March 19, 2019

Jewish Values

Robert Lichtman Chief Jewish Learning Officer

It’s probably a bit unfair, but whenever I hear the expression “Jewish values,” my ears twitch a little. That’s because I think, for the most part, people equate “Jewish” values with ethical, Western values. There is usually little to no difference. I could cite lots of examples, but I think you know what I mean.

I came across an example of something that is so beautifully Jewish that I want to make a note of it and to share it with you. Several of us Federation professionals went on a Mini-Mission last week. Like all donors, we want to get a better understanding of the things that we are working for. Whether it’s raising funds or allocating funds or collaborating on programs, there is no substitute for visiting an agency and talking with our colleagues there.

We were at Jewish Family Services in Elizabeth, and we were taking a tour of their kosher food pantry. One of us asked, “How does anybody qualify for support from this program? Can anyone just walk in off the street and get food?” Here is the answer we got: “Our agency’s policy is that anybody who asks for food gets food; no questions asked; no one is turned away.”

For the first time in a long time my ears were hearing clear and distinctly Jewish values. I explained to the group that there are so many complex laws and scenarios about giving tzedakah, that about 1,000 years ago Maimonides tried to codify them for us. One of the things he said was that if somebody asks you for money, you’re not compelled to give right away. It’s perfectly okay to investigate and confirm whether the funds are needed. But if somebody asks you for food, the obligation is to give it immediately with no questions asked. In fact, it’s explained that the reason there is no blessing on the mitzvah of giving tzedakah is because were a hungry person to ask, one might postpone helping the person – even for a second – to make the blessing. That delay might put the hungry person’s health or life at risk and so we bypass the blessing and proceed directly to the giving.

What we heard struck such a resonant and authentic chord with me; the policy of Jewish Family Services is the policy of the Jewish People. These are Jewish values.

This is what Jewish Family Services does. This is what your support of Federation allows us to do.