All the Commandments Combined . . .
Volunteers of America
A FEW DECADES ago, my friend Irwin, who was deeply involved in volunteer activities in his hometown of Ellenville, NY, hosted some visitors from the Soviet Union. What flabbergasted them about America, Irwin said, was that people here actually stepped up and volunteered to help their communities. Coming from a land where, as it was said, “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us,” the Soviet folks were steeped in cynicism about expressions of citizenship beyond those required by the government.
Irwin’s story reminded me of how my father, who was in the Communist Party USA until the late 1950s, always refused to make contributions to the representatives of various charitable organizations who, back in those days, would knock on doors to ask for contributions. Healing the sick, sustaining the poor, kindness to animals — it should all be the work of an effective government, Dad believed, and we shouldn’t absolve our government of social responsibility.
I followed his lead until my late twenties, when I began to encounter Jewish teachings about tsedoke — the sharing of wealth to achieve justice, commonly translated as “charity” — which, unlike my father’s either-or approach, saw charitable giving as both obligatory (we don’t, in cosmic reality, own our wealth, therefore we are obliged to share it) and spiritually fulfilling (tsedoke, the Talmud observes, uplifts the giver far more than the recipient). For these and other reasons, some of the ancient rabbis taught, tsedoke is the greatest commandment of all, its fulfillment more compelling than the fulfillment of all the other commandments combined.
I wanted a piece of that, so I adopted a tsedoke discipline and began to interpret Jewish teachings about wealth (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and all the fruits thereof,” Psalm 24) in non-theistic terms that non-believing humanists could relate to. But in truth, I adopted a discipline only when it came to giving money, both on the streets and through the mail. When it came to giving time, I still tended to view social work as the province of social workers. If I was going to get involved, I wanted revolution, not amelioration.
YET HERE I AM, retired and appreciative of how much the clock has slowed down. And on Thursday mornings, Susan and I deliver groceries to poor people in Kingston, NY. We pick up the bags and a list of addresses at Catholic Charities, and we drive around dropping the bags off at ramshackle motels and run-down houses in a few different neighborhoods. (Ulster County has a population of 180,000, 13 percent of them living under the poverty line.) It takes us less than two hours and leaves us feeling outraged by the way poor people are barely attended to, and incredibly lucky that we ourselves don’t have to count pennies, or even dollars, at the grocery store.
These are not the most compelling feelings in the world, but they do keep us aware of other people’s realities and deeply bonded to each other.
Susan and I have also recently joined a circle of neighbors who are raising money and giving a lot of effort to help relocate refugees from the war in Afghanistan. They are currently housed in barracks and tents at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and we’ve been told that organizations that customarily would have helped such immigrants had their infrastructures gutted by the Trump administration. Across the U.S., circles like ours have formed to step up — which means helping to provide housing, food, employment and educational opportunities, transportation, and more to families who have fled their homes, fled the war, fled the Taliban. Hosting even a single family will take several months of work. If we take on a few families, our support work might extend much longer.
Yes, this work, especially, should be entirely handled by the government. And yes, there are contradictions involved in finding housing for refugees when there is such an acute shortage of decent affordable housing in my county.
Still, I’m stepping up (although I mostly hate it — the meetings, the phone calls, the deadlines, the uncertainties) for at least three reasons. First, Susan has led me into it, and I want to follow her lead in this realm — she’s wiser and more generous than I am. Second, I wrote years ago in Jewish Currrents that the U.S. war in Afghan should end at once, but with an offer to all Afghan women to resettle in the U.S. — so now I’m obliged to follow through.
Third, if only Americans had offered such energies to Jews in Europe . . .
My Afghan circle needs to raise $15,000 in February to qualify for various kinds of support from the established immigration organizations. I’ve put myself on the fundraising committee — so if you, dear reader, would like to help resettle some Afghan refugees and keep me on the straight and narrow as an improving human being, please write to me at email@example.com. I’ll respond, and we’ll make some tsedoke arrangement, and then you’ll feel as incredibly lucky about your life as I do about mine.