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This week’s parasha teaches the importance of helping those cast aside feel more welcome in the Jewish community. A Boston philanthropist and a Tel Aviv musician are both heeding that lesson.

Liel Leibovitz
April 08, 2011
Israeli musicians entertaining undocumented workers in southern Tel Aviv.(Eldar Baruch)
Israeli musicians entertaining undocumented workers in southern Tel Aviv.(Eldar Baruch)

Often, the episodic nature of reading the Torah in weekly installments makes little sense, as we skip jarringly between stories, moods, and themes. Not this week: After we read about the dangers of leprosy the previous Shabbat, this Shabbat brings us tales of a cure.

Here, according to the Good Book, is how one might go about combating the scourge of affliction: The kohen, or priest, “shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. The kohen shall order, and one shall slaughter the one bird into an earthenware vessel, over spring water. [As for] the live bird, he shall take it, and then the cedar stick, the strip of crimson, and the hyssop, and, along with the live bird, he shall dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the spring water. He shall then sprinkle seven times upon the person being cleansed from tzara’ath [leprosy], and he shall cleanse him. He shall then send away the live bird into the field.”

We, alas, are no longer blessed with the priesthood and its purifying rituals, and a cedar stick, a strip of crimson wool, and two live, clean birds make for a very strange Amazon wish list. But the spirit of inclusion, that steely and central tenet of Judaism that strives never to leave anyone unattended and uncared for, is far from vanished. This week, I found it with a philanthropist in Boston and a musician in Tel Aviv, each working in his own way to reach out to the needy and forgotten.

The first is Jay Ruderman. A former assistant district attorney in northern Massachusetts, deputy director of AIPAC, and liaison between the Israel Defense Forces and Diaspora Jews, Ruderman is no stranger to the mechanics of mobilizing large organizations. Now the president of his own family’s charitable foundation, he searched for a cause that could unite many disparate institutions in one drive toward a reachable goal, an undertaking no less daunting than trying to cure leprosy with some hyssop and earthenware. Numbers suggested the path: Studying census data in Israel and the United States, he was struck by the stratospheric number of children with special needs, nearly 18 percent of the population in Israel and 14 percent in the United States.

“Every family has someone that they’re close to that has some form of disability or special needs,” Ruderman said in a recent interview. But not every Jewish community, he soon learned, had the means or the know-how to provide the sort of care these children needed. Funding programs in Boston and in Israel, Ruderman set out to solve the problem, focusing, he said, on “models of inclusion that allow children with special needs to be able to come in to school and get individual counseling but also feel included in the school and the community.”

This, he soon learned, was a tall order that required the sort of community-wide effort that no one foundation, well-meaning and well-funded as it may be, could provide. Last fall, Ruderman convened a daylong conference in New York, gathering together such institutional Jewish leviathans as the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Funders Network as well as a host of private investors. This, he believed, was the only way problems would get solved.

“In the Jewish community, we tend to work on projects in silos,” he said. “But the age of the macher putting down money and saying ‘this is my project and I own it’ is over. Such an attitude is great for the funder, but not so great for societal change. I think the sophisticated funder is interested in seeing how to affect societal change and maximize impact.”

The joint push worked: A trial effort in Boston has put together a team of more than 40 professionals—from speech pathologists to music therapists—trained volunteers, and awarded funds to enable 14 day schools—representing all shades of Jewish religious affiliation—to offer an immersive and inclusive education to students with special needs who would not otherwise be able to get a Jewish education.

While Ruderman’s achievements are inspiring, one needn’t necessarily be a resourceful and experienced philanthropist to reach out to those usually untouched and unaided by society. My friend Eldar Baruch is living proof.

A kind and wonderful man, Baruch is a lawyer and a musician who lives in Tel Aviv. Like everyone who lives in Tel Aviv, he frequently comes across the men and women who build the city’s towers and wash its dishes and care for its elderly, the undocumented workers from Nigeria and Romania and the Philippines and elsewhere who fuel Tel Aviv’s economy with their sweat. Most Tel Avivis walk right by these foreign workers, maybe nod politely. Most Tel Avivis, even those who oppose the government’s recent measures to deport these unlucky laborers, never really bother to think about them as human beings with joys and sorrows and thirsts just like everyone else. Most Tel Avivis avoid like the plague the southern slums surrounding Tel Aviv’s old Central Bus Station, a blighted and ugly beehive of small and dank apartments to which the foreigners disappear at night in fear of the watchful police.

Reflecting on the neighborhood recently, Baruch sounded indignant. There was nothing there, he said, except “emptiness, junkies, poor women, torn bodies and souls. It’s a ghetto, three blocks from Rothschild Avenue, the most beautiful part of Tel Aviv.”

Together with a group of activists and artists, he decided on the most direct, most beautifully simple, most personal form of political action, taking cellos and keyboards and guitars, drums and paintbrushes and spray cans, to the sad neighborhood. There, Baruch and his friends played music and painted, danced and sang and partied, inviting the men and women and children in the streets to join them for a few hours of sanity and joy. For many, it was the first taste of live music or art in many years. More important, it was a taste, all too rare, of what life—normal, ordinary, wonderful life—was really all about. They intend to repeat the initiative again this Shabbat, and, hopefully, on many Shabbats to come.

Ruderman and Baruch, of course, are far from the sacred status bestowed on the priests of old. But in their refusal to deny anyone the dignity all mankind deserves, they are doing the Lord’s work.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.