Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding the Balance between Helping Others and Asking that All Take Responsibility for Ourselves

Consider the following information that appears in an article entitled “The New Poverty” that recently appeared in The Jerusalem Report (January 16, 2012 issue):

… 53 percent of Arab families live under the poverty line…. In the Arab sector … the men work but the women often do not.

These comments are offered in an article explaining poverty in Israel today and how there are specific challenges to all of Israel. These comments refer to one population within the Israeli structure and elsewhere in the article it is commented that this

…skews the figures because if we could only count the rest of the population, our poverty level would put us [in a more normative economic situation when looking at the rest of the world]

So, let’s pause for a moment. Think honestly about how you feel regarding this information. Do you feel comfortable having a discussion about how we can help these families and what we can do to change the circumstances of this population? Does that discussion relate to your politics, to the notion that we should extend a hand to those less fortunate, or a combination of these elements and other values you hold dear?

Please note that I will not propose any answers here, I am merely asking questions. Those questions are about who has both the responsibility and ability to support themselves and what those of us who are working and in a position to help others should be asked and required to do for those who choose not to accept such responsibility, should this be and when this is the case.

After you have thought about this a bit…. And ONLY THEN, continue….

In this same article the following information appears, also as part of what “skews the figures” of poverty in Israel:

Among the Haredi population, 55 percent of families live under the poverty line…In the Haredi sector, women tend to work while the men do not…

So, let’s pause once again. How do you honestly feel about this information? Do you want to help and change the circumstances of this population? What are the factors that contribute to your answer? Is your approach here the same as or different from that in the situation above? What accounts for these similarities or differences?

Consider that there is almost identical information about these two populations, which are described in the article as follows:

[The] single poverty figure of 20 percent [for Israel in general] does not reflect the true complexity of the issue of combating poverty in Israel… The population can be divided into [three separate economic entities of] the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sector, the Arab sector, and the ‘rest,’ mostly secular Jews.

Further, about the “’rest,’ mostly secular Jews,” it is written:

In general, in families in which two members of the family work, the poverty rate is only 3 percent…

So, in the end, how sympathetic are we to “Israel’s poverty problem?” How are we supposed to respond to each of the two groups indicated as well as to the problem in general?

In my own family, my husband and I have both always worked. We have raised our children to work and take responsibility for them selves in our world. Our 28 year old daughter and her husband both work, and are also raising the most adorable and beautiful 16 month old twin girls. We have provided for our children based upon our being a two professional family. Years ago, when we were living in another community that was heavily populated by a very strong Orthodox (and economically challenged) presence, we were TOLD, yes TOLD that we were responsible for educating the other community children whose parents could not provide for them (including many who followed the model indicated here amongst the Haredi population in Israel). I must say I had a hard time with that notion.

No one loves to learn and grow more than I do. That being said, it has been a joy to take responsibility for our children, their education and the quality of life for all members of our wonderful family. Why should I feel responsible for those who DO NOT TRY to do the same? I am certainly not suggesting that this is always the case and clearly there are cases where we should (and we do) care and share with our resources with which G-d has blessed us. That being said, at what point do people get to take a “pass” on meeting their economic responsibility for their own families? Further, what circumstances should inspire me to “care and share” graciously with others? When is it appropriate to help others and when is it more appropriate to facilitate a process by which others take responsibility for themselves? I often refer to the Talmudic dictum of “When you give someone a fish they have dinner for the evening; when you teach someone to fish, they have dinner for life.” Maimonides teaches that the highest form of Tzedakah is helping someone find work.

To be sure, there are cultures where not all members of the community work. That being said, we are all aware of alterations and decisions we have ourselves made to accommodate changing economics and various needs in our daily lives. If others are able to do so and choose not to do so, is this the direction in which I should direct my Tzedakah dollars? I am just not all that sure.


  1. All great questions... Personally I feel equally NOT-obligated to help the Arab families and the Haredi families. Being myself an observant Jew, I respect everyone's right to choose to work or not. For some, studying all day is more important. That is fine with me. But one cannot expect those of us who work long hours to be able to provide for our own families, to be responsible for families who made a choice (yes - it is a choice) not to work. With that said: I think we do have a moral obligation to help those who are looking for jobs and cannot find them. I draw the line based on intent - if one is looking for work and society does not offer him or she jobs, it is one thing. If one's priority prevents one from working, I will respect his or her choice. But I do not feel morally compelled to help.

  2. I agree with Sandra, and by extension with Sunnie. I do try to help others as much as I can, which being a single mom is not that easy. While I had to work all my life out of circumstances, I am not sure if I would do that were my husband alive today. In that case, we would certainly weigh out options as far as our children's education and would have paid for it ourselves. I feel that the community is obligated to help it less fortunate brethren, however, I am not comfortable with a notion of a fully able man asking from me, a widowed mother.