American Jews do not live in a vacuum. Addressing the financial pressures of the Jewish community will require attention to the larger economic and social policies that hurt low-income and middle-class families. We should be honest that we want to address these issues in part because of our concern for the well-being of our own community. We should also take seriously the obligation to create a better world for everyone. And we should recognize that these two goals can best be achieved together.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition” (Jewish Lights 2009) and the rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice. She is currently on sabbatical as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.