Want More Jews to Care About Global Issues? Make it Personal

Read our CEO Dyonna Ginsburg's essay published in the Peoplehood Papers: A 21st Century Peoplehood with Tikkun Olam at its Heart

In August 2019, Haaretz asked several leading Israeli scientists to depict life in Israel in 2100 if the world were to experience the expected rise of 2-3 degrees Celsius. Their conclusion? By the end of the century, Israelis won’t be able to exist without full-time air conditioning. Forget hiking Masada. Our bodies will not be able to withstand a walk around the block.

When I read the Haaretz article, I had already spent over a dozen years advancing social justice and environmental causes in Israel and the Jewish community. But, it was the first time I connected to climate change on a deep, visceral level. To paraphrase one of  the scientists quoted, this wasn’t about polar bears or melting ice caps. It was personal.

My kids are just shy of two and four years old. In 2100, they will be in their early eighties. People that age are among the most vulnerable to extreme heat, as the body’s temperature regulation system deteriorates over time.

Reading the dire predictions, I pictured a future in which my Israeli-born children can’t go to the park with their grandchildren or even breathe fresh air. Horrified, I envisioned the vibrant Israel I know and love fall into a heat-induced stupor. It shook my world.

It’s no wonder this article touched me profoundly in ways that countless others had not. It took an issue that seemed vast and remote and made it tangible and close. The climate crisis was no longer just about the future of the planet; it was about my family and home.

In my work at OLAM, I struggle with the question of how to make other seemingly remote issues relevant to the Jewish community.

As a network of 50+ Jewish organizations working in the developing world, OLAM and our partners use several tools to mobilize the Jewish community in support of the world’s most vulnerable people. We put a human face on extreme poverty by bringing Jews to developing countries and having them meet and learn from local communities. We cite age-old Jewish values and teachings about the importance of taking care of the poor and the stranger. We draw upon our own people’s experiences of forced migration, oppression, and genocide to connect our history to contemporary struggles of others.

There’s one tool, however, that many of us in the progressive community are reluctant to use: Jewish self-interest. Most Jewish social justice organizations (ours included) prefer to make universal moral claims, rather than talk about how our work stands to benefit the Jewish community. This reluctance stems from a concern that if we focus on Jewish needs we will overlook the needs of others or, worse yet, take advantage of others for our own ends. I share these valid concerns. But, as a sector, we do ourselves a disservice to ignore Jewish interests entirely.

For a sizable portion of the Jewish community, the safety and well-being of other Jews is their primary, if not exclusive, concern. This is deeply rooted in who they are – their experiences, backgrounds, and affiliations – and it’s unlikely that universal claims alone will convince them to devote a larger percentage of their time or money to people and causes outside of the Jewish community. If we want to expand our sector’s base of support to include more nationalist and religious Jews, we need to do a better job demonstrating how Jewish well-being is intricately connected to the welfare of others.

Even for those in the Jewish community with an intrinsically universal orientation it can often be difficult to connect to issues that affect people in the developing world. Social psychology demonstrates that people conceptualize things that are distant from them (physically or socially) more abstractly than things that are close, and abstract concepts don’t motivate people to act as strongly and quickly as concrete ones do. The more personal we can make an issue, the more likely people are to respond.

The current pandemic is an opportunity to do just that. A year ago, most Jews would have felt disconnected from the fact that less than half of the global population has access to essential health services. Would Jews have acknowledged that global wellbeing is an important cause? Yes, certainly. Our cause? Hmmm, not sure. COVID-19, however, has made it clear that the health and basic functioning of Jewish communal life is dependent on the health of others, even those located far away.

Rather than shy away from speaking of Jewish self-interest, our sector should embrace the argument of “no one is safe until everyone is safe” to galvanize increased Jewish support for equitable coronavirus vaccine distribution and the establishment of strong healthcare systems in developing countries. Promoting well-being for all is not only the right thing to do, it is prudent for the Jewish community.

Admittedly, not all issues can be easily linked to narrowly-defined Jewish interests. And, just because some issues are more distant than others does not mean we should cease trying to get Jews to care about them. But, when we have the opportunity to help Jews connect global issues to their everyday lives, we should jump at it.

Since reading the Haaretz article a year and a half ago, I have taken several concrete steps to incorporate a greater climate consciousness into my own life. I now read voraciously on the subject. I donate to Jewish organizations tackling the climate crisis. I have transitioned to a more plant-based diet. These baby steps don’t come close to the systems-level change needed. But, they’re a start.

I was spurred to act by my own kids. Thinking about them helped me concretize an issue of global proportions. But, I know it’s not just about them. Ultimately, my children’s future – and that of all children worldwide – will depend on the actions of millions of strangers. Indeed, our fates have never been more deeply intertwined.

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