Finding Meaning of Jewish Law in Sandy Shelter

Volunteering After Storm Teaches True Meaning of Tzedakah


By Samuel Klein

Published November 13, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

During the course of the day, I met and spoke with others whose stories were powerful reminders of how natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy serve to underscore the stark economic and social demarcation lines between “those with” and “those without.”

Volunteering with the Red Cross as a chaplain during Hurricane Sandy has caused me to radically re-evaluate my understanding of the psychological dimensions of giving tzedakah,. I see now that tzedakah can encompass listening, empathizing with those in need of sharing their stories, and in so doing, restoring a sense of dignity and self-worth to the dispossessed and emotionally fragile.

One of the core guiding principles of the Red Cross is that nobody is to be treated as a victim; all are “clients” with self-worth and dignity and are on the road to self-recovery. Promoting independence and autonomy is our first priority.

Jewish sages from as far back as Maimonides have emphasized the need to be kind and respectful in the way we give and treat those in need: “Whoever gives tzedakah to the poor [person] with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully, and empathize with him in his sorrow.”

In keeping with these sentiments, Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, emphasized in his 2005 book “To Heal a Fractured World” the psychological dimension of the laws of tzedakah as a complex and subtle response to the individual relative to their previous condition and social standing. Sacks’s understanding of the psychology of tzedakah — “to hear the silent cry of those in need” — underlines how preserving the self-respect of those experiencing shame as a result of their changed circumstances is of paramount importance.

Volunteering as a member of the disaster relief team is an emotionally taxing and sometimes grueling task. It is far more challenging than anonymous giving, for the recipients cannot remain faceless statistics or households; each has a unique story to tell. And each is a mirror to our own insecurities. We are all reflected in Joe, Margarite and the many others affected. Their stories could just as well be ours, much as we might want to deny it sometimes.

Yet for thousands of New Yorkers, and for many others from across the country who joined the hurricane relief efforts, volunteering in person was a natural and obvious response to the idea of the interconnected community. “We’ve got each other’s backs” is how one of my colleagues put it. I immediately thought of the phrase “Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh La’Zeh”: “All Jews are responsible for one another” (Tractate Shavuot 39a), until I realized that the line, and its scriptural source, ” “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16), taken in its literal sense could be (and has been) read to refer to helping others like us. So engrossed are we in the details of our own lives as members of a Jewish community that we forget about the importance of helping others outside it.

As I understand Jewish law, it does not require us to rush into a dangerous situation to play the hero, but it does require us, as socially responsible Jews, to overcome particularism and the sense of “helping one’s own,” and to do everything in our power to safely help those around us, Jewish or not, who are in danger or in genuine need of support.

This is the meaning of social responsibility. And it doesn’t have to take much. We often forget how a smile, a kind word or a boost of confidence can lift a person’s spirits. And it costs us nothing at all.

*Samuel Klein is a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He is a volunteer with the Red Cross Disaster Relief Corps. *


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!
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • 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.