Balancing on one foot

When I got the email reminding me that there would be a second rally in New York on Sept. 17 to protest the genocide in Darfur, Katyusha rockets were raining down on northern Israel.

darfur rallyI have to admit, I thought, who can think of Darfur now? And yet only a few months ago, it had seemed to be the direst cause, the one we should all be trying to solve.

I had attended the first Darfur rally in Washington, this past spring. And while it was an interfaith coalition that pulled off the rally and turned the spotlight on the hideous situation facing the people of Darfur, it was very clear that Jews and Jewish organizations had taken a considerable the lead in this effort.

But that rally took place in what now seems like another time.

How could Darfur possibly seize the attention of the Jewish community now, with Israel so threatened? Should it? On one hand, the privations the people of Darfur face each day is unimaginable to us as comfortable Americans – starvation, typhus, rape, the loss of home and family without any sense of redress or solution in sight.

Yet the feeling that your very borders are permeable, that the sky can rain shrapnel on you, that you could have to spend all summer in a bomb shelter while the structures around you are reduced to rubble, are also things that we have trouble imagining here in America. And yet we know that our relatives in northern Israel have had to contend with all of them this summer.

If I am for myself alone

“I don’t do any speaking to Jewish groups without saying that I know people are focused on Israel,” says Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, a lead organizer of the last rally and the upcoming Rally to Save Darfur. “As they learn what else is going on, they learn how to respond to both.”

Darfur is a cause hard to publicize in the best of times, according to Messinger. “Events in the developing world are not well-covered in the media, and genocide is not a very attractive issue,” she says. And yet the numbers climb, with 450,000 dead, 2.5 million displaced within the country and another 350,000 languishing in refugee camps in Chad. Messinger believes that there is a place on the Jewish agenda for both Israel and Darfur. We, as Jews, cannot afford to forget others in need even while we focus on our own.

“We are a community that knows the dangers of silence,” she says. “The core issue here is there are a tremendous number of people in the community who feel compelled to make real the concept of ‘never again’.”

Darfur, even if shunted aside for now, is still a fairly high-profile cause. There are people working incredibly hard to make sure that the September rally in Central Park’s East Meadow succeeds. But what of other causes that don’t seem so pressing to the Jewish community? Some of them are small, close to home and still in need of funding, even while Israel seizes our imagination and our generosity.

Among the causes are local Federations across the country, including our own, which have spent the summer raising funds for Israel. Here in Rockland, the Jewish Federation has raised almost $200,000 from more than 1,000 donors for its Israel Emergency Fund. People have been generous with their time and their money, knowing how much the funding was needed to get people out of harm’s way during the worst of the rocket assaults and still is, now, when we are more focused on rebuilding in their wake.

Globally and locally

All of that money goes to the Israel Emergency Fund. The Federation here might raise it, but the organizations that receive like Table to Table, a food rescue program in Israel, the Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides camping experiences for children traumatized in the crisis, benefit Israel. So is there anything at stake when all our efforts focus – as they rightly should right now – on Israel?

“All Federations are struggling with this question as it leads into Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday appeal,” says Shimon Pepper, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. “We have to transition from the Israel Emergency Campaign to the general campaign.”

Locally, the Federation raised $1.3 million last year. That money went to Jewish Family Service, which provides quality, affordable mental health and social services to those who need it. The money went to the JCC-Y for programming. It supports this newspaper and contributes to Hillel/The Center for Jewish Life at SUNY-Rockland. It funds a Jewish Community Relations Council, which organized and helped sponsor a rally supporting Israel this July. It awards grants to the Holocaust Center and to local synagogues for special needs programming. And it continues to give funds to United Jewish communities, funding programs in Israel and to support Jews in need around the globe.

And, of course, by being the central Jewish fundraising entity in Rockland, it is set up to deal with crises quickly. It is why the Federation was able to respond so nimbly to Israel’s needs during this latest crisis.

“A strong Federation allows the Jewish community to respond generously, expertly and inexpensively because we have the infrastructure in place,” says Pepper.

There are dozens of other Jewish causes that struggle for attention without wishing to steal the limelight from Isreal. It’s not an easy balancing act for anyone.

And certainly there is no easy answer. When Hillel said, “If I am not for me, who will be?” he touched the essential truth that Jews have to support themselves, that no one else is going to come to their aid. He also was noting a basic truism that if you do not promote your self, you certainly aren’t going to attract anyone else to your cause.

When he continued, “If I am for myself alone,” he spoke to our ongoing desire to repair the world, and that focusing outward is part of who we are. It’s our job to remember Israel, but to also remember Darfur, and, yes, Rockland County. That just because Israel is important, doesn’t mean we want to give short shrift to Jewish Family Service, your local Hebrew or day school, the Jewish campus organization and the programs for the elderly that still need to be maintained.

Unfortunately, Hillel never told us how we balance the two. Instead he asked, “If not now, when?”

Perhaps this year is when. Shana Tovah



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