Ask an ordinary Jewish American what Judaism’s core values are, and invariably “tikkun olam” will come up.
Tikkun olam – translated and appropriated by an American cultural context as “repairing the world,” that is, helping those less fortunate, preserving the environment, giving tzedakah and so on – is a defining feature of modern American Judaism. Without philanthropy and service projects devoted to both Jews and non-Jews, American Judaism would be an entirely different species.
In this spirit, this summer 14 American young professionals from Seattle and around the East Coast joined the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) on a service mission to Khabarovsk, Russia.
“First and foremost we strongly believe that North American Jews need a greater understanding of what’s happening in the Jewish world,” said Sarah Eisenman, the JDC’s Director of Next Generation and Service Initiatives. “It’s a much more globalized world. We need to think about what that means.”
But understanding the global Jewish world – and what it needs – took some uncomfortable steps out of the American paradigm.
For one, the concept of giving in the Former Soviet Union is a different animal. So is the concept of Jewish identity. Which poses some problems for Americans who enter the scene with their own, subconsciously ingrained, concepts of volunteerism and Jewish identity.
“That’s the hard thing about service trips,” said Josh Furman, director of the University of Washington’s young adult Jconnect program. “You’re going there with the framework from home.”
So when Eisenman and the JDC imagined giving North American Jews a bigger picture of the global Jewish world, perhaps they gave us more than they bargained for.
Asher Ostrin, Director of JDC’s Former Soviet Union Department, articulated that Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union are communities in formation.
“Community development is not a science,” he said. “It’s not math, like two-plus-two is four. There are dilemmas.” For instance, “If you have a father’s who’s alcoholic, and a son who’s needy,” he asked, “Do you cut them off?”
Interestingly, this was one of the central questions the North American young professionals were faced with.
On a humid gray morning the group split into three subgroups and set out to meet recipients of JDC’s homecare aid. The groups met with elderly Holocaust survivors who poignantly shared their stories of trauma and their gratitude for assistance from the Jewish communities. Others, though, had a different story.
“The at-risk family we visited was supposed to be a boy 7 years old who had chronic asthma and bronchitis,” said Joanne (Jhanna) Rossignol, 28, from Seattle. “When we went into the home we found that the boy had no room of his own. He slept clearly on the couch. But the boy was missing and the dad was missing.”
Rossignol and her group were told that the father had taken the boy shopping on his day off, despite the pre-planned visit from the JDC.
“Just the way that they said it and the way that they looked, it was obvious that that wasn’t the real story,” said Rossignol, who speaks Russian. “It was also very sad because you could tell that every adult in that family smoked. Obviously that’s going to make his situation worse.”
Rossignol recounts what happened next, after the translator stopped translating. The boy’s grandfather proceeded to argue with Boris Boguslavsky, JDC Representative for Siberia and the Russian Far East, about the amount of money they received. Four-hundred-fifty rubles was not enough per month, he said. He wanted the Americans to know this.
“You could tell it was very uncomfortable for Boris to be in that position,” Rossignol continued. “But when we got outside he started to vent a little bit. These are some of the problems that JDC has. Some people use the system just because they’re Jewish and they know they can get the assistance so they don’t actually care, or they’re not actually grateful for what they’re getting.”
“Every minute of every day in these programs, there are dilemmas that come up,” said Ostrin. “We can’t be paralyzed by empathy. On the other hand, we have to apply empathy or we become automatons.”
In the group discussion that ensued after the home visits, Boguslavsky and Khabarovsk Hesed Center director Vadim Katsman helped unpack the experience.
“They will beat up a child five times a week. But with sports camp, they beat him up twice a week. Is that an accomplishment? Our specialists say ‘yes,’” said Boguslavsky through a translator.
“All of this is really complicated,” said Katsman, also through a translator. “It hurts to look at it.”
“Any time it’s regarding tzedaka, if someone says they need it, they need it,” countered Furman. “Or if they’re lying, they’re desperate enough to need it.” Furman and his group entered a different troubling situation that day: A family of eight women living in squalor. Their refrigerator door hung open; their cabinets were empty. The group returned speechless.
Back in the reflection circle, one group member tried to explain the impact the women’s house had on her. “I don’t know if there’s an emotion to describe it,” she said.
The JDC-FSU experts tried to temper the outrage. “The Chinese say: Don’t give a fish, teach them how to fish,” said Boguslavsky. “We don’t know what to do in that situation.”
We give them offers to work, Vadim said. They never come.
“They’re so used to taking, taking, taking,” continued Boguslavsky. “They don’t want to give back. We’re facing a really serious professional dilemma here.”
The solutions are not easy, either. Should they impose rules or institute agreements for reciprocation to the Jewish community in return for their services?
“We haven’t used [involvement] as a parameter for eligibility because there are so many people that are coming from nothing,” said Ostrin. “We hope it will be stimulus for later on.”
“Some of them didn’t seem to have a desire to go to help build a Jewish community and they were just there to receive assistance,” said Rossignol. “And for me, as a former nonprofit worker, that’s how it is for everything. When you aren’t making your basic needs, thinking about things like building community and being involved in the community and being active in a religious organization – it’s not on people’s priority list.”
As for Furman, he trusts that people have the best interests. “I’m really not the one to judge the people in the community because I am so removed from cultural nuances.”
“There are cultural differences; there’s no way around it,” Ostrin said. “Up until 1991 the society [that the Former Soviet Union] was built on had a different ethical anchor.” With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a sort of values vacuum was created. The things Americans might consider appalling, like old women taking government handouts while their sons drive Lexuses, are not necessarily considered hypocritical.
“When I say the word ‘tzedaka,’ you know it’s a Jewish value,” Ostrin continued. But, “We’re looking at societies that are in formation. They don’t always meet our standards. The whole notion we take for granted [is] the fact that Jews are particularly generous. Jewish philanthropy is legendary in America.
“It’s not just a difference between America and Russia,” he added. “As Americans, we have to learn to be open to those differences and deal with it.”
“I think [Americans would] rather everyone be able to convince somebody rationally the importance of giving, but we’re not dealing with a culture that has this [mentality],” said Rossignol. Without a sense of charity built into the culture, guilt might be necessary. “If you play it their way for one generation, generations after that will probably be more charitable,” she continued. “I’d really like to see how the United States was 80–90 years ago. Did people freely give money? Or did people have to give money because of social pressures? Were we always free from that mentality too?”
Back to Eisenman at the JDC. “The whole purpose of participating in a Jewish service program – we want your demographic to be grappling with these questions and to understand the sheer complexity of the Jewish community around the world.”
In that case, the mission was a success. But “service program” doesn’t quite ring accurate. In large part, the group left feeling as though it had contributed only a little and received a lot of fodder for thought.
“I think we’re very comforted to see these pictures [of impoverished Jews] and to want to give money,” said Furman. Those are the photos that drive fundraisers. But when we enter their homes, when we’re the ones taking the pictures, are we idealizing them as poor?
“In general,” he said, “it’s easy for people to idealize certain things” like hunger and homelessness. Up close, it’s awkward. “Do you want them to represent this idea?”
Furman invoked Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Tourists,” to express what he got out of the program. Amichai writes, “A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. ‘You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.’ ‘But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
“How do you guarantee that it’s not just about you going there?” Asked Furman. “We have to ask ourselves, were we really in that country? [Or] the way that country’s defined?
“What are these people feeling? What are they doing?” It’s about seeing their struggles in a very real way, he said, and bringing that home.