by Robert Lichtman
Much as I try to live outside this characterization, the fact is that both my parents survived the Holocaust. Talk about tikun olam, repairing a broken world: That is exactly what they faced, a world in ruins, a world bent on destroying them, past, present, and future. My very existence is proof to me that a good future for the world is indeed possible. That was a gift to build upon. A poster on my teenage bedroom wall read, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” One of those post-Apollo 8 photographs of a fragile and gorgeous planet Earth was in the center of that one. World was broken, gotta fix it.
I understand the Jewish imperative to fix the world. As a people we announce our plans every day in the Aleinu prayer “l’taken olam b’malchut Shadai” – to repair the world in service to God. Repairing the world is a deeply held commitment by many teens today. The way we at The Partnership engage young people to think and to act seriously as Jews is to start where the learner is. Based on their interests, not ours, we demonstrate that everything that compels them to do good – their impulses to right wrongs, to fight injustice, to “repair the world” – stem from Jewish sources and Jewish heroes who have been fighting the same fights for centuries. We know that many young Jews are activists for various causes. Caring for animals – Jewish? Yes. Cleaning up the park – Jewish? You bet. We make the connection between their instincts to do good and their Jewish heritage that cultivated those instincts over centuries.
Indeed, of the many stereotypes about Jews, there is at least one that still rings true. We are known as “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors.” Earthquake in Haiti? We’re on it. Tsunami in Asia? We’re there. Hungry Jews in Belarus? I don’t know. Sounds kind of self-centered, don’t you think? Well, yes it does, and that’s okay, because with all our good works for the world, we’ve lost our balance along the way. We’ve tipped so far over to help the world that often we neglect to help our own.
When we asked congregational and educational leaders in MetroWest what we could do to promote areyvut – Jewish mutual responsibility – one explained, “We live in an age when particularism is more and more difficult to convey, not only because of intermarriage but because we raise our children in diverse communities and we value all people.” Another leader was more direct: “It can be tricky finding the right way to promote Jewish mutual responsibility in an environment where there are non-Jewish family members.”
Yes, it is difficult, and it may be tricky, but we need to do more of it to correct an imbalance that could hobble our historic journey. Professor Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion reports that “commitment to the Jewish collective (people, Israel, communities, family) is in decline generally in the Jewish population” [emphasis added]. He then reports, quite shockingly, that in a recent survey conducted for the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, only 39 percent of the young Jewish communal professionals surveyed feel a “responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world.” These are the people whose job it is to support and ultimately lead Jewish communities.
Often in this conversation someone will quote a famous rabbinic dictum, “The poor of your town take precedence [over the poor elsewhere].” I think one reason we actually need this rule is because without it we compassionate people search with such sincerity to help others that we don’t even see the needy standing right beside us. The decades-long beating of the tikun olam drum was a welcome, new dimension to the ancient chorus of Jews taking care of Jews; but now that drumbeat has nearly drowned out those earlier voices altogether.
Those of us who see our role as global caretakers are like smoke detectors: We have the ability to sense danger and react to save lives. We do, and we should. But our battery needs care, too. Without re-charging it will die and render the smoke detector useless. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers another analogy: When the oxygen mask drops from the ceiling during an airplane flight, we should place it on our face before we help the child next to us. Why? Because things happen fast in this world, and Jews need to take care of Jews so that we can take care of others.
Is it tricky to promote an affirmative action program to re-focus our energies on helping Jews? Yes. Is it hard? Yes. Is now the right time to re-balance the equation so that Jews can thrive as Jews within the global community that we help to build? Yes.
Robert Lichtman is the executive director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
This op-ed first appeared in New Jersey Jewish News.