Campers spend time at Camp Young Judaea-Texas before Hurricane Harvey. The camp has since opened its doors to evacuees from Houston, promising food, shelter and activities for children..
(photo credit: YOUNG JUDAEA-TEXAS)
Traditionally, there were clear roles in the give-take relationship between Israel and American Jews.
American Jews gave and Israel took. But Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, who holds the Diaspora Affairs portfolio, is shaking things up.
This week he announced that the State of Israel would provide $1 million in aid to Houston’s Jewish community, which has suffered disproportionately in the wake of superstorm Harvey.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston estimates that more than two-thirds of the city’s Jewish community of about 50,000 lives in parts of the city that have been the worst hit by the flooding.
The Israeli money, which will be transferred via the Israeli Consulate in Texas, will be used to repairs Jewish schools, synagogues and community centers that are not funded by the state or federal governments in the US.
“The Jewish state is measured by its response when our brothers around the world are in crisis,” Bennett said.
The idea that Jews stick together and are responsible for one another is undoubtedly one of the secrets of the Jewish people’s survival. For nearly two millennia, Jews were dispersed throughout the world. They often could not rely on the largesse of their host countries and had to take care of themselves. Communities developed their own governing bodies, schools and houses of prayers. If a single Jew was in trouble the entire community came together to help.
Well before the creation of the State of Israel, Diaspora communities were instrumental in supporting pious Jews who chose to live in the Holy Land. In cities such as Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed, Jews were completely dependent on communities abroad for support.
With the establishment of the state, the support of the Diaspora – particularly American Jewry – was instrumental in facilitating the speedy growth of Israel’s economy.
There have been ups and downs. The world economic crisis in 2008 led to a sharp decline in Jewish philanthropy directed at Israel.
The current crisis over a prayer section for non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall Plaza raised fears that American Jews, most of whom are not Orthodox, would cut off donations in protest.
But there has rarely been a situation in which Israel has provided financial support to the affluent American Jewish community.
Cynics have criticized Bennett, arguing that Israel, a tiny country with big challenges and a GDP just a fraction of the US’s, has no business spending precious taxpayers’ money on aide to “rich” American Jews. Others have claimed that it is wrong of Israel to give the money only to the Jewish community and not to a general recovery fund for all of Texas.
We disagree. Mutual responsibility or sticking up for one another (arvut
in Hebrew) is a central Jewish value. Houston’s Jewish community is facing a crisis that, in the words of CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston Lee Wunsch, is “bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before as a community.” And every Jew, including the Jewish state, has an obligation to help.
To the second argument, Israel has proven numerous times over the years when rushing across the globe to help in the aftermath of natural disasters that it does not make a distinction between people due to their religious or national affiliation. Whether in Haiti, Turkey or Indonesia, Israel has been on the front lines of providing aid and saving all people. In this case, the money is not for saving lives like a field hospital in Haiti. It is for the Jewish community’s reconstruction.
Sticking up for one another is not just about money though. Israel has an obligation to make the world’s only Jewish state a place that is welcoming for all Jews, regardless of their denomination or affiliation. The present government’s foot-dragging on the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel must stop.
Open dialogue with Diaspora Jewry on the question of “Who is a Jew?” must also be maintained.
The government must realize that it has an obligation not only to the Jews of Israel but also to Diaspora Jews, whether it be donating to Houston’s flooded community or providing a welcoming environment at holy sites such as the Kotel for Jews visiting from around the world.