When we think of socialism in the United States, we envision the Soviet Union and Lenin’s tomb, striking French labor unions, and innovative Nordic cuisine. But, my visit to the La Dor Va Dor senior home in Buenos Aires this week gave me a lens into a different type of socialism: micro and voluntary, with a focus on progressive redistribution to support collective betterment.
At La Dor Va Dor, the business model they have chosen to provide the highest overall standard of care is to charge their wealthiest residents the maximum possible based on their reported income and assets, in order to subsidize poorer residents who barely pay or can’t pay at all. They do this openly, rather than as victims of circumstance and there was a clear embrace of the belief that all residents should have the same care. It was directly articulated, more than once, that not only should wealthier residents not receive better attention because of their money, they should actually pay more to subsidize others as part of what it takes to create a harmonious micro-society within the elderly home and between residents.
This model represents a radical departure from the US, where most institutions of this type typically charge residents the same rates, and many poorer residents suffer the consequences of their lack of means. As we see increasingly brazen embraces of Ayn Randian survival of the fittest social theory, La Dor Va Dor is a functioning micro-antithesis of those ideas.
La Dor Va Dor is not a catch-all example: it is a non-for-profit, Jewish home for the elderly in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is ‘owned’ by the local Jewish community, and its resident’s dues are supplemented both by local funds and the ‘guarantorship’ of the Jewish Federations and the Joint Distribution Committee (Joint), which appropriate vast funds across the world if-when they are needed in support of Jewish life. This is all to say that La Dor Va Dor has support that isn’t replicated, or possible to replicate, in every community.
With that said, La Dor Va Dor does work from what we could see, and from a bit more research I conducted on my own after the visit. It has some of the best facilities I have ever seen in an elderly home, and by far some of the best energy. The staff were more engaged than those I have seen at elderly homes in the US, the atmosphere was far brighter, and the quality of life appeared far better.
Yet, this ethos of giving, which has felt scarce and vilified in our recent societal discourse, has existed for a long time in our society. In the American Jewish Community, and in the United States of America at large, we have a long tradition of trust and guarantorship, with the wealthy historically paying their greater share to help others. In the Jewish Community, this has developed over a century into the world’s most successful systemic redistribution of wealth within a defined community: a multi-billion-dollar annual transfer of capital from the wealthy members of Jewish Federations across America to both Jewish charities serving poor Jewry across the United States and to the Joint, which in turn distributes it to Jews in need across the world.
This all begs the question: can our society learn a lesson from such practices and beliefs? The defining crisis in the world today is income inequality. The defining questions within that crisis are: should people with money be entitled to better lives than poor people, and should they be entitled to pass those benefits on indefinitely, or should their wealth be redistributed in ways large and small as part of their inherent obligation to make society better? And, on the other side of the coin, should the wealthy – and indeed wealth itself – be attacked simply for its existence, without the context of motive or specific action? At La Dor Va Dor, the community’s embrace of micro-socialism has provided their own answer to these questions: the wealthy, and their means, should not be vilified writ large, but if wealthy people wish to be part of the home community, they must use that wealth to make the community stronger.
This belief system comes from a larger stem within Jewish society, and its own that has grown over the years and continually amplified. To paraphrase a former leader of the JDC, who was instrumental in empowering the Argentine Jewish Community, including La Dor Va Dor, ‘Joint touches nearly every place in the world with Jews, because central to the concept of Jewish life is that of guarantorship: our responsibility to use our greater means, both monetary and otherwise, to guarantee the safety and security of every Jew across the world, and their right to lead a life of dignity and value. Without that contract, the unified Jewish community as we experience it would not exist.’
It’s a worthy lesson, and not just for La Dor Va Dor, or only for Jews. So, in this time of fear, division, and constant vilification of ‘the other,’ are there ways for us to apply it on a larger scale?