Chutzpah This Passover

Now, I am just as amazed as you are, but I “took a meeting” this week with the head of the World Bank. It was a triumph of bashert – and of chutzpah.

“Bashert” is one of those Yiddish words that isn’t easily captured in English. It means “meant to be,” “aided by Providence,” “with perfect timing,” “destiny,” and sometimes “soul mate.” Use it in a sentence? Glad you asked. “It was bashert that I met Dr. Jim Yong Kim, head of the World Bank.”

Chutzpah, translated as “effrontery,” is often defined by an example that Leo Rosten made famous: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” As with many Yiddish words, “chutzpah” has can be either a compliment or a condemnation, depending on tone and context.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach talked about “holy chutzpah.” As in, “I exercised holy chutzpah by calling someone I hadn’t seen in 20 years and asking him to get me some time alone with the head of the World Bank. Then I asked the head of the World Bank to call my friend, Maurice.”

OK, a little background….

On September 24, I happened to be driving and listening to the radio when Jim Yong Kim was interviewed about collaborating with the Pope to end extreme poverty by 2030. (To hear this inspiring segment, google “World Bank President Has a Plan to Eradicate Poverty” and select the link from

It was a timely conversation. The next day at the United Nations, 197 countries adopted 17 “sustainable development goals” to achieve by 2030. Goal #1 was to end poverty.

Kim spoke about extending the collaboration to all faiths and about the moral and religious duty to help the poor. He was critical of his own institution and open to learning from others, including Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, a champion of micro-financing, and poor people themselves.

I had been dimly aware of Kim’s transition from President of Dartmouth College to President of the World Bank. I became a fan.

For the last three years, I have focused my social justice work on freeing slaves and preventing human trafficking. Shortly before September’s broadcast, I tentatively began to think and speak about ending slavery in our lifetimes. When you listen to someone with chutzpah of the noble variety, like Jim Yong Kim, it reminds you that we could all dare more greatly for holy causes.

Kim not only inspired me to think big (as in boldly, with chutzpah), but also to think big (as in broadly, taking an expansive view of problems and building a coalition to solve them). For two years, I have been learning a similar orientation from Free the Slaves and its remarkable executive director, Maurice Middleberg.

I was motivated initially, as most of us are, by individual needs and stories. How can I rescue this child from a fishing boat? Or that teenage immigrant from a brothel? Or three generations of one family doing hard labor in a quarry, based on a $40 debt the grandfather incurred? Each life is precious; each tragedy demands a response.

Yet, by definition, you make only incremental progress when you address one need at a time. That’s why Free the Slaves also partners with local organizations and leaders to develop community-based programs against trafficking. If you can organize whole villages and economies, you will liberate and sustain thousands of people.

The goals of eliminating poverty and eradicating slavery are clearly allied. Curtail extreme poverty, and you help to end slavery. People who can access credit, pay for medicine, and feed their children are less vulnerable to traffickers than those who cannot.

The reverse is also true: Protect people against traffickers, and you reduce extreme poverty. “One mitzvah leads to another.” (Avot 4:2). Former slaves who receive help and re-enter their communities typically help, in turn, to increase prosperity. They often do in freedom the same work they did as slaves, but with dignity that uplifts the spirit and spendable income that supports the local economy. This phenomenon has been dubbed “the freedom dividend.”

Collaboration between Free the Slaves and the World Bank would be cheap in dollars and priceless in human terms. Anti-poverty initiatives that track local development can simultaneously, with little added cost, determine the risks and prevalence of human trafficking in a given area. Where dangers are great, abolitionists can intervene effectively and inexpensively. For an average cost of $1,220, Free the Slaves safeguards an entire village against trafficking for a year.fts-webbutton400





I felt that Maurice and his kindred spirit, Jim Yong Kim, were meant to work together.

Last week, I happened to visit the website of my alma mater, The Jewish Theological Seminary, for the first time in over a year. I saw that, in 48 hours, Jim Yong Kim would be delivering an address co-sponsored by the Seminary’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue. Rabbi Burt Visotzky, director of the Milstein Center, was one of my favorite professors. In 1996, I wrote a short piece for Talking About Genesis, a book based on the television series with Bill Moyers in which he played a major role. Unfortunately, we fell out of touch afterwards. Nevertheless, I called him and asked (chutzpah!) for a two-minute audience with Dr. Kim. Thanks to Rabbi Visotzky’s gracious generosity, I was able to talk with Dr. Kim, suggest synergies with Free the Slaves, and provide him with Maurice Middleberg’s contact information.

So what does all this have to do with Passover? One obvious – and valid – answer is that freedom, equality, and overcoming disadvantage are essential values of the holiday. As the Haggadah declares, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” “This year, slaves. Next year, free people.”

Also, we spend money for Passover. It is customary to buy new clothes and provide gifts for finding the afikoman. Kosher-for-Passover food is expensive, and many of us host big, celebratory meals. Others bring gifts to our hosts. It is the season for ma’aot chitim, tzedakah to help poor people pay for matzah, among other needs. Thus, many Jewish charities request donations at this time of year.

During his Seminary talk, Kim – a medical doctor and anthropologist, by training – shared his conviction that moral problems will not be solved unless moral people develop the skill of deploying money effectively. So I did a few calculations:

Assuming 5.3 million Jews in the United States and 85% Seder attendance, if every Jew who attended a Seder donated just $5 at, American Jews could protect 1,800 villages against slavery for a decade. 1,800 villages protected until 2026 would go a long way toward eradicating both slavery and poverty by 2030.

Now take account of the 6.1 or so million Jews in Israel and the estimate of 16 million worldwide, and you see that even our small people can make a big difference.

Of course, not all the Jews who attend a Seder will give $5, but many, I hope, will give more.

We have a choice to make this Passover. Will we, individually and collectively, deploy money to rescue people from bondage – or just talk about freedom? Will Exodus and the Haggadah merely be sacred words we inherit and pronounce, or will they also be our call to action?

I am taking the liberty of making a chutzpah-dik request: this Passover, please put your money where your mouth is. Then it will truly be a sweet and freeing holiday.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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