Moving Mountains

I got in to an argument with a friend recently. It started with us discussing the role of the JDC in the developing world: should the JDC be building schools and wells in Ethiopia and providing rehabilitation and clean water in post-earthquake Haiti? As I have mentioned in previous posts, one of the core areas of JDC’s work worldwide involves rescue and renewal of global Jewish communities. The cliché is about feeding babuskhas in the FSU, but of course the actual scope of work in the rescue and renewal missions goes literally from birth to death.

Another arm of JDC’s work involves a different type of rescue—rescue victims of global emergencies and development projects in the Global South (my term, not theirs). If you peruse the “Other JSC fellows” page of my blog, or the JDC Entwine page of other JSC fellows, you will notice that a significant number of fellows are working in the JDC’s International Development Program (IDP), doing cool things in cool places. And I want to state, for the record, that I feel incredibly proud to be associated with these amazing people and the staggeringly urgent and important work that they are doing with the JDC. But when asked whether I believe the JDC should be doing programs like this, I had to honestly say that I don’t know. And so it began.

The discussion about JDC’s role in IDP work quickly moved past the specifics of what, who and where and in to a debate that is, in fact, something I have discussed many times with my family, friends and AVODAH corps. The central theme of the debate is about the role of non-profits. Should non-profits try to change the world? If so, how? And if they don’t, who will?

As a reminder, I am at core a direct-service oriented person. Last year I worked directly with incarcerated immigrants and refugees in the United States, listening to their stories and requests and attempting to make everyone feel like they mattered, whether or not I could actually provide them with legal assistance. As I mention in the “Why Beit Deena?” section, injustice rankles me more than almost anything else.  I take it as a personal affront when I see unfairness in the world. I like to be with people, I like to solve problems, and I’m not particularly patient. I like immediate responses. If I see a mountain that needs moving, I look for the nearest shovel.

In immediately reaching for the metaphorical shovel, I make two assumptions. The first is that moving the mountain is urgent, and the second is that, short of an act of God, the mountain is not going to move itself. To use a different metaphor, at this moment in my life I am more drawn to putting the bandage over a bleeding wound than I am to discovering the source of the bleeding. When I see suffering I want to alleviate it. Now. I may be powerless to move an entire mountain, but I feel compelled to at least try to make a dent. As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it”. In the iteration of this debate that I have had with my parents, we discuss whether it is more important to give time or money. Short answer: both, but right now I’ve got a lot of time and not a lot of money so that’s how I contribute. Later in life, I will presumably (hopefully?) have more money and less time, so that’s how I will give.

From that and the fact that I am on my second year of a social justice fellowship that places me in the non-profit, service-provision world, it shouldn’t be too difficult to surmise that I believe it is the role of service non-profits to provide quick, short term responses to pressing issues. I don’t see the role of the non-profit to be changing the system, but rather helping people who are hurt or left out of the system survive and even thrive until such time as “the system”, in my opinion government, can effectively help them. In this understanding, service non-profits should be like sting attacks—targeted, quick interventions on the front line of the issue. Moving the mountain by shoveling away little rocks and topsoil.

Obviously, this is going to lead to a glacial rate of change. But wait, that’s just what we need to move a mountain—a glacier! Another mountain to come up behind this one and level it. I instinctively assume that the glacier is the government, but from what I know about the JDC, in some ways I think it approaches social change more from the perspective of the glacier than from the shovel. The size of the JDC, some 700 employees in over 70 countries worldwide, and the scope of activities, ranging from feeding babushkas to digging wells to training young Jewish philanthropists, don’t lead to as many sting attacks. But they also mean that the JDC has enough influence and power to actually move a mountain, even if at a more glacial pace.

In the mean time, why not keep shoveling? Surely there is some value to trying to minimize the mountain as the glacier approaches? And so, on the eve of my 24th birthday with, God willing, 96 years ahead of me to, can somebody please pass me a shovel?

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