I’ve officially been nominated three times – by my brother Rabbi Avi Olitzky, by my colleague Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein, and my friend Adam Shapiro – to participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Many more have asked wondered where my video is, wanting to know why they haven’t yet seen me embarrass myself on YouTube by pouring ice water on my head. It’s not that I’m against pouring a bucket of ice over my head.
This challenge, to raise money to cure ALS and to raise awareness for what ALS - Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease – is, has taken social media by storm. In just a couple of weeks, it has raised well over $42 million for the ALS Association. Athletes, former Presidents, even Oprah has poured a bucket of water on their head to raise awareness. Incredible.
Yet, I question the need of so many to get a thrill out of this challenge, to make it about pouring a bucket of ice on your head instead of about ALS. When kids take turn challenging each other, without learning what ALS is or what they can do to raise awareness, I wonder if we have lost sight of the point of this challenge. It is true that it shouldn’t matter what people are doing to raise money and raise awareness. With only roughy 12,000 people in the United States affected by ALS, raising awareness is just as important as raising money.
I know many fighting ALS. I also know others fighting some not-so-well-known degenerative neurological disorders such as PLS (Primary Lateral Sclerosis) and Huntington’s Disease, which hits particularly close to home as my father-in-law passed away over six years ago as a result of HD. I know firsthand the importance of educating and raising awareness, for awareness leads to action. Action cannot be just dumping a bucket of water on your head. If you want to dump water on your head, then do it. But this challenge cannot be and either-or scenario. You cannot either dump water on your head or donate. You must dump water on your head and donate.
We are commanded to donate. We are command to help someone when they are in need. We should not ignore their pain and suffering. After all, we read only weeks ago in Deuteronomy 15:7:
If there is a someone in need among you, do not harden your heart and shut out the person. Open your hand and lend him whatever he needs.
This viral sensation has done exactly that by raising millions to help those in need. Yet, we cannot ignore the charge found only verses before in Deuteronomy 15:4:
There shall be no needy among you.
We must strive to rid this world of such devastating diseases and illnesses as well. So, while $40+ million is remarkable, that won’t do it. Such fundraising is only a drop in the bucket – pun intended.
According to NBC News, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives out roughly $30 billion in medical research. Not only has Congress failed to increase the NIH budget to keep up with inflation, it has also slashed its budget by over 20%, over $6 billion, over the past decade. As a result, the NIH has cut in half the number of research funding grant it now approves, making it even more difficult to provide cutting edge medical treatment for these devastating diseases and making it more of a challenge to work towards a cure for these illnesses.
So despite our best efforts, despite our viral campaigns and use of social media, despite our willingness to dump ice water on our heads, despite our attempt to truly follow the command of Deuteronomy 15:7 — to help those in need — we have a long way to go to fulfill our commitment to make Deuteronomy 15:4 a reality. We cannot forget about our charge to end illness, to end disease, to find a cure.
I donated money to ALS research, as well as Huntington’s Disease research, but I have another challenge for all of you. Dump a bucket of ice on your head if you really want to, but donate as well. However, that is not the challenge. I challenge you to also write your congressional representatives. Call them. Vote. Ask them to increase the budget of the NIH. If they refuse, ask them to explain to you why they won’t. Ask them to explain where money going towards medical research, money towards finding a cure, would be better spent. To make real change, we can’t just donate. To make real change, congress needs to recommit to supporting the National Institutes of Health.
Let us live in a world where we aren’t just committed to giving tzedakah, but committed to curing pain, suffering, and illness. Let us live in a world where there shall be no needy. I’ll certainly pour a bucket of ice on my head for that!
- Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky