Learning Together and from Jewish Wisdom to Elevate American Democracy

By Ayalon Eliach

At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we see immense value in the ancient Jewish tradition of feedback. Without input from others, we miss critical perspectives. With those perspectives, however, we “sharpen each other” so that our ideas and work become as refined as possible (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a).

We are proud of the reactions we received to the Jewish Futures Conference that we hosted with The Jewish Education Project in December, but we are also continually trying to improve. So we welcomed Ed Frim’s recent piece that critiqued the conference.

Analyzing different forms of Jewish volunteering, Frim wrote (the post has since been edited, including changes to the following paragraphs):

“Participants do good, important things, but the meaning of their efforts is often unclear, lumped into a vague construct of tikkun olam.

An example of this was a recent national meeting in December, the Jewish Education Project’s Jewish Futures Conference, titled For Which It Stands: How Can Jewish Civics Education Elevate American Democracy? There were a variety of speakers and workshops on engaging learners to be active participants in the democratic process. There was discussion of leadership, having a voice, and making change yet when practical efforts were discussed, they were primarily about serving those in need. The message was unclear, seemingly defining being good citizens as a form of Noblesse Oblige: the idea that people with advantages, for example those of a high social class, should help and do things for other people. While this is not a bad thing, it does not accurately describe participation in the democratic process.”

The conference’s intended focus was on improving Jewish civics education, rather than encouraging volunteer work (we invite you to watch the full conference in case you weren’t able to be there). Frim’s feedback reminds us, however, that our message can sometimes be lost; and we appreciate the opportunity to figure out ways of refining our delivery in our future work.

More importantly though, Frim’s piece highlights a fundamental question about what participation in the democratic process is all about – the exact type of question that we hoped the conference would spark. The type of participation in the democratic process that Frim lauds is “fixing the system.” The example he highlights is teens rallying for gun control with signs that read, “This is what democracy looks like!”

Such activism is indeed an essential piece of democracy. But it is only a piece. Fixing broken policies is what a healthy democracy does in response to its failures; it is an inherently reactive approach.

Another equally, if not more, important part of democracy, however, is building a society that has fewer glaring problems that need to be fixed in drastic ways. Doing that requires a lot of small, generally not celebrated, and often unseen acts that range from voting, to sitting on local school boards, to, yes, even serving those in need simply because they are our neighbors. As Yale professor Timothy Snyder has explained, even making eye contact and small talk with strangers are important for the preservation of a healthy democracy.

In the words of our tradition, this shared responsibility for our common fate is known as areivut. As the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai taught in a parable, we are all on a boat together, and we must ensure that our ship doesn’t have any leaks, regardless of whether they are under our own seat or someone else’s (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6).

This awareness of our daily, often mundane responsibilities to create a society in which we support our civic institutions and each other is one example of an understanding of democratic participation that the conference encouraged educators to pursue. While it may not be as exciting as marching in the streets, it is just as important. We hope that the conference continues to inspire conversations like these about what it means to be full participants in our democracy, and we look forward to continuing to learn from each other along the way.

Ayalon Eliach is Director of Learning and Strategic Communications, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.