Judasim has a strong tradition of charity and Jewish communities are well known for their philanthropic organisations. The biblical laws of leket, shikhchah and peah ensured that the poor could live off leftover crops. Since rabbinical times the voluntary chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) has ensured every Jew a decent burial. Welfare groups in shtetls (villages) pooled communal resources to assist the destitute. It is also customary for rich Jews to sponsor poor yeshiva-bochers (Talmud students). The following are some examples of Jewish philanthropic organisations.
Young professional Jews founded the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris in 1860. The historian Graetz called it ‘a synthesis of the ideals of 1789 and the principles of Judaism.’ AIU raised awareness about maghrebi Jews, Protestants in Spain and other minorities. Endorsing the virtues of French modernity, it built schools all over the Middle East and farms in Palestine.
ORT is a global non-profit organisation founded in St Petersburg in 1880. Initially targeting poor Russian Jews, its technical and vocational schools are renowned worldwide.
The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee, also known as the ‘Joint’) is the overseas aid arm of US Jews, launched by Jacob Schiff in 1914. Its main funding comes from the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Others fund the JDC’s non-sectarian international relief (for example relief given in Turkey, 1999). The Council of Jewish Federations, UJA and United Israel Appeal recently merged, to form United Jewish Communities.
Ezras Torah, the Torah Relief Society, is one of many welfare funds that aid orthodox Jews. Major rabbis founded Ezras in 1915 to counter a terrible famine. It now concentrates on housing projects and medical aid in Israel.
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI or in Hebrew, the Sochnut) plays a pivotal role in absorbing olim (Jewish immigrants to Israel). Together with the Keren Hayesod Foundation Fund (Jewish National Fund or JNF), established in 1920 in London, it has brought 2.3 million immigrants to Israel (most recently, from the former USSR and Argentina). The JNF has set up over 800 rural settlements, and runs Project Renewal in 90 towns. The World Zionist Organisation hosted kibbutzim for newcomers. In 1999 it opened a centre in Lod for Ethiopian Quara refugees.
Henrietta Szold was the driving force behind another philanthropic organisation, Youth Aliyah. It helped victims of Nazi persecution and young Holocaust survivors start new lives in Israel. During 1910-20 Jewish farm workers in Palestine set up the Kupat Holim as a health fund based on principles of mutual aid. It was absorbed within the Histadrut (trade union and welfare federation) in 1920. Today, Kupat Holim’s own subsidised hospitals act as a form of national health insurance in Israel.
In the UK care for Jewish aged and mentally ill people is of primary concern. Other charities have been encouraged to follow the model of Jewish Care; and Tzedek has devised efficient initiatives to help victims of worldwide disasters.
The New Israel Fund was set up in 1979 to back NGOs that safeguard human rights, promote Jewish-Arab equality, advance women, foster tolerance and pluralism, bridge economic gaps and pursue environmental justice. It helps Ethiopian olim, battered women and economically disadvantaged towns in the Negev desert.
Poor and beleaguered Jews often need the help of major welfare institutions to stay afloat, and cannot rely solely on the charity of individual philanthropists. Large-scale disbursement to the needy is not a new concept in the Jewish tradition and new philanthropic organisations appear in Jewish communities around the world on a regular basis.