Taking care of our own
February 23, 2011
I read with interest Andrew Silow-Carroll’s column “Tikun olam ♥ peoplehood” (Feb. 10). In it you offer a “third way” which you argue resolves the particular/universal tension. Unfortunately this third way leaves unresolved the concern so many of us have for the future of the Jewish people.
I suggest that the issue really has never been about whether peoplehood and tikun olam are antithetical. Most Jewish leaders — and I include myself in this group — understand that we have a duty to help the broader world as well as our own people. But we also have a legitimate fear that many people pursuing tikun olam support and serve the rest of the world at the expense of helping our own people.
There is no shortage of evidence that this is occurring. More and more Jews give primarily to non-Jewish causes and many exclude Jewish causes altogether. Service programs for Jewish youth and young adults almost invariably center exclusively on secular needs. B’nei mitzva projects very often do likewise.
We who believe deeply in maintaining and strengthening the Jewish community here and abroad can be excused for being disturbed by the tikun olam camp’s overwhelming focus on the needs of the Gentile world. Today, thousands of poor Jews in the former Soviet Union are stricken from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s rolls and no longer receive assistance because dollars and interest are not there. Is it any surprise that we question an overemphasis on tikun olam? And the decline in assistance in the FSU is just one of many examples.
So what is the problem with the “third way”? In your example the universalist will end up supporting day schools because the day school students will address universal needs. The particularist will end up being satisfied because the students will understand divine purpose and Jewish pride. I certainly hope such understanding is achieved. But what happens to Jews in need? Will we have proud young Jews focused on fixing the problems of the world but ignoring the needs of the Jewish people? Can a people survive without adequately caring for its own members? Can the Jewish people truly aspire to be a light unto the nations if its light throws shadows on its own people? Your third way, without much more, fails to provide a solution.
Perhaps you assume that participants in tikun olam programs, infused with understanding of divine purpose and Jewish pride, will naturally care for fellow Jews as well. Unfortunately there is little evidence that this occurs. While our day schools may do an admirable job of teaching Jewish mutual responsibility, we have learned that throughout the Jewish community the value of areivut, Jewish mutual responsibility, is often ignored or underemphasized. Frankly, there is little reason to believe that tikun olam service projects will necessarily lead to support of Jews in need or strengthening our community.
I am proud of our federation’s efforts to not just promote the value of areivut, but to restore it to the consciousness of so many in our community and make it part of the discussion about our Jewish future. I encourage American Jewish World Service, Panim, and other service programs to include service to the Jewish community by requiring participants to use a portion of their program time helping Jews in need. I call upon rabbis, educators, and youth workers to make sure their students engage in projects or programs that help Jews in need in addition to the poor and disadvantaged of the world. I ask everyone who supports the Jewish community here and abroad to remind their fellow Jews, young and old alike, that all Israel is responsible one for the other.
I do so not because of chauvinism, racism, or a fear that Gentiles will not help us. I do so because helping our family — our people — is a Jewish moral imperative for which tikun olam, as it has come to be understood, provides no substitute. And I do so because taking care of our own strengthens a Jewish community that will not only provide an example of ethical conduct to the rest of the world but will also be strong enough to provide help to Jews and Gentiles.
Gary O. Aidekman
The writer is president of the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. The views expressed here are his own and not intended to represent the views of UJC.