Aid to Refugees: How We Can Help

Refugees are Human Beings

Looking for meaningful ways to alleviate the suffering you see on the news? It is a longtime Jewish custom to give tzedakah [money for the relief of sufferers and to promote justice] before every holiday. As you make your other High Holy Day plans, don’t forget to give tzedakah!

This summer we have been inundated with terrible photographs and stories about the massive movement of refugees out of Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, fleeing the violence of war. Here are three organizations that bring considerable expertise to their work with refugees:

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was founded in the United States in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Today they aid refugees of all backgrounds all over the world with legal assistance, psychosocial care, and job assistance, with special sensitivity to the vulnerability of women, children, and LGBT persons. If you are looking for a way to help those fleeing the violence in Syria, this is one organization that has been doing this work for quite a while now. They are experienced, in place, and have an excellent track record of using donated funds wisely.

In the UK, World Jewish Relief has been working on relief for Syrian refugees since 2013. World Jewish Relief has made an appeal for funding for their operation providing food, shelter, medicine and hygiene kits to refugees in Turkey, Bulgaria or Greece. This aid is not limited to Jews, but is available to all refugees.

ISRAid is an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Israel that responds to emergencies around the globe. They have two current projects that touch on the situation of refugees: first is a relief team assisting the refugees pouring into Europe, the second is a project assisting displaced people fleeing ISIL/ISIS in Iraq. According to the Jerusalem Post:

IsraAID has been actively responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and their host countries for over two years now, focusing on Jordan, Iraq, and Bulgaria. Ranging from emergency aid distributions to pinpointed trauma support and prevention training for host country government and non-government professionals, the organization is drawing on its expertise and experience in the management of crises triggered by refugees, to help others.

(Update): I have just learned of another Israeli initiative. The Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic center for Jewish learning in Jerusalem, is launching the following center to aid children of African refugees in Israel (quotation from their materials):

The Hartman Institute has decided to establish a Day Care and Learning Center in Tel Aviv for children of African refugees aged 3-6. The Center will be launched in collaboration with the Elifelet organization, our hosts last summer, which cares for more than 600 children and infants. Three- to six-year-olds are the age group that Elifelet professionals have identified as being at the greatest risk. These children are released from their day care environments at 1:30 every afternoon and have nowhere to go and no one to watch over or care for them, until their parents return home from work in the evening.

Elifelet personnel will oversee the professional staff and educational programming at the Hartman-sponsored Center. The Hartman Institute community will provide the financial resources and the backbone of the Center’s volunteer infrastructure, which will include our high school and gap-year students, administrative staff, teaching and research faculty, and the parents of our students. The center will function from 1:30–6:30 pm daily, and will provide children with a safe, caring, and nurturing environment that will offer nutritious meals, counseling, basic learning skills classes, and a game center.

Finally, if you are thinking, “the little bit I could give will not make a difference,” please reconsider. For one thing, your small donation combines with other donations to make a big difference. Maimonides taught that we all have a responsibility to give tzedakah, even if we can only give a minuscule amount. If we each give according to our means, we can relieve a great deal of suffering.

Finally, you can also help by passing this information to others on your social networks. The internet is rife with hand-wringing and pontification; this is an opportunity to actually help. Whether you pass along a link to this article, or publicize the work of a particular organization, you will contribute to the quality of online discussion by offering people a way to do something.

The image with this post is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The owner is Haeferl.

Mortality and the Jews

A reader asks:

Is the Jewish perspective that mortality is a bummer? If so, that is not very comforting, and it doesn’t seem useful… What does Judaism say about death?

GREAT question! There is no single “correct” Jewish teaching about what happens when we die. In every era of Jewish thought, there have been a number of thoughts circulating on the subject. In Biblical texts, people are thought to “go down to Sheol” when they die (Genesis 42:38.) Sheol is a dark place full of dust, thought to be somewhere underground.

At some point in the Second Temple period (500 BCE – 70 CE) Jews began to speculate on a resurrection of the dead. We can see this in the books of Isaiah and Daniel, for instance, “Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise, awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, for thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades.” in Isaiah 26:19. However, references to this in rabbinic literature are vague and contradictory. Some references seem to be to an “end of the world” resurrection, and some to a resurrection that will take place with the coming of Moshiach, a military leader who will revive the nation.

Modern Jewish thinkers occupy an entire range of possibilities. On the Orthodox end of the spectrum, there is a belief in an immortal soul and at some future point, a resurrection of the body. Many liberal Jews believe in an immortal soul, but without specifics about where or what it is. Some mystical Jews believe that souls are immortal, but that they may occupy different bodies over history (a sort of Jewish reincarnation.) Some Jews believe that life is limited to this life, and this life only, that when we die, that’s it.

One thing that all forms of Judaism agree upon: there is no Hell such as that described by Christians or Muslims. Ideas about Heaven range from the rabbis’ vision of a heavenly Study Hall to some vaguely pleasant future existence.

The truth is, Judaism does not focus on the next life in the way that Christianity and Islam do. For Jews, this life is the immediate concern. The next life, if there is one, we leave in the hands of the Eternal. Our concern is this life. 

Hearing this, sometimes Christians ask what incentive Jews have to be good, since we neither fear punishment in Hell nor look forward to a specific set of rewards in Heaven. What a Jew seeks is a meaningful life, and the way to give our lives meaning is to live this life as well as we can. A life of Torah is a life spent trying to make this world better. Jews differ on exactly the best way to go about doing that, but it is the thing that we all have in common.

So is mortality a bummer? Yes, in the sense that this life is full of good things that will come to an end when we die, and relationships which will be forever altered by that death. But mortality also gives us a sense of urgency about doing good in this world, and about giving our brief lives meaning. Death presses us to make the most of our lives.

You can get a sense of the vagueness of Jewish belief about afterlife in the prayer El Male Rachamim, God Full of Mercy, which is chanted at every Jewish funeral. Whether one takes the images as literal or as metaphor, they suggest that the end of life is a return to the Unity that is the Eternal God, but that the dead also find immortality in the hearts of the living.

God filled with mercy,
dwelling in the heavens’ heights,
bring proper rest
beneath the wings of your Presence,
amid the ranks of the holy and the pure,
illuminating like the brilliance of the skies
the souls of our beloved and our blameless
who went to their eternal place of rest.
May you who are the source of mercy
shelter them beneath your wings eternally,
and bind their souls among the living,
that they may rest in peace.
And let us say: Amen.

Elul Sweat


I associate the last few days of Elul with sweat.

Sure it’s hot. Pretty much anywhere north of the equator, this is going to be one of the warmer months of the year. Even in the Bay Area, where it’s “always” moderate, we are usually fussing about about the heat towards the end of Elul.

My Elul sweat has more to do with the things left for me to do: the phone calls I have not yet made and the apologies I am yet to give. As long as I’m still dreading them, my teshuvah is incomplete.

The best apology is made out of concern for the other person. When I sweat, I know that the focus of my teshuvah is still on myself: my embarrassment at imperfection, my need to appear flawless, my fear of blame. Excuses keep flashing to mind: I was busy, I was upset, I was depressed, I was anxious, I was distracted, my feelings were hurt… those are all about me. They are not teshuvah.

The best apology is made of concern for the other person. The only way I know to that place is to imagine myself in their shoes, to cultivate compassion. How would I feel on the other side of my behavior?

Then I sweat some more because that isn’t fun, either. I must grab that energy and take it where it will do some good. I must seize it and make teshuvah.

I wish you a fruitful Elul.

Keeping the Change

Coffee cup & change

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s left over, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?

Can I Go to Shiva Instead?

Home of Eternity Cemetery, Oakland, CA

From the searches that brought people to this blog: “Can I go to shiva, instead of to the funeral?”

If you were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I’d say, “Tell me more.” I am very curious about what’s behind the question. I’d buy you a cup of coffee and we’d chat.

However, I can imagine two possibilities:

(1) “I really cannot get off work but I want to comfort the mourners.” Sometimes we just can’t do everything we want to do. I’m so glad you want to comfort the mourners! It’s an important mitzvah, and you will certainly be performing that mitzvah if you attend shiva at the house. Don’t forget to give them a call a few weeks later, just to say hello and check in.

(2) “The funeral is at the cemetery and I hate cemeteries.” Well, let’s talk about this a bit. Are you so freaked out by cemeteries that you literally cannot enter one? Because if that is the case, perhaps I should offer you a referral to a good therapist. But if it’s dislike, let’s dig at that a bit: why do you dislike cemeteries? Cemeteries are uncomfortable for many of us because they remind us of our own mortality. It’s hard to avoid the thought that I am going to die someday, when I am standing by the grave of a friend. Jewish tradition tells us that our discomfort at that thought is a good thing: it can motivate us to live better lives, because we remember that our days are limited. If that’s the issue, and it isn’t at the level of a phobia, I’d be inclined to encourage you to grit your teeth and give it a try. Also, what if everyone gave in to discomfort and no one showed up? How would the family feel?

The funeral and shiva are not an either/or choice. They are actually two separate mitzvot. The funeral is levayat ha mayt [accompanying the dead] and it is the last good deed we can do for a friend. Attending shiva is nichum ahvaylim [comforting mourners] and while it also happens at the funeral, it really gets down to business at the shiva.

Mortality is a bummer. We are naturally inclined to think that we will live forever. However, that simply isn’t the case, and our tradition is clear that it isn’t good for us to entertain the fantasy of living forever. Getting in touch with our mortality, once in a while, is one way to truly appreciate the present.

How would you answer this person’s question? Have you ever been to a funeral that was very sparsely attended? Any other thoughts to share on this topic?

Kosher Food


One of my favorite blogs is Rachel Mankowitz’s The Cricket Pages. She just published a post about her memories around kosher food, which I share with my readers. Enjoy.

Originally posted on rachelmankowitz:

When I was nine or ten years old, not long after my family started to keep kosher, we went to a hotel up in the Catskills for Presidents’ weekend. It was a skiing resort, basically, and it was kosher. I’ve worked hard to block out the skiing portion of the trip because it was truly harrowing, but there was also an outdoor ice skating rink, and an indoor pool, and a theatre where the last gasp of the Borscht Belt came to perform. But most of all, there was the food. They made fake scallops from halibut, cut into rounds, and whenever they were on the menu, that’s what I ate. The waiters were convinced I was lying about my age, because I could have had a hamburger and French fries, or spaghetti and meatballs and I chose this?

But I’d grown up on seafood, at my best friend’s house…

View original 1,087 more words

The Creation of Jewish Time


The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”