Israel: Where Aniyei Ircha Kodmim Meets Tikkun Olam

by Dyonna Ginsburg

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, defined here as Jewish moral responsibility to the non-Jewish world, both among young Jews and in Jewish philanthropic circles.

As more and more Jewish resources – time, manpower, and money – are being pumped into alleviating the suffering of non-Jews, the question of priorities is becoming more acute. Should our Tzedakah go to relief efforts in the developing world or to subsidies for low-income families at the local Jewish day school? Should our college kids spend spring break repairing churches in hurricane-ravished New Orleans or volunteering in the neighborhood’s Hebrew home for the aged?

Proponents of giving (almost) exclusively to the Jewish community cite the Talmud’s discussion of Aniyei Ircha Kodmim (“the poor of your city take precedence”), which establishes a hierarchy of priorities in favor of local, Jewish needs: “If you lend money … a Jew and a non-Jew, a Jew has preference; the poor or the rich, the poor takes precedence; your poor and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have priority.”

Alongside this Talmudic proof text, advocates of Jewish-directed giving invoke contemporary reality – i.e., dwindling numbers of affiliated Jews, the demise of traditional Jewish institutions, rising costs of Jewish education, the growing gulf between Jews in Israel and those elsewhere. A people hemorrhaging its next generation cannot afford to invest in others, they argue. What is the use of Tikkun Olam, if soon there will be no Jewish People to continue pursuing it?

In response, Tikkun Olam proponents cite their own Talmudic precedent – “We sustain non-Jewish poor with Jewish poor … for the sake of peace” – and explain that the circumstances underlying Aniyei Ircha Kodmim have changed over time. Today, the lines between local and global are blurred. We live in a “flat” world in which the clothing we wear and food we eat were produced by sweatshops and slave labor in far-off countries and the internet enables us to see the suffering of people thousands of miles away.

Regarding concerns about the future of the Jewish People, here too, Tikkun Olam proponents have a ready response. Social action has emerged as a portal into Jewish identity for countless young Jews alienated from the community. If we want a Jewish People, then Tikkun Olam is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Faced with the Aniyei Ircha Kodmim vs. Tikkun Olam dilemma, what are Jewish communal leaders and decision-makers to do? Allow “each man to do what is right in his own eyes” and hope for the best? Or, demonstrate the courage, foresight, and wisdom to pool communal resources in a more concerted fashion and achieve greater impact?

A compelling, though overlooked, solution to the aforementioned dilemma is the State of Israel. With the founding of the state more than sixty years ago, the Jewish People gained the engines of statecraft – an army, legislature, judiciary, diplomatic corps, etc. – to implement Tikkun Olam on a scale impossible for individuals, NGOs, or isolated communities to achieve. Israel, as a modern nation state, has the potential to serve both as a laboratory for Tikkun Olam within its own borders, upholding the rights of its minority populations, and as a catalyst for social change in the international arena. We need look no further than the recent, overwhelmingly positive attention attracted by the IDF field hospital in earthquake-devastated Haiti to understand the tremendous potential the State of Israel has to be the vanguard for Tikkun Olam on the world stage.

With this in mind, imagine what the world would look like if the international Jewish community would issue a multimillion-dollar “challenge grant” to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ MASHAV division, which promotes sustainable development and social equity in the developing world, and thereby succeed in procuring a “dollar for dollar” match by the Israeli government to significantly ratchet up its efforts to alleviate poverty, provide food security, empower women and children, and upgrade basic health and education services around the world.

Imagine what the Jewish future would look like if the overwhelming majority of Jewish college kids doing an alternative spring break would do so in Israel, working with Bedouins in the Negev or African refugees in Tel Aviv, or would choose to volunteer alongside Israeli peers through initiatives like Tevel B’Tzedek in Nepal and Haiti.

We would be killing not two birds, but infinitely more, with just one stone. To name a few: increased social impact, greater Israel engagement, improved Jewish peoplehood, a better Israel, a better world.

And, so the question is not whether we should fund relief efforts in developing countries, but how we should do so and through whom. Nor is it whether we should send our college kids to Jewish service learning experiences helping non-Jews, but where we should do so and together with whom.

The international Jewish community should be investing its resources in a massive, three-tiered plan to put the State of Israel at the forefront of Tikkun Olam by: 1) supporting Israel’s efforts to meet the needs of its own minority populations, 2) bolstering Israel’s aid to the developing world, 3) and creating joint social action opportunities for young Israeli Jews and their peers from outside Israel, both in Israel and in the developing world.

Does this mean we should shut down the hundreds of non-Israeli, Tikkun Olam organizations and put an end to their blessed work? No. It would be naïve to assume that the State of Israel could understand and meet the needs of Chicago’s urban communities better than the local Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. It would be a mistake to disregard the expertise and impressive array of partnerships the American Jewish World Service has cultivated in the developing world. And, it would be wishful thinking to believe that all North American Jewish college kids will come to Israel on spring break, at least in the near future.

But, if we are talking about priorities and where the lion’s share of our precious resources should go, the answer is pretty clear: Israel, Israel, Israel. When Israel is thrown into the mix, the zero sum game of Aniyei Ircha OR Tikkun Olam is replaced by the win-win formula of Aniyei Ircha AND Tikkun Olam.

Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of Bema’aglei Tzedek, an Israeli nonprofit organization that uses education and social action to create a more just Israeli society inspired by Jewish values and one of the founders of Siach: An Environment and Social Justice.

Traditionally, the term Tikkun Olam assumed a variety of meanings: in the Mishna (Gittin 4), it was a rationale for rabbinic edicts in Jewish society; in the Aleinu prayer, it was linked to the messianic age in which the entire world will serve God; in neo-kabbalistic contexts, it referred to the act of bringing God into this world. While departing from more traditional definitions, this article’s use of Tikkun Olam as “Jewish moral responsibility to the non-Jewish world” is in line with the way the term has been increasingly used in common parlance over the past couple of decades.

This article is from the series, Peoplehood – Between “Charity Begins at Home” and “Repair the World”.