Close to 150 Jewish young adults plan to share ideas and best practices for doing good in a new world
By Maayan Hoffman
Tikkun olam, often translated as repairing the world, has origins in classical rabbinic literature and 16th-century Jewish mysticism. The concept became popularized in the 1950s by liberal Jewish circles to refer to social action programs, such as giving tzedakah or performing other acts of loving kindness.
How has tikkun olam changed for this next generation of Jews?
Some of the most innovative, forward-thinking you adults from the United States, Europe and Israel are about to explore that question at the 2017 ROI Summit in Jerusalem, which kicks off Sunday, July 2.
According to Michal Kabatznik, former creator of global opportunities for TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers, tikkun olam has proven itself not to be a “passing trend,” but a common theme.
“Social good, social innovation, responsibility – every individual, every company, every group has to have some element of social good,” said Kabatznik, who will be attending ROI to help her determine her new social, entrepreneurial move. “Consumers are demanding it from companies and people are demanding it from themselves … It has become something no one can ignore.”
Kabatznik believes tikkun olam became pervasive through the work of young adults, who were raised in a global, connected society, one in which they are better able than their parents to see the impact of their efforts through social media and sharing. However, she said that nowadays tikkun olam efforts do not differentiate between young and old. Or between Jewish and non-Jewish: “The rest of the world is catching on.”
Elad Blumental, founder and CEO of OneDay Tikkun Olam, an international grassroots nonprofit, is on board. He enables young adults to volunteer in communal activities in a flexible and adaptable way that fits with their daily schedules, while also increasing their social and professional networks.
Blumental started OneDay just over three years ago, to strengthen Jewish communities and tie different communities (Jewish and non-Jewish) together by working with each other for the public good. Today, he has more than 15,000 volunteers and 40 staff members between the ages of 18 and 35 who come together up to four times per week for do-good projects ranging from working with elderly or children to hands on home repairs or other initiatives.
Before launching OneDay, Blumental did a social survey, asking his friends and colleagues why they chose not to volunteer. The most common answers were time, not knowing where to volunteer and being afraid of commitment. OneDay purposefully removes these obstacles and provides an unlikely incentive to participate: friends … and not the kind you have on Facebook.
Blumental tells how a recent study by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee found that only 21 percent of Israelis volunteer. At the same time, the average young adult Israeli girl spends four hours and 15 minutes on Facebook a day. “Volunteering can bring people together,” said Blumental, who has not spent even $1 on marketing.
He sees himself as an innovator of a new kind of tikkun olam.
“Usually, volunteering is one-sided,” said Blumental. OneDay’s events are focused on the volunteers coming together and making friends.
Two other ROI Summit participants have turned tikkun olam work around in a different way. Jacob Weisenthal, operations director for Semilla Nueva in Guatemala, and Ori Schnitzer, Ghana director for international development at the Jewish Agency’s Project Ten, say they are not about improving lives, but giving those whose lives need improving the tools to achieve this goal on their own.
Weisenthal’s Semilla Nueva, in partnership with Harvest Plus, the Guatemalan government and International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement, is working to end malnutrition in Guatemala through better corn. They have developed a corn seed with more protein and zinc and are now becoming a social business, selling and distributing this corn to the local masses.
In 2016, Semilla Nueva reached 25,000 people and it is expecting to reach as many as 60,000 in 2017. The goal is to touch one million lives in the next five years.
“I think there is a gradual shift to recognize and promote sustainable organizations,” said Weisenthal. “Social businesses have an advantage over NGOs in that they must be responsive to local priorities, traits and preferences. To sell a product, you must be in tune with your target population. One of the traps NGOs can fall into is that they are more responsive to donors than to the communities they serve, since they are dependent on donor money more than the success of their venture.”
Weisenthal said his organization makes a concerted effort not to be “paternalistic” and impose a new and different value set on the people of Guatemala. Rather, they work to understand the local context in which they are operating and to leverage local contacts to come up with solutions organically.
Similarly, Schnitzer launched his tikkun olam career by helping residents of the economically challenged city of Jaffa, Israel find work. He pulled together local women who liked to cook and started a local food market that reached quickly reached an audience of 15,000 people. He said the marketplace gave these women the confidence to build their own businesses or other ventures.
Today, he similarly approaches his work in Ghana.
“We approach our projects with a ‘shut up and listen’ attitude,” said Schnitzer. “I can give, push, nudge – but they have to make change.”
And like Blumental, he says those who learn this attitude and become a part of the community get back as much, if not more, than they give.
“Volunteerism today is relationship building,” he said. “Of you are only on the giving side, something is wrong with the relationship.”