Reflections on Bema’aglei Tzedek

by Sam Gardenswartz

This past summer I had the great honor of interning at Bema’aglei Tzedek (Hebrew for Circles of Justice), a young Jerusalem non-profit organization that uses innovative tools of social entrepreneurship to fight for handicap accessibility and labor rights in Israel. When researching the organization, a common refrain appeared in their literature: they wanted a Jewish state worth its name. Citing facts that deplored certain inadequacies of the modern Jewish state from rates of hunger and poverty to statistics about human tracking and inaccessible buildings, they urged citizens to work together to create a country with a social justice ethos founded on the values of Tikkun Olam (the Jewish value of repeating the world) that would truly be worth the appellation of a Jewish state.

As a proud American Jew, I have often had the opportunity to fight for labor rights, handicap accessibility, and a number of other social justice causes through the Jewish lens of Tikkun Olam. For example, as a camp counselor at the conservative Jewish Camp Ramah in New England I took care of a camper with cerebral palsy for a summer month, and with my youth group United Synagogue Youth I would often volunteer at local organizations. However, these experiences all refined my sense of the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam in America. Not until this summer did I understand how such concepts can and should play out in a Jewish state.

Perhaps the most influential moments of my summer were when I attended the talks of Dyonna Ginsburg, my supervisor and Bema’aglei Tzedek’s executive director. Dyonna, like me, is the child of a Conservative American Jewish rabbi. However, after graduate school she decided to make aliyah (move to Israel). She would always relay that when asked why she would make aliyah, she would always answer that as long as people felt that they had to ask that question – as long as it was not abundantly obvious why Israel was a society in which anyone reasonably would want to raise their children and grandchildren – as long as there was that doubt, she needed to make aliyah to perfect the society that would one day cease to propel people to ask that question.

Only after hearing Dyonna did Bema’aglei Tzedek’s message truly sink in. It isn’t just about using Jewish values of Tikkun Olam to do good in the world and change people’s lives, specifically here through labor rights and disability advocacy. Rather, it is about creating a society in which people want the most fundamental values of their state to be based off Jewish values. That is, after all, the promise of the Zionist state, and that is ultimately a deeper understanding of Tikkun Olam that can only exist in Israel.

Most of my projects this summer involved advertising the Tav Chevrati, a system of ethical kashrut that incentivizes restaurant owners to treat their employees with respect and to open their doors to those in need of handicap accessibility; planning Siach, a New York Federation sponsored conference that will bring together Jewish social justice activities from Israel, North America, and Europe for a weekend of networking and collaboration; and working on promotional and fundraising materials for the organization. I loved working in a Hebrew-speaking office and meeting the fabulous Bema’aglei Tzedek professionals who work so hard each day for their cause. My work was imbued with their mission: to make a Jewish state worth its name. I feel so lucky that this summer I was able to contribute to such a vision.

Sam Gardenswartz interned this summer for Bema’aglei Tzedek.

Sam’s story, and his connection to the Jewish world, is just one of several we are bringing to you this year.