Tikkun Olam. Repair the world.
If you’re anything like me, the mere mention of the phrase is enough to make you cringe.
Not because we don’t want to do our part for a better world. But for many in my generation, brought up with the idea that you wouldn’t get into college or get a job unless you spent three months building houses in Uganda or took a selfie meditating with the Dalai Lama, the concept has all but lost its meaning.
Millenials have a bad reputation when it comes to engagement. We are “lazy,” “nihilistic,” and “apathetic.”
Unlike our parents, who came of age protesting against the Vietnam War, or working to free Jews from Soviet oppression, we don’t have a uniting cause. We’re the social media generation, who would rather casually “like” or retweet a plea to #BringBackOurGirls than actually get up and do.
In the Jewish world, the recent Pew survey showed a significant rise in Jews of no religion, who are less likely to be involved in Jewish causes or communities. Still, the same survey showed that 94% of us are proud to be Jewish.
In the end, actions speak louder than words. In an October editorial in response to the Pew survey, Jane Eisner wrote: “A Jew is what a Jew does.”
All across the country, young Jews are working to improve their communities. We want to find those people and share their stories.
We’re looking for The Do-ers.
We’re looking for young Jews between the ages of 16 to 26 who are impacting their community in a significant way. This can be a geographic community, ethnic community, religious community, identity-based community, etc.
Whether it’s launching an after-school program in an underserved neighborhood, creating a Torah-themed comic strip or striving to document recipes from the Old Country, the work they’re doing must be informed by their Jewish identity. Nominations close June 7.
Students at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village play basketball on a village court in May 2009. Photo: Ben Gittleson
It started with a simple question.
Anne Heyman and her husband, Seth Merrin, were attending a 2005 talk at Tufts University Hillel by the real-life hero of “Hotel Rwanda,” Paul Rusesabagina, when they asked him to share the greatest challenge Rwanda faced a decade since the country’s 1994 genocide took millions of lives. The hotel manager-turned-savior told them that his tiny country had 1.2 million orphans — approximately 10% of its population — and no system to care for them.
Anne’s mind jumped to the youth villages of Israel, where thousands of children orphaned by the Holocaust took refuge in collective communities that gave them a semblance of normal life. Could Rwanda harness Israel’s youth village model? Anne called experts in Israel, spoke with Rwandans and worked with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, coming to believe that Rwanda’s orphans could thrive in the same way that Israel’s did decades before.
Anne’s dream became a reality in December 2008, when the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village opened its doors to its first 125 high school-age students. As a junior at Tufts, I helped lead a group of 17 fellow students to the village the following summer, when construction crews were still putting up buildings and much of the student housing sat vacant.
Even early on, we could tell Anne’s vision had caught on. Kids who lost their parents 15 years before now lived with “house mothers” — Rwandan women whose own children had perished in the genocide — and called their housemates their brothers and sisters. The daily rhythm of school, informal education, sports and more restored a sense of normalcy for the teens, many of whom came from turbulent households.
Jewish values permeated the philosophy of the village, which draws its name from the Hebrew word for “peace” and the Kinyarwanda word for a place where “tears are dried.”
Of all of the tough sells in this election year, you have to hand it to former George Bush speechwriter Noam Neusner for coming up with one of the toughest. In an op-ed timed to coincide with the Republican National Convention, Neusner exhorts the largely Democratic, largely Jewish readership of the Forward :
“Vote Mitt Romney. He’s the real tikkun olam candidate.”
No one knows better than Neusner, who also served the Bush White House as liaison to the American Jewish community, the level of chutzpah embodied in his call. In fact, he himself cops to it from the very beginning:
“Regular readers of these pages are most likely strong supporters in the safety net programs set up in the New Deal, Great Society, and now Obamacare legislative eras,” referencing the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson in the mid-’60s.”
“They hold these programs to be good examples of America’s capacity to care for the ill, the poor, the destitute and the aged. And they find in these programs America’s expression of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world as it is, in the service of God and Torah.”
By the end of the piece, though, Neusner suggests that it is time that American Jews - 85 percent of whom voted for Roosevelt in 1936 and 1940, 90 percent for Johnson in 1964, and nearly 80 percent for Obama in ‘08 – made a historic turn.