Are we, the Jewish people, doing enough to help the aging population of Holocaust survivors?
The Torah admonishes us to pay careful attention to the needs of those who are disadvantaged socially, economically, physically, and emotionally (widows, strangers, the poor, etc.). Certainly we have a duty to empathize and care for those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis because they were Jews. Many organizations, social service agencies, and community groups have made it their priority to pay attention to this special group within our community. Unfortunately, there are also stories of fraud and misappropriation of funds that were designated for them. The obligation of charity is defined in the Torah (Deut. 15:7-8), “If there be among you a poor person within any of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your poor relative: But you shall open your hand wide unto them, and shall surely lend them dei mach-soro -- sufficient for their need--in that which they want.” The Torah sets our obligation as dei mech-saro, compensating for everything they are lacking. This is a tall order. And with the many demands for charitable dollars for schools, shuls, social concerns, medical needs, etc., it is impossible to meet everyone’s needs to the extent they need or want us to. We can always do a better job identifying the needs of survivors and do a better job responsibly allocating the resources we have.
The Jewish community has a responsibility all members of our people based on the dictum kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh (All Israel is responsible one for another). This value is especially true when it comes to the elderly among us. As our community members become elderly it becomes more expensive to provide important social services for them and many of them do not have relatives to share in this burden.
It become our responsibility to take care of them. This is certainly true with aging Holocaust survivors. We have a special responsibility for them. The question above asks if we are doing enough. Most likely we could never do enough for these people who are witnesses to the worst period of Jewish history. Their lives have been shaped by what they endured in the middle of the last century and we have to be especially concerned about their wellbeing, health and safety.
This is one of those questions that begs another question: who are you asking?
If you are asking a Holocaust survivor you may get different answers. Some may say yes and some may say no. I think it all depends on the survivor and their needs.
When I went to Israel the first time, I knew an awful lot about Israel but one thing that I didn’t know was how many Mercedes Benzes there were on the road. I asked someone in the know what that was all about seeing that Hitler (may his bones be ground to dust) drove around in a Mercedes! The answer was telling: the Germans felt the need to help the Jewish state get on its feet – or its wheels, in this case. They sold the cars to the Israelis at what I understand was a deeply discounted price. That is why there were so many Mercedes in Israel (at that time, anyway). I am not sure if the program is still functioning but that was one of their contributions.
There are many different ways that Jews have helped the survivors of the Shoah. Indeed, one can say that we have spent a great deal bringing comfort to the afflicted. In the name of tzedakah and respect and honor, Jews have come to the rescue of many of these survivors and are to be praised for it. Kol hakavod.
But there are still survivors who don’t have enough to eat. That is a fact. Do we have an obligation according to Jewish law? Yes, we do. But it is not specifically because they are the survivors of the Shoah. It is because they are human beings. Our laws of tzedakah and our communal and personal practices certainly can guide us in this way.
However, is there a point where there is such a thing as too much? Again, yes. Maimonides certainly implies that on his Eight Levels of Tzedakah. Still, even the lowest level of tzedakah is still tzedakah. As long as a Jew is hungry, the rest of us ought not to rest.
Does that mean that a society need impoverish itself to support those who are needy? Yes and no. Yes in that as long as there is suffering, we are impoverished, as well. But, no, we must not bankrupt ourselves or our society to accomplish a good.
There are many ways to support the survivors. We honor them with our contributions to those that support them and help them out in difficult times and we ought to continue that. And we ought to put the pressure on those governments that have made commitments are promises. But, at the same time, we must balance that with what is reasonable, tzedakah, and responsible.
So are we doing enough? It depends on who you ask.
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