Monday, December 14, 2009

Over the Top

It’s one thing to enter into a relationship with our Christian neighbors for the purpose of political support on important Jewish agenda items like the State of Israel, but it is another thing to pander to their charitable side by degrading the Jewish community. This is what appears to be happening on an infomercial-aired daily, morning and evening on cable TV sponsored by the International Federation of Christians and Jews, starring Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and non talking parts by elderly people portrayed as babushka wearing bobies and toothless zaidies.

The International Federation of Christian and Jews founded by and presided over by Rabbi Yichiel Eckstein has been a controversial organization from its inception. The organization hasn’t been that well received by the Jewish communities in America or Israel. This is certainly true for the haredi and the right wing contingency of the modern orthodox community. Going back several generations the right wing orthodox community forbade any theological discussions to take place with the Christian community. Apart from the theological issue there is also the emotional component that so much of the Jewish community is sensitive to. It isn’t easy to forget the suffering of the Jewish communities of Europe at he hand of Christians sanctioned by their clergy. Nor do we forget the unrelenting efforts at missionary work, even today, of some evangelical groups. So it is totally understandable why the right wing orthodox community has a difficult time dealing with the Christian community. That coupled with halachic decisions by torah scholars to prohibit this kind of interaction is enough to dismiss this organization even if Eckstein’s intentions were “l’shem shamayim”.

We Jews are ambivalent and have a hard time sitting down with Christians, considering that our history with them has not been sterling. Among the left wing of the orthodox community Eckstein’s organization was mildly distasteful and certainly controversial. In line with the theory that the modern orthodox community is determined to connect with the world outside it would stand to reason that they would entertain the idea of not only tolerating but embracing the work of organizations that fosters the understanding of each other as well as support an organization that is totally behind Israel. However, having seen the infomercial I’m beginning to understand the sentiments expressed in a daf yomi shiur a few years ago.

Until I saw this infomercial aired ad nausea, I too was ambivalent about the organization, but was inclined to give Eckstein a pass. Being acquainted with Rabbi Eckstein, a committed Zionist and a devoted Jew I was convinced that he wouldn’t have a hand in any organization that wasn’t completely righteous. That is, until I had the misfortune of viewing the IFCJ infomercial where he had the staring role.

The infomercial is not only degrading to those Jews who are suffering in Russia but demeans the entire charitable enterprise of the Jewish People. The subliminal message of the infomercial is since the Jewish community can’t and won’t take care of our own he has to turn to Bible belt Christians in TV land and appeal to their Christian conscience. “It is the festival of lights”, so goes the text of the infomercial, “and its time that light be brought to these neglected holocaust survivors”. He couldn’t resist using the holocaust card. A cheap shot! What a slap in the face it is to all the sacred work done throughout the Jewish communities of the United States, Europe and Israel in creating the programs whereby relief is available to all who wish to take advantage of those resources. Simply outrageous!

What is equally disturbing is the fact that apparently there are still poor and suffering Jews in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. One of JDC’s missions has been and is, to provide aid with dignity, to our unfortunate kinsmen. Perhaps the JDC and other Jewish charitable organizations aren’t doing enough. Apparently the IFCJ sensing the weak link took advantage of the situation. The portrayal of the needy Jews in the infomercial was humiliating, embarrassing and shameful to say the least. The message is clear: we have to take care of our own; we have to do more; and we have to do better.