Tue, 07/26/2011

Perhaps one of my favorite beliefs in Judaism is tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” Followers of mystic Judaism believed that in the process of creating the world, pieces of G-d shattered and were dispersed across the universe. The sins of humans originated from those shards; however, it was said that by engaging in tzedakah, service, and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, humans could restore G-d’s broken pieces and heal the world.

Repair the World, a Jewish service-learning organization, recently released a report detailing Jewish young adults’ behaviors and attitudes toward community service. In general they found that American Jews were very politically active and had high participation rates in service opportunities. Religiosity and social capital in the volunteer community were related to participation levels.

However, the vast majority of respondents were not inclined to volunteer for Jewish organizations, with only 10% responding that they preferred to volunteer with Jewish organizations specifically. Youth’s lack of Jewish community service is admittedly not their fault; the survey also found that young Jewish adults are generally unaware of volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community.

What I found most striking, and frankly saddening, was that only 27% of respondents considered their volunteerism a product of their Jewish values. As the survey comments of Jewish youth, “volunteering is an activity partitioned off from their Jewish identity in much the same way that their Jewish identity is separate from many aspects of their current lives. “

As a social activist who happens to be Jewish, I understand the desire to look beyond my immediate community and heal the world in its broader context. In fact, I did not feel a part of a Jewish community until I came to Northwestern University, where the sheer number of Jews and opportunities at Hillel helped me realize that I too could find a place. Even when I began to connect with the community, talking to students who attended Jewish day schools or had been to Israel twice, my shiny altruism darkened and I began to feel what I perceived as inadequacy.

Winding through the Sinai desert on a Birthright trip the following summer, these thoughts still plagued me. In a conversation with our trip leader, I voiced my concerns; that my past, vacant of Jewish community, was more a part of me than my current Jewish practice. My formative years were spent making hamentaschen with my mother and then going to church youth group with my friends, feeling neither part of “everyone else” at school nor “Jewish” at temple. I spoke this to our trip leader, and he smiled. He said that my desire to work in international development, to volunteer abroad and at home, and my curiosity and love toward those different than myself are a direct product of my Jewish upbringing. I am Jewish; therefore, my values are Jewish. Judaism is a part of me, as I am part of it. The self and the whole are indivisible.

It saddens me to hear that other Jewish young adults see their values of service and tolerance as separate from “Jewish values,” as I once did. Even more than spirituality, religion is a code of values that allows us to connect with others, and heal the world, through loving relationships, service, and personal development. By neglecting the identities that inform our past, we detract from the power of that community to address the problems that face us in the present. If young people embrace and act on the values that define their traditions, the world will be better for it.

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