The Tikkun Olam Debate is No Debate at All

Read JDC Entwine's Executive Director Sara Eisenman's essay published in the Peoplehood Papers: A 21st Century Peoplehood with Tikkun Olam at its Heart

Tikkun olam is undoubtedly the most loaded concept in contemporary Jewish life.

In recent times it has come to be a catch all for, among other things, the variety of activities and causes whereby Jews, informed by Jewish values, work to alleviate the injustice or suffering experienced universally.

However, as many have pointed out – including Levi Cooper in Assimilation of Tikkun Olam – it’s deep roots in Jewish tradition, whether in rabbinic texts or kabbalistic mysticism, are arguably somewhat different.

So why is this organizing principle for millions of Jews – both its meaning and relevance – debated and its impact largely feared? Why is it reduced to a naïve aspiration instead of a real paradigm shift?

To explore the tikkun olam debate and dig deeper, we need to ask two opposing questions: Does helping non-Jews really threaten organized Jewish life or the life of our people? And conversely, will shifting to an organizing principle based on healing the world’s ills really lead to some sort of nirvana in Jewish life? I would suggest answering these questions with three bold notions.

First, drop the false dichotomy at the heart of the tikkun olam debate. During a recent conversation with lay leaders, I was asked if Jewish mutual responsibility, arevut, would suffer given “growing trends” around Jewish young adult support for aiding of nonJews. In other words: isn’t tikkun olam the antithesis of kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh, or Jewish guarantorship? My response: this is a false choice.

To understand this point, I offer some trends from JDC Entwine’s work. Entwine is a network of over 30,000 Jewish young adults who have been drawn to our mission of making global Jewish responsibility. It also includes the largest global Jewish service program platform with nearly 5,000 alumni, predominantly from North America, who have joined trips and fellowships around the world. Most placements are in countries where the focus is solely on the local Jewish community and others are in countries where JDC is involved in development work with non-Jewish populations or in Israel.

Those applying and traveling with Entwine are by-and-large young adults that one might assume would be more drawn to tikkun olam initiatives — two-thirds come from a low to-medium Jewish background, close to 40 percent indicate that they weren’t previously involved in organized Jewish life until traveling with Entwine, and the vast majority had not heard of JDC before. When we started these trips many suggested we just run trips to locations where we are working with non-Jews as surely this would be their primary interest if traveling with a Jewish organization.

That has simply not been the case. Year after year, the top five most popular trips are generally not tikkun olam trips, per se, but those to far-flung locations where the experience is focused on local Jewish communities. And if you segment applicant preference by trips focusing on Jewish vs. non-Jewish populations, the average applicant numbers are about the same, reflecting equal interest. While there are many factors that drive why one applies to one trip over another, surely interest in the population at the heart of the experience is a top consideration. Research done at Entwine’s founding drives this point home: a survey of Jewish young adults found that they cared equally about helping Jews in need and non-Jews in need, but they knew far less about Jewish needs and issues. We had an education and motivation gap, not a commitment gap.

Ultimately, young Jews are interested in both focal points—how we help build Jewish life and how we as Jews help build better lives for all people. We don’t need to replace a vision of peoplehood that centers on helping non-Jews, we need to adjust to the truth that there is already room for both in the hearts and minds of our constituents.

Second, the Jewish family is already reflective of this reality and set of values. The majority of Jews in North America, and likely around the world as well, have many non Jewish family members and close social contacts. And this will only grow into the future.

As noted in the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews, as of 2013 the intermarriage rate was 58% (a 15% increase from 1990) and when looking at only non-Orthodox Jews it was 71%.

Do we expect all these Jews to somehow not care about helping other people, or their own non-Jewish family members? Or believe that if we want these families to engage in Jewish life that they will do so if we remain committed only to our particular needs and interests? As a deeply committed Entwine alum remarked to me: “I support that your (i.e. JDC’s) priority is to help other Jews and that is the primary focus. However, I can’t be involved with you if you refuse to also help others who in theory could be my family.”

The Jewish public of the future will very likely validate our need to build the Jewish community and ensure it continues to flourish. But we will need to take the leap and accept the full reality of their lives and that all parts of their identity belong, not just the few we are comfortable with. We will have to find a way to get beyond the lip service and demonstrate we are real partners in caring for those in need around us and in advancing righteous pursuits for a more equitable society.

Even if we wanted to only focus on our own needs, that will be impossible. The welfare of our constituents, of our organizations, and indeed the safety of our community is bound up with the march towards the greater good.

Finally, Jewish confidence does not mean Jewish isolationism. We have been witnessed to two great moments of Jewish exceptionalism – chosenness at Sinai and the establishment of the State of Israel. In both cases, we were endowed with responsibilities that set us apart but orientated our place in the world, not outside of it. The Jewish people have always balanced responsibilities to our God and people and those to our neighbors and non-Jewish loved ones (hearkening back to Moses, Zipporah, and Jethro).

If we reflect on where we stand today, we’ll see we have by-and-large fulfilled the Zionist dream and simultaneously built unique, strong, and beautiful Jewish communities around the world. These achievements run contrary to a history of persecution and victimhood, even if we still suffer from antisemitism today. And both achievements require our constant care, investment of resources, and loving commitment. Our greatest allies, and even our most devious detractors, marvel at this ability to care for each other and our timeless commitment to our people. But then what comes next?

The answer comes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who explained that the promises of a Jewish State and the safety of the Jewish people have been our primary purposes. And while we can’t take either for granted, there is another promise, a third one, we need to fulfill. And it is one beyond our own walls. Rabbi Sacks called this the last and hardest task of Jewish history and explained, “Both promises have been realized in the present era, leaving the third promise as the next challenge to perfect the world under the sovereignty of God.”

One can view tikkun olam as part of the final stage of confidently reclaiming our identity as a sovereign and free people, no longer just trying to survive. As Sacks wrote, “It would have been absurd to raise our sights any higher… because who were we to change the world?” But today that is no longer the case, and in many ways, we are no longer afraid; we have arrived. The Jewish and Zionist enterprises can afford to say we will forever ensure the future of the Jewish people and we can offer something that can uplift others and change the world.

Today, I create meaningful and authentic service and educational experiences for young Jews who are seeking out a Jewish community they can serve and that is reflective of them. For these young Jews, their families, and communities, Jewish identity cannot be a world of “us vs. them” or a life divided between “and/or” because it never was.

If you want a Jewish future that is strong and dynamic, accept the cold, hard fact that the debate about tikkun olam is no debate at all. It is part of who we are, and
who we can become. And the struggle with it, like Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, only brings blessings.

Re-published with permission by the Peoplehood Papers. Launched in collaboration with OLAM partners American Jewish World Service, Gabriel Project Mumbai, JDC Entwine, and Repair the World, this new issue of the Peoplehood Papers (“A 21st Century Peoplehood with Tikkun Olam at its Heart”) explores Tikkun Olam, and why the Jewish community should commit to bringing justice and serving the world’s most vulnerable communities. Read the full publication here