Tikkun Olam and the Shaping of Jewish Identity

Whats Your Calling.gifMy memories as a young child were filled with both my father and my mother doing what came naturally to them as Jews –being engaged in creating a better world for Jews, a better world for all God’s children. My sense of what it meant to be a Jew was forged by watching them put their Jewish ideals to work in the service of an array of social justice causes.

Throughout their journeys to eighty nations across the globe, my parents’ visits focused on the Jewish communities and, upon their return, on educating others about those communities. They did this as a team, together. I assumed it was just something that all Jews did.

For many years prior to their globetrotting, my mother had been deeply involved in civic life. A talented coalition builder, she took the lead in founding a coalition in support of integration when New York State schools began the process of desegregation. She also taught a current events course at my synagogue, the culmination of our high school curriculum, in eleventh grade, in which she would lead discussions on civil rights, Soviet Jewry, sexual ethics, or the War in Vietnam and discuss the significance of the issue for the Jewish community and how it would impact us and our future.

In her class, my eyes were opened to the sense of responsibility for mending this hurting and broken world. It was then that I began to see the connections between tikkun olam and Jewish identity; to see tikkun olam as a gateway to shaping Jewish lives, a powerful organizing principle of Jewish identity.

That understanding has infused my work at the Religious Action Center, and, as our community grapples today with the challenge of Jewish continuity, I continue to believe what I learned then: that our traditional commitment to social action is a key asset in the work of Jewish continuity. So many of my generation were taught by their families, as I by mine, that the “doing of Torah” was the doing of tikkun olam. Polls have repeatedly found social justice activity to be by a large margin the most common expression of Jewish identity in America. And the power of social justice as a means of strengthening Jewish identity is affirmed to us at the Center in the experience of the thousands of youth leaders who annually come through our programs. Finding ways to reach the tens of thousands of idealistic Jewish youths involved in secular advocacy, social service, and public interest work in order to help them make the connection with their Jewish roots, with the Jewish tradition, and with the Jewish community remains a central challenge to our generation.

My mentor, Al Vorspan, taught me to understand fully what Professor Isadore Twersky has written: “One cannot claim to be a God intoxicated Jew without having a passion for social justice.” He taught me that we Jews survive not just for our own sake but because God has given us a purpose: to transform this world for the better, to goad the conscience of the world. And he taught me that our Jewish voice and vision are more needed at this crossroads of human history than ever before.

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Rabbi David Saperstein

About Rabbi David Saperstein

Rabbi David Saperstein for 40 years served as the Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He was selected by Newsweek magazine in 2009 as the most influential rabbi in the country and described in a Washington Post profile as the "quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill.” He is now the Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

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