Considering our history, the present situation of Jews in America is one that would have been coveted by any Jew from almost any other time period. And if, God forbid, any Jew is to forget the adversity through which we have suffered and endured throughout the ages, I would expect it to occur now more than ever.
These thoughts became very clear to me after a recent visit to the Philippine Islands, where I found myself exposed to a situation that I will value forever.
Filipino streets are crawling with beggars who are able to survive only because food and shelter cost almost a tenth of what Americans pay. These people are subject to the generosity of people who would also be considered destitute if compared to Los Angeles' neediest.
I came equipped with a stack of 2,000 pisos, equaling $50, which I planned to distribute as charity whenever it was solicited. My eyes were opened when I visited a tourist town popular among beggars. A small boy accosted me with an extended palm, and I handed him a 20-piso bill. Only later did I become aware that this was an enormous amount for beggars to receive, despite its U.S.-value of only 50 cents, and that so many other indigent people who witnessed my generosity were willing to employ almost any means to take advantage of it.
Within seconds I was swarmed by a mob of the most impecunious people I have ever seen. I was met with appeals ranging from sobs of supplication from elderly women to snarls of desperation from struggling mothers to the aggressive attempts of children to wrest the money from my grip. My attempts to form a line to hasten the fulfillment of their pleas were fruitless. They did not relent.
Never having experienced anything like this in my life, I am almost embarrassed to admit that though I felt an emotional connection to their desperation, I laughed, not knowing how to outwardly express my emotions in such a sudden and tumultuous shock. I am still haunted by the possibility that they suspected me of teasing them with the hope of receiving charity. I also wonder what they might have thought when they saw me laughing had they known I was a Jew. I suspect that they would have expected a certain sensitivity from a Jew -- a member of a nation that has overcome trials far more daunting than theirs and which now has the resources to alleviate the hardships of others.
It is not my goal to persuade people to give charity to Filipino beggars; it was just the event that opened my eyes to the needs of other people in the world. There is another issue toward which I expect Jews should feel more sensitive -- the crisis in Darfur. I am not discounting the steps already taken by Jews to aid the victims of one of this century's most devastating acts of man against his fellow. However, I do mean to bring to attention to what I perceive as deficiencies in the reactions of Orthodox Jews around me.
Though I would never advise Jews to replace Orthodox tradition with humanitarianism, I have always felt that the Darfur issue is one in which I would expect more Orthodox Jews to be active in resolving. Our inability to react now strongly resembles America's self-imposed ignorance during the Holocaust. America and its Jews should redeem themselves now by contributing whatever they can to humanitarian aid to those suffering in refugee camps and in homes on the brink of destruction. It is also our responsibility to avoid the hypocrisy of not working to alleviate the pain of a people who are subject to the genocidal whim of an oppressive government. What will the world say when the Jewish people or the State of Israel solicit anyone's assistance in a life-threatening situation? It has been established that the Jewish people possess an indestructible conviction to survive and prosper, but how many enslavements, expulsions, pogroms, and genocides must we endure, and witness others endure, before we live up to our God-given name of a "light unto the nations"?
For these reasons I urge all Jewish institutions to educate their students and congregants in atrocities committed against mankind throughout the world. Our schools' students yearn to contribute what they can to worthy causes, but no outlets are provided by their educators. Orthodox synagogues seem to always have tikkun olam on their agendas, but the most significant differences they can make are being forgotten.
In 1927, before the Holocaust, Edmund Fleg said, "I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps. I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes."
Our Jewish communities now have the resources they never had before. We have a certain influence over everything in which we become involved. Let us now employ the hope that defines us as Jews and ameliorate the world's conditions for ourselves and for whomever else we can before our entrenchment in despair becomes possible again.
Jacob Goldberg is in 11th grade at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School for Boys.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15; deadline for the March issue is Feb. 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.