Tikun Olam: A Daunting Jewish Imperative

Poor Ukrainian Neighborhood; courtesy LifeChanger FSU.

By Ben Farhat

Our nightly news broadcasts and social media feeds paint a grim picture of the world in which we live. Negativity, disunity, and terror prevail and war looms, casting a heavy shadow over our daily routines. Though we’re well aware of the Jewish imperative of Tikun Olam, to repair the world and cast light into the darkness, our good intentions stall at the sight of so much suffering and loss.

How can we heed this higher calling in the face of such unrelenting cruelty and pain? What could we possibly do that would actually heal the world?

In response to this pessimistic inner voice, Jewish wisdom reminds us that there is no such thing as a small act of kindness: “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire” (Sanhedrin 4:5). By bringing relief or hope to even a single soul, we have the power to change and save the world. Every single day.

I’m sure you’ve heard this all before, as it’s one of the great Jewish philanthropic pep talks. But as a behavioral therapist working with Jewish children living in the most economically repressed areas of the Ukraine, I have actually witnessed the life-altering, world-shaping power of attending to the needs of at-risk children, one at a time.

Psychological research has shown that living in poverty has a wide range of negative effects on the physical and mental health of children. Substandard housing in unsafe neighborhoods, homelessness, malnutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, and lack of access to health care will impact children in every area of life. Children grappling with poverty are also at greater risk of facing abuse and neglect, which can lead to additional behavioral and emotional problems, physical health issues, and developmental delays.

In order to combat the negative effects of poverty, it is crucial to take a holistic approach to early intervention, moving well beyond monitoring to include support services that address all aspects of the human experience, providing children and their families with everything from basic necessities like food, clothing, and personal hygiene products, to a wide variety of individualized needs. To give the child the best chance at success in life, this must also include professional guidance for parents or guardians and therapeutic services, medical, paramedical and dental treatment, and educational support for the whole family.

Through my work with LifeChanger FSU, a human services organization that works to dramatically change the lives of the most vulnerable and neglected Jewish children across the Ukraine, I have seen that providing children with individualized care and the positive support they need to rise above poverty allows them to develop the emotional and psychological tools needed to navigate life effectively. ‘Problem children’ become leaders in their communities. Hidden talents are discovered, put on display, and quickly become strengths. Rehabilitated children become productive adults and contributing members of society.

Nurturing the healthy development of children is hard and often stressful work, and even more difficult when the children live in dire conditions. But it is incredibly rewarding work. It’s also a relatively low-cost endeavor.

Even the smallest investments in the futures of these children make a huge difference in the lives of entire families, and I take great pride in knowing that our work can improve mental health, spur physical growth and quite literally save lives. By empowering children and helping them triumph over poverty, we allow them to bring their own light into the world – a healing force that betters humanity and the planet. This is the truest fulfillment of the Jewish imperative of Tikun Olam.

So, don’t take the images you see on the nightly news broadcasts to heart and try to ignore the negativity in your social media feeds. Healing the world is possible and within reach. It’s really just a matter of shifting our focus to each individual in need, bringing forth the light of one child at a time.

Ben Farhat is a licensed behavioral therapist living in Israel who works with LifeChanger FSU, a proactive human services organization that dramatically changes the lives of the most vulnerable and neglected Jewish children across the Ukraine by addressing their unique physical, mental and social needs, and providing frameworks for housing, education, and healthcare.