When Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and his wife Valerie visited India earlier this year, they were moved by the unimaginable poverty they witnessed. It prompted them to establish a new project to enable young people to travel to India to see first-hand the plight of those less fortunate than themselves.
The Chief Rabbi expressed concern that Jewish teenagers and students are "living in a bubble" and must do more to help those worse off. He warned against young people being "selfishly inclined", urging them to leave their comfort zone and help communities beyond Anglo-Jewry and Israel.
The poverty some people endure is horrific, their working conditions dangerously unsafe and the toll on their family life truly heart-breaking, not to mention the lack of adequate and affordable medicine. The parents of these prospective young visitors from the UK may have spent more on their child's bar/batmitzvah than these people earn in a lifetime. Most are lucky if they earn between one to three dollars a day.
So, on the face of it, these trips may look impressive, but what will be the result? Well-to-do young Jewish adults from London will travel, all expenses paid, to India. They will see heart-wrenching conditions, which will no doubt move them to action. On their return to the UK, they will set up Just Giving pages, Crowdfunding and various initiatives to encourage others to give
Their communities will fly some of these poverty-ridden people to the UK to appear at shul events and pat themselves on the back, thinking how the Jewish community is making a difference worldwide.
Your local community takes precedence for charity
But the issue is more complex. In the Shulchan Aruch, there is an agreed pecking order for tzedakah. For decades, Jews in the diaspora haven't quite come to terms with it. Broadly speaking, your own local community takes precedence for charity, then Israel and then Jews elsewhere in the world (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251).
Of course, we are required to support all people regardless of their race or religion, but that should be a relatively small amount compared to those whom we have a greater obligation to help. It is for this reason that although my own tzedakah portfolio includes non-Jewish charities, the amount I give to my own Jewish community far outweighs that. Likewise, my giving to Jewish charities in the UK far outweighs my giving to Israel.
As diaspora Jewry continues to pump vast sums of money to Israel ahead of local needs, the India initiative will only confuse youngsters further as to where their true obligations lie. It will cost a small fortune, despite being sponsored, and will divert much-needed funds, energies and volunteering away from our own.
Thousands in our own community in the UK and an even greater number of Jews worldwide remain hungry, cold, lonely, socially isolated, mentally challenged and physically disabled. Youngsters could visit young Jews all over the UK with acute challenges and lack of money and might be able to help them turn their lives around. For £5, they could hop on a Megabus, bring their own packed lunch and stay in YMCA hostels, all to keep the costs down which they can cover themselves.
That may spur on these youngsters to give support to their own from their own money rather than encourage others to give to causes far away from their own communities and faith.
Should it be argued that the needs in India and elsewhere are greater than our own local Jewish needs, then there is a solution for this too. The Office of the Chief Rabbi is highly regarded and incredibly influential, often enjoying more respect among the non-Jewish community than our own. Rabbi Mirvis could put together a team of leaders and travel the world, encouraging the wealthy to alleviate poverty in their own countries, whether it is influencing the millionaires and billionaires in Mumbai, Tel Aviv or elsewhere.
I too, like Rabbi Mirvis, believe that many youngsters may be "living in a bubble" and risk being "selfishly inclined". However, rather than focusing abroad we must not lose sight of many of our own Jewish people who are in genuinely dire straits. Indeed, some of them are Holocaust survivors, whose situation many of these youngsters are oblivious to.
There has been little or no debate within Anglo-Jewry about the India initiative and silence among rabbis too. Some may be afraid to speak up, either because they don't want to appear critical or for fear of reprisals from their lay leaders. Whatever the reasons, none of this helps the truly vulnerable in our own communities.
I believe that this initiative, which is without doubt motivated by the desire to help others and educate our youth, has diverted attention away from pressing local needs. The enthusiasm, energy and funding could be used to ameliorate the helpless people suffering in silence on our very own doorstep.