By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Almost everyone knows about the Ten Commandments. Fewer people know that they are just a small subset of six hundred and thirteen commandments in Judaism believed to be handed down by God at Mount Sinai. And among these commandments are many that obligate adherents to take care of vulnerable people, including widows, orphans, and those living in poverty. The Hebrew word that describes these types of obligations is tzedakah, which loosely means “charity”.
The nuances of tzedakah go beyond the usual meaning of charity. The concept is deeply rooted in the realization that Jews were once slaves in Egypt and have long been economically oppressed in many lands. Therefore we have the obligation to help others not only survive but thrive. Tzedakah also explicitly includes the need to preserve the dignity of the people receiving assistance. In fact, anonymous help is believed to be the highest form of tzedakah
Ask any Jew, in any country, “How do you generally give tzedakah?” and you are likely to hear about two forms of action: donating time and energy to assist others, and providing financial support to organizations which assist those in need. These organizations are not necessarily Jewish organizations – for example, we personally are involved in supporting our local food bank and our cousins who live in Mexico City concentrate their tzedakah on an organization that provides services for families with children with Down’s Syndrome. But in the rest of this article we focus on Jewish organizations in Mexico and international Jewish organizations that provide services to people in need who live in Mexico
The first Jewish-Mexican Charitable Organizations
Although Jews were among the first Europeans to settle in Mexico, at that time there were severe penalties attached to Jewish practice – notably the Inquisition imposed a death penalty – most were publicly Catholic converts and practiced Judaism in secret, no doubt tzedakah included.
It wasn’t until 1867 when Benito Juarez drove the Church out of power and declared Mexico a secular state that Jews began to practice openly. Soon after, relatively small numbers of Jews were persuaded by the Mexican government to immigrate from Europe because of their expertise in banking, fiscal management, and other professions needed to establish a modern state.
Between the late 1800’s and the first half of the 1900’s successive waves of Jews fleeing from violent anti-Semitism in Europe began seeking refuge in Mexico – the vast majority in Mexico City. In the late 1800’s Jews escaped from excessive violence in Russia. Then in the early 1900’s Sephardic Jews from present day Turkey – whose families had been expelled from Spain generations before and still spoke a mix of Spanish and Hebrew (Ladino) – took flight from virulent oppression. And, as anti-Semitism became increasing prevalent in Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century, Mexico saw the arrival of hundreds of Ashkenazi Jews whose families originally had been expelled from Germany and still spoke a mix of Hebrew and German (Yiddish).
The majority of Jewish arrivals left most of their possessions behind and were pesoless, but they brought with them a strong work ethic. (Another Jewish commandment is to work six days each week and then rest on the seventh day.) It was clear to the more prosperous, well-established Jews that the Jewish community needed to organize to find the new arrivals jobs and provide support until they were self-sustaining. In 1912, the Sociedad de Beneficencia “Alianza Monte Sinai” was founded for this purpose.
As increasing numbers of Jews arrived they began organizing in “communities” according to their backgrounds. Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews formed their own organizations, such as, in 1922, the Consejo Comunitario Ashkenazi was founded by Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the Comunidad Maguen David was founded in 1937 by Jews from Syria and in 1941, the Comunidad Sefaradi was organized by Jews from Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. The newest communities are Beth Israel Community Center and Comunidad Bet El, respectively founded in 1957 and 1991.
Although the different Jewish communities have culturally distinct customs and practices, the overriding mandate to follow the core commandments, including tzedakah, are the same for all. According to the World Jewish Congress, “Each Community provides virtually all the services that their members need from birth until death: religious, educational, social, cultural and welfare. Poor Jewish families are helped with any needs they have: food, health care, medicine, rent, scholarships, etc.”
Charitable organizations for the wider Jewish community within Mexico
Realizing that it is more economical to provide specialized services together rather than by specific communities, umbrella organizations have been formed to assist Jews independent of which community or whether they belong to one of the specific communities already described. These include job search related services and mentoring people who are starting their own small businesses, provided by Fundacion.
Services for the elderly include activities for keeping seniors engaged and productive and a retirement home in which residents pay on a sliding scale depending on what they can afford. Medical services, including provision of prescribed medications, are also provided for the indigent.
The communities have also come together and launched Umbral, una communidad libre de drogas, dedicated to preventing high-risk behaviors including smoking, illegal drug use, and alcohol abuse among Jewish and other youth. Two organizations focus on preventing domestic violence and provide services to victims of domestic violence.
Organizations providing services for people outside the Jewish communities
Jewish Mexican women have long taken the lead in assisting people in need in the wider Mexican society. The Pioneer Women (Damas Pioneras) was formed in 1935 at first to aid Jewish families living in poverty and rapidly began to assist non-Jewish families. Later, renamed Na’amat, the women members established a strong working (voluntary) relationship in many Mexican schools and hospitals. In 1936, Jewish women formed Bikur Jolim, and provided assistance to people who were ill. And in 1941, the forerunner of the organization today called the Mexican Council of Israelite Women was founded to address social welfare issues and continues today to conduct major fund-raising to support shelters for the homeless, food distribution to the hungry, and public schools.
In addition to indigenous organizations formed by Jewish Mexican women, both Jewish men and women have established chapters of philanthropic international Jewish organizations. For example, the Mexican chapter of ORT provides job training and education aimed at increasing technological skills for people in areas with high rates of unemployment. One specific approach is the “Button” project in Xochimilco, where a center has been established for teaching basic computer skills.
International Jewish organizations assisting non-Jewish Mexican populations
The mission of many world-wide Jewish charitable organizations is to alleviate difficulties faced by economically deprived people, independent of where they live and what religion they practice. One Jewish belief is that we have been given a divine mandate “to be a blessing to all nations.” Except for countries that have banned Jews, Jews can be found working to “repair the world” on every continent and in virtually every country.
One of the organizations that is providing assistance in Mexico is the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). The organization was founded in 1985 with the mission of alleviating poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe. In Mexico, grants are provided to grassroots organizations working to overcome poverty and oppression.
Among the Mexico projects funded by AJWS are:
Flor y Canto. Nuns are working in rural San Antonio, Oaxaca, in partnership with indigenous farmers, to improve communal water irrigation systems.
CODT is a collective of grassroots organizations working with indigenous communities on issues including food sovereignty, right to land and territory, water rights, and environmental damage caused by mining companies. These activists have developed safety and security protocols to protect human rights defenders who have been systematically attacked, harassed and persecuted.
Naxwiin is an indigenous women’s collective, dedicated to increasing the political participation of indigenous women and influencing legislation and public policies to prevent violence against women in the region. Naxwiin uses performance art and puppet theater to raise awareness of domestic violence amongst indigenous women.
Las Reinas Chulas uses political theater to promote political and social debate on controversial political and social issues in Mexico such as reproductive rights, gender, domestic violence, corruption and LGBT rights.
These are just a small sample of projects in Mexico funded by Jewish organizations to help people to better enjoy health and a productive life. As the Jewish toast says, L’chaim – to life.