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Tribal and human

by David Suissa

March 26, 2014 | 10:21 am

I was born and raised a tribal Jew, which basically means putting your “Jewish family” first. In the Jewish ghetto of Casablanca where I grew up, you didn’t hear words like “social justice” or “tikkun olam.” There were no Jewish protests for the rights of Arab janitors, or Jewish soup kitchens in poor Arab neighborhoods.

It was enough just to get by and make it in your own neighborhood. Jews accepted their status as second-class citizens (dhimmis) and tried to stay out of trouble and lead Jewish lives in a society dominated by Islam.

It was only natural that in that kind of environment — as in many other Jewish ghettos throughout the Diaspora — Jews would put their own first. 

That tribal sentiment still animates me. I will cry out for a poor and hungry Jewish child living in Los Angeles or Poland or Argentina before I will cry out for a non-Jew suffering in Sudan. Seeing how Jews, and the State of Israel, have been so unfairly maligned in much of the world has only reinforced my protective instinct.

But something extraordinary has been happening to Jews in America, and it is beautiful to watch. We have come to feel so safe and secure that we are reaching out like never before to help non-Jews.

That human impulse was on full display last week at a fundraising luncheon in Beverly Hills for Vista Del Mar, a residential center for kids with special needs founded in 1908 as Jewish Orphans Home of Southern California.

Although the group was started to help Jewish kids, today most of the children it helps are not Jews. There’s a rabbi and synagogue on campus, but, as Vista’s mission statement says, it serves kids “without regard for ethnic or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religious preferences, or physical challenges.” 

You can see this Jewish-human phenomenon happening throughout our community.

Bet Tzedek (The House of Justice) was founded four decades ago to help Holocaust survivors who needed legal assistance. Today, the great majority of those it helps are not Jewish.

The Jewish Free Loan Association, which was founded more than 100 years ago to honor the biblical commandment of interest-free lending, has the word “Jewish” in its name, but many of those it helps are not.

Beit T’Shuvah is an outgrowth of the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), which was started in 1921 to “serve Jews who were serving time.” Today, it is a full-service recovery center, complete with synagogue services and Jewish spirituality, which treats anyone in need, regardless of race or religion.

There are countless other examples of Jewish organizations impacting non-Jews. On a larger scale, the Museum of Tolerance and the Skirball Cultural Center have become global Jewish institutions that have made a significant mark on the non-Jewish world.

This human impulse is also part of our education. The other night I saw senior students at Milken Community High School, at their “Jewish Futures” conference, present initiatives that put the Jewish value of social justice front and center. That would never have happened in a Jewish school in Tehran or Casablanca.

And yes, our community’s social activism even extends halfway around the world. The organization Jewish World Watch, for example, helps genocide victims in Africa. 

I remember a conversation I once had with Rabbi Harold Schulweis, the co-founder and spiritual force behind Jewish World Watch.

We’ve always been very fond of one another, so I felt I could permit myself to tease him and challenge him a little.

“Rabbi, I can’t help myself,” I told him. “I have a thing for my people. I want to help Jews. I love Jews. They’re like my family.” 

Without missing a beat, he replied, “I love Jews, too, David. But one reason I love them is because they love helping the world.”

That piece of wisdom was on my mind as I watched African-American kids perform a song-and-dance number at the Vista Del Mar luncheon.

Here are non-Jewish kids, I thought, whose lives have been transformed by a group of generous and compassionate American Jews, and the most remarkable thing is how natural it all felt. There was no preaching about Jews being a “light unto the nations” and so forth. It wasn’t necessary.

The Jewishness of the organization was clear, but what came across even more clearly was the simple notion of humans helping humans.

Maybe, in a perfect world, that ought to be the ultimate purpose of all religions — to bring out our innate humanity, as children all created in the image of God.

We often speak about the threat to “Jewish continuity” of living in a country that has embraced us as America has. But there’s a hidden blessing behind this threat: Feeling safe and secure also has brought out the best in Jews — our humanity. That surely is something worth continuing.

I don’t think I’ll ever lose the tribal instinct I picked up in Casablanca. Jews hold a sacred place in my heart, the same way my family does. The Jewish ideal, of course, is to strive to help both Jews and non-Jews, and balancing these two imperatives is something every Jew and every community must wrestle with.

But when I see the balance sometimes tilt toward non-Jews, I must say, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.

It just makes me grateful to live in a country that has touched the better angels of our nature. 

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