The Tikkun Olam Dilemma

The Tikkun Olam Dilemma: Juggling Social and Environmental Agendas
by Jonathon Feinberg

Serving on a committee to develop a community garden for an underserved population in Woodland, CA, I experienced firsthand the challenges of collaboration between groups with different interests. Causes motivating the various groups included such diverse interests as development in the Latino community, spreading awareness of organic farming, creating more green space, and simply spreading awareness of their organization. Calculate the differences in these vantage points, and the result is a great deal of conflict and complicated internal politics.

One particular divide that can be challenging to bridge is that between groups focused on social action and those on environmental causes. “The impediments are somewhat abstract; for example, loggers struggling for wages and basic needs will conflict with environmentalists struggling to end deforestation,” said Catherine Bell, program director of the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI), which provides its fellows with training and mentorship in community organizing and places them in various social and environmental groups.

As organizations’ focuses become increasingly specialized, working with specific communities or ecosystems or only engaging in certain kinds of programming, collaboration becomes more difficult. Eliana Golding works with the Urban Defense Project (UDP), which works for both social and environmental improvements in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland. It ponders questions such as whether an organization focused on changing environmental habits within the Jewish community could benefit from partnering with UDP, a group that works on the needs of a specific neighborhood.

“Partnering and collaborating can be difficult because each organization has its own goals and missions,” Golding said.

While differences in goals can prevent collaboration between organizations, one of the primary impediments to any kind of collaboration is available funding. Many groups want to work together, but barely have the funding necessary to achieve their own programmatic goals. Furthermore, the Jewish philanthropic world has largely had an anthropocentric focus, working on taking care of the immediate needs of the community instead of its longer-term sustainability.

Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), shared, “[COEJL’s] biggest challenge – which I think many kinds of groups encounter – is funding and bandwidth. The best collaborations happen naturally, because it’s hard to start a new partnership if the issue or project is not somehow already on your agenda.” COEJL engages in campaigns aimed at “Protecting Creation from Generation to Generation,” including greening synagogues around the U.S. and the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign.

Competition was also listed as the top hurdle by Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Israel, which develops and implements environmental education programs for youths around the world using class-based, online, and social networking platforms. “There is a great deal of protectionism among groups generally. Small funding pools and similar program ideas lead to conflict. Personalities also clash; some people are just bad at collaborating,” Wisemonsaid.

Sanchez agreed with this notion of organizational and personal conflict. “[You] need to make sure you are not competing for the limelight and that you are sharing work fairly,” she said.

There is also a deeper, more Jewish community-specific impediment to collaboration. The Jewish community has tended to finance more welfare-based programs within the community, but this limits our abilities to create change and leads to even more specialization. Wisemon calls this the Tikkun Olam Dilemma. “At what point do we expand past the immediate needs of our community to the broader issues we find important as citizens of the world?” he said. We want to do more than provide for basic community needs, but how do we do this when we still have starving, homeless, and disadvantaged Jews around the world?

Despite all of the impediments, at their roots, social and environmental groups both work for a better world that can sustain the people therein. According to Bell, the schism between social and environmental groups in the Jewish philanthropic world is “a false binary.” She explained, “A blue-green alliance often forms when the focus is on an outside enemy, like corporate greed. In real grassroots work, people listen to what folks care about and tensions fall away; a healthy environment is necessary for human justice.”

There does seem to be a general interest in collaboration on both sides of the divide. Environmental groups increasingly incorporate aspects of social justice, just as social groups increasingly incorporate aspects of environmental justice.

As Rabbi David Wolkenfeld of Hillel at Princeton’s Center for Jewish Life put it, “My sense from being an observer is that there is interest in understanding the social justice implications of environmentalism and that Jewish environmental organizations are socially aware too.”

Many voiced evidence of these views. “Partnerships are essential to the UDP’s effectiveness and its ability to stay focused and informed,” Golding said. Meanwhile, Sanchez found “a growing desire to share agendas and be mutually supportive. Faithbased organizations like COEJL and other Jewish groups… have a lot to contribute here because we don’t separate issues the same way.” In discussing JOI’s fellowship, Bell shared that “on group retreats…fellows hold each other accountable for maintaining a sustainable lifestyle; you can’t work for justice without living in a just way.”

Collaboration – including sharing resources, allowing groups to accomplish a much greater good than any one could on its own – can help groups move past the Tikkun Olam Dilemma. Collaboration between social and environmental groups is not always easy, and sometimes just does not work. Yet Sanchez maintained, “Such a confluence of interests serves to unify us rather than further divide us as Jews. I think many Jewish groups, environmental and non-environmental, are focused on finding new ways to enhance diversity and forge common bonds among diverse views and voices.”

As for my own experience with the community garden, when we were finally able to hold an open meeting with the affected community, hearing their desires and concerns, we cohered in an entirely new way. Our goal became far clearer, and the politics disappeared. It seemed that we realized our different reasons and perspectives were all just aspects of the greater project at hand.

Jonathon Feinberg was a 2010 Boston PresenTense Fellow. He works for Sviva Israel and is the founder of The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN), which provides alternative Jewish experiences through environmental action and learning.

image: COEJL, Hazon, volunteers at the global day of action on climate change, 10/10/10; photo by Kevin Tunney.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.