Who really cares
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 22, 1999
Not so long ago, I was surprised to read in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable interview on the book pages of this paper, the following sentence: 'Unlike some of their neighbors in the haredi world, Halberstam- Mandelbaum [the author being interviewed] and Leventhal believe that every single human being possesses a divine spark, and therefore deserves respect and help."
How, I wondered, did such a gratuitous insult ever slip by the editor?
That statement, of course, would have been equally true of 'some" Japanese, 'some" Afro-Americans, and 'some" secular Jews. Yet it is unthinkable that such a comment about any other group would have escaped the censor's cut.
I settled back to await an explosion of reactions from irate readers.
Of course, no such explosion ever came; when made about haredim, such a statement elicits no reaction at all. We have become so inured to snide slurs tossed at this particular segment of society that they no longer evoke any surprise. Like subliminal advertising, the message is drummed in: The haredim are deficient in every basic human value.
Indeed, by singling out haredim for mention, the reporter implied that, as a group, haredim are uniquely lacking in respect for the intrinsic holiness of their fellow human beings. It was as if, having spoken favorably of the author she was interviewing, she felt compelled to assure her readers that her remarks should not be extrapolated to the haredi community at large.
Yet as a simple logical matter, those who view the words 'in the image of God [He] made man" as God's description of reality are far more likely to see the divine in their fellow human beings than those who do not.
At least in this case, logic and experience reinforce one another. Israel has witnessed over the last two decades a proliferation of hessed organizations for those in need of medical care - created by haredim for the benefit of the entire community, including Yad Sarah, Ezra Lamarpeh, Ezer Mitzion, Chesed V'zimra and Zichron Menahem.
Ezra Lamarpeh's founder, Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, was awarded last year's Israel Prize for the organization's emergency medical referral work.
With a paid staff of eight and 350 volunteers, most of whom are haredi, Ezra Lamarpeh handles 50,000 emergency medical referrals a year. According to Harvard Medical School's Dr. Ivo Janko, 'Rav Firer and his organization [provide] integrated services unparalleled in the world."
A Hebrew University professor describes Rabbi Firer as 'know[ing] more than anybody I know. I know my field, but he has a vast knowledge of all fields."
Incidentally, Rabbi Firer is not one of Ezra Lamarpeh's paid staff. He receives no salary for his 19- hour-a day work, although he has 10 children to feed.
Ezer Mitzion, another haredi organization, maintains a fleet of 30 ambulances to bring young cancer patients to the Children's Hospital in Petah Tikva, runs summer camps for thousands of special needs children, and provides free food for families of hospital patients.
The volunteers of Chesed V'Zimra deal exclusively with Israel's most forgotten population: those confined to mental institutions. Founded by the grandson of one of the world's leading halachic authorities, the organization's entire office consists of a medium-sized table, one rickety chair and a telephone. Chesed V'Zimra is staffed entirely by volunteers, drawn from across Israel's religious spectrum.
The one common thread running through all the aforementioned organizations is that each was founded by haredi Jews and each serves the general Israeli population.
Are Rabbi Firer and Uri Lopoliansky, the founder of Yad Sarah, typical of haredi Jews? Of course not. Truly righteous people are never typical. But it is curious that one small community has nurtured so many individuals who have shown so much creativity in finding ways to alleviate the pain of their fellow Jews.
Curious, but not accidental. The imperative of doing hessed is emphasized from earliest childhood in haredi society, and hessed activities are woven into the warp and woof of everyday haredi life.
When Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum wrote recently, 'the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country,' he was primarily referring to unsung individuals: Bella Freund, a haredi woman who shielded an Arab terrorist with her own body to keep an enraged mob from beating him to death; a group of yeshiva students who rushed to the hospital to donate blood when they learned of Orbaum's need; and a health fund clerk who personally drove vials of Orbaum's blood to a downtown laboratory after hours to expedite receipt of his test results.
The particular concern of Orthodox Jews for their fellow Jews cuts across geographic boundaries. A 1999 study of the charitable giving of American Jews, by political scientist Raymond Legge, came to a remarkable conclusion: 'While social justice is a concept which is stressed most heavily by the Reform denomination . . . the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions this group is least likely to practice it.'
In America, Orthodox Jews are over 50% more likely to volunteer their time than non-Orthodox Jews. Nearly 14% of Orthodox Jews contributed over $5,000 to a Jewish charity last year, versus 2.8% for Conservative Jews, and 1% for Reform and secular Jews. Orthodox Jews were even twice as likely as Reform Jews to contribute over $5,000 to a secular charity. Comparable studies in Israel show Orthodox giving per capita to be seven times secular giving.
So the next time you read about those cold-hearted, insular haredim, think again.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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