Repair the world

Looking out to the wider world, Orthodox Union launches Rwanda relief mission

Organizer insists tikkun olam is not just a concept for progressive Jews but for the Orthodox world as well

When Matan Schwartz decided to spend his summer break on a relief mission half a world away from his East Coast home, he felt it important to help a broad community rather than pigeonhole himself into only helping fellow Jews. 

Schwartz, 19, an incoming freshman at Brandeis University from Philadelphia, spent a week in June with over 500 teens at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), a Rwandan orphanage in Colline Nawe, 37 miles from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. ASYV is modeled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village established in 1953 to care for orphans of the Holocaust. 

The mission was run by the Orthodox Union – the first such mission organized by the organization – and it brought seven undergraduate and graduate students to Rwanda. Students paid $1,000 plus airfare to participate. They slept at the village and engaged with residents over various art, music and sports activities. Participants held nightly Family Time, in which groups of about 20 students that live together with a mother figure (referred to as their “Mama”), sat around the living room of their home and spent an hour hanging out, asking about each others’ days, checking in on how everyone is doing and playing games.

Schwartz, who identifies as Orthodox, said there’s a charge against his community that it focuses solely on helping other Jews and “ignore[s] the outside world.” Others, he said, believe that Orthodox Jews should help non-Jews but only so that the “greater community will have better outlooks on Jews and antisemitism could drop.

“While that’s true, the way I see it is the whole world was given to all of us. We’re all human. We’re all deserving of help,” he said.

While non-Orthodox groups have for decades organized humanitarian missions to developing nations and locations hit by natural disasters, often citing the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, Orthodox institutions have been slower to follow suit.

According to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox groups started getting involved in 2007 when he founded Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice group that runs service trips specifically to help non-Jewish populations. Among Uri L’Tzedek missions includes frequent trips flying Jewish teenagers to the Mexican-American border to help asylum seekers. 

“Orthodoxy has done a really great job of taking care of fellow Orthodox Jews and a really poor job of being active leaders and servers in the broader community,” Yanklowitz told eJP. “We are trying to fill that gap.”

“It’s been a big issue for us that Orthodox Jews should just take care of ourselves. But we’re global citizens,” Yanklowitz, who said he was transformed by service trips around the world he himself participated in during college and as a rabbinical student, continued. He applauded the OU Rwanda mission. “I was happy to hear about it. It’s a wonderful thing to have young Orthodox Jews exposed to this type of service work.”

Since 2005, NCSY, the OU’s international youth movement, has led over 225 chesed and relief missions to more than 20 American and European regions depleted by natural and man-made disasters, according to the OU. NCSY Relief Missions involves over 1,000 teens annually. Now rebranded as OU Relief Missions, it is expanding to include community, synagogue and retiree missions, alongside those for young professionals. 

“In Orthodoxy, specifically, post-Holocaust the community doubled down on isolation — day schools, building their own communities where the entire social world is their own community, whether that’s Hasidic communities, ultra-Orthodox communities or Modern Orthodox, everyone is in their own area and stays put,” Yanklowitz said. “Plus, there was a fear mentality that came after the Holocaust, an idea that we were here to take care of ourselves and to distance ourselves from the liberal world and focus only on observance.” 

Yanklowitz called on Jewish groups to learn from each other. “There’s a lot to learn from the Orthodox Jewish community because there’s so much about internal kindness, showing up for each other for shiva, for the sick, in ways that liberal communities struggle with. That said, the Orthodox community has a lot to learn from the liberal Jewish community about broader tikkun olam,” he said.

The OU’s Relief Missions director, Rabbi Ethan Katz, who led the group of American students to Rwanda, has coordinated all of the NCSY missions since they started as a response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Asked what the most meaningful experience was on the Rwanda trip, Katz said “there were nonstop meaningful experiences.” 

“But one that stands out to me was meeting with an alumni of the village whose parents were murdered,” Katz recalled. “He learned to put seeds in the ground, grow plants and decided to become a chef and wanted to open his own restaurant. I personally helped him in opening of the restaurant. Although it wasn’t kosher we went one evening for soft drinks to support him and hear his story. He’s someone who started off with nothing and now is a restaurant owner.” 

Katz explained the philosophy behind these trips, what it means to the participants and wider community.

“We came across the village of Rwanda as a way to attract and motivate smart kids who care about social justice and want to get involved. It quickly evolved to kids of all walks of life; religious and non-religions. The program we do in Rwanda is really about making future leaders in Rwanda, helping them come out of the village and get started in businesses while also engaging our Jewish students in a meaningful way.” 

He continued: “The State of Israel is the No. 1 responder worldwide to disasters. As Jews, [we] are ambassadors of the Jewish state and so we need to go out in times of need.”

Katz said the Rwanda trip was “fantastic” and that there was “serious interest” in running another next year.

He told eJP that the concept of tikkun olam as signifying the need to help the wider world is indeed a part of the Orthodox philosophy, despite some critics arguing that the term, which first appears in the Mishnah and was originally developed by kabbalists, has been misappropriated and masquerades liberal politics as Jewish values

“We get calls all the time now, people asking the Orthodox community [for] help,” he said. ”So traditionally speaking, one might have thought tikkun olam was a non-Orthodox terminology but today we are the leaders in making chesed missions happen.”

Yanklowitz also brushed off claims that tikkun olam is only a liberal or Democratic value. “That is a misread of the Torah, which makes clear that we cannot make humanitarian efforts partisan. The Talmud is clear, the Tanach is clear. We should swiftly and strongly condemn anyone who makes political these types of efforts.” 

Yanklowitz said that trips like the OU Rwanda mission show that change is on the horizon. “We’ve been pushing for this for 16 years. More and more Orthodox groups are talking about this. Orthodox synagogues around America want to volunteer with us. We applaud any groups doing this. Now is there a global Orthodox institution running relief efforts? No. But we see baby steps forward.”

Raphael Blumenthal, 19, of Dallas, Texas said in a statement he knew the Rwanda trip would be “unforgettable” because he had a positive experience attending an NCSY Relief Mission trip to New Orleans. “I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of my slightly more distant brothers, who are also G-d’s children,” Blumenthal wrote.

Schwartz said that he was “enamored by the people and culture of Rwanda from the moment we landed to the moment we took off a week later.” 

“Despite the country being ripped apart by genocide less than 30 years ago, everyone we met was so optimistic and friendly; waving hello as we drove past, or stopping to talk as we walked through the capital city of Kigal,” he said. “As an Orthodox Jew, going on trips assisting non-Jewish people, I personally don’t see it even as much of a difference as helping Jewish people. I think they’re equally important. However, it could be seen as even more important for me to help non-Jews as a way to break that stigma.”