Charity Begins at Home

So far today I’ve received three Emails from various Jewish organizations about Hurricane Ike. Two national listserves and one local group, all of whom want me to know that the Jewish communities in Houston and Galveston and parts coastal have arranged to receive my donations for aid after the storm through my local Jewish Federation.

I’m sure a great deal of aid will be needed, and I’m sure Jews will be affected, since Jews live there. I want to help. I’m aware that giving money is more useful than donating old clothes, and I’m not hopping on a bus or a truck to go down and work with my hands, so I probably will make a donation. And yet those appeals make me uncomfortable. I don’t like the assumption that I should donate to a Jewish organization when the suffering will be universal.

On the other hand, there was a time when Jews couldn’t safely turn to the mainstream relief organizations for aid. My mother gave money to help Katrina victims through her local UJA/Federation chapter because she refuses to support the Red Cross. She’s not upset about the contemporary Red Cross criticizing Israel or the unconscionably long delay in welcoming the Magen David Adom into the International Federation/Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. She’s thinking of World War II, when the Red Cross failed to condemn the concentration camps and (according to my mother) did not treat Jewish-American soldiers with the same respect as Christian soldiers during family crises. My mother, as we’ve seen, does not forget.

Why does it matter? Our local Federation chapter assured us after Katrina that they sent funds to umbrella relief organizations, not just to Jewish charities. So what difference does it make? Why do I care? Why did those Emails irritate me so?

I suspect it’s my own stuff, my displeasure at the reminder that I am Other, that even in times of national crisis and natural disaster, I stand somewhat apart from many other Americans. Jews take care of our own, and we do it in large part because for generations we have known that no one else will take care of us. We come together as a community to sustain ourselves and to continue our tradition, but we also come together in our own schools and hospitals and community centers to be safe, to be sure we are welcome, to avoid persecution. I am privileged to live, most of the time, without remembering that, and it is uncomfortable when that lens of privilege darkens, even for a moment.

This is Elul, the month when we are commanded to reflect on our sins and seek forgiveness. On this Shabbat, I think of those in Ike’s path – Jews and non-Jews, Americans and those from other lands, poor and wealthy – and I am humbled and ashamed at my own self-absorption. I am blessed to be able to give to help them, and I will, even if it means fishing one of those Emails out of my trash folder.


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