Tikkun olam,” the powerful Jewish concept of repairing the world, has long been heralded as the rallying cry of Conservative and Reform Jewry. But a growing number of Orthodox 20- and 30-year-olds are trying to revive social justice responsibilities among their Orthodox peers — not as a liberal, humanistic-driven concept, but as one steeped in Jewish tradition and halacha.
“Whenever I’m asked to speak on the topic, I always make sure to point out that the second part of the phrase [in the prayer of Alenu that is recited several times each day] is “L’Taken Olam b’Malchut Shakhai” [to perfect the world through the sovereignty of the Almighty],” says Sam Sroka, a recent Yeshiva University graduate who, along with Stern College senior Shlomit Cohen, re-energized the dormant YU’s Social Justice Society a year ago.
A fellow YU alumna, Rebecca Stone, is credited with organizing the largest contingent of college students at the 2006 Washington, D.C., rally against genocide in Darfur. “YU was always very involved in Israeli social justice causes, but the Orthodox community was not involved in Darfur activism, probably because they weren’t aware of what was going on,” she says.
Stone, who currently works as a development officer at the American Jewish World Service, organized a YU-AJWS humanitarian mission to Honduras, the first completely Orthodox student trip led by AJWS and the first trip of its kind run by YU. “It was a transformative experience for all students,” she says. Upon returning to school, Stone helped bring fair-trade coffee – certified to come from sources that do not exploit farmers – to school cafeterias and invigorated an inner-city tutoring program.
Another vocal proponent of social justice in the Orthodox world is Shmuly Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah who, in May 2007, founded Uri L’Tzedek, a non-profit that educates the American Orthodox community regarding pressing social justice causes on a global scale. Members of Uri L’Tzedek (typically young professionals) participate in monthly study sessions focused on issues such as workers’ rights, healthcare and domestic violence. After wrestling with the Jewish texts, they act — by organizing a clothing drive for impoverished Dominicans living in Washington Heights, raising money for micro-credit grants for farmers in India and, most recently, boycotting the embattled kosher food giant AgriProcessors in the wake of the federal immigration raid on its Postville, Iowa, slaughterhouse.
While Sroka, Stone and Yanklowitz remain individual voices speaking out in favor of Jewish activism in the broader global community, they each attest to a resurgence of interest and participation in social justice activism in the Orthodox world.
Part of this new wave undoubtedly finds its roots in the overall popularity of social justice activity among 20-somethings nationwide. But it’s more than that, Yanklowitz says. “The younger generation of Orthodox Jews are seeking meaning in a very privileged way that wasn’t possible in earlier generations, who were struggling for survival,” he says. “Now that we’re secure with the foundation built for us, we are heeding a call to make our lives more meaningful. Being a passive ‘Or LaGoyim’ [light unto the nations] is no longer compelling.”
In many ways, Yeshiva University has been on the forefront of this movement, with more than 1,000 students participating in winter and summer-break social action trips, organized under the auspices of President Richard Joel and Rabbi Kenneth Brander of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future. A grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is credited for raising the percentage of students involved in running day camps in impoverished towns in Israel and feeding the homeless and rebuilding parks during Jewish Life Coast-to-Coast Service Corps programs in California. The fact that the grant was given on the condition that YU students spend a certain amount of hours during each service-learning program aiding non-Jews may be another driving force behind the renewed interest in social activism outside the Jewish community.
“Yeshiva University doesn’t believe that a person can be serious about being a committed Torah-observant Jew without [being] deeply intertwined in a commitment to those around us,” says Joel.
The question that begs to be asked is, Who comes first: Jew or non-Jew? And where does one’s priority lie, engaging in Torah studies or feeding the poor?
It’s a balancing act, Joel contends. “Our first responsibility is to help Jews,” he says, quoting Maimonides’ ruling that the poor of one’s own community come first. “But it’s not our sole one.”
The new emphasis on social justice among young Modern Orthodox Jews may be part of a growing chasm in that community, says Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
“We’re seeing more and more of a split in Orthodox world between more modern and more fervent elements,” Sarna says. “The creation of a new rabbinic organization [the International Rabbinic Fellowship], and a new seminary [Yeshivat Chovevei Torah] suggest that there already is a new movement, though both happen to use the word Orthodox. Yeshiva University does not want to lose students with proclivities toward social justice, and Richard Joel has many interests in this direction. So they’re matching those developments.”
In Orthodox circles, the term “chessed,” or acts of charity, is used more often than “tikkun olam,” Sarna says. “It’s not just a play on words. Tikkun olam implies true social change. Chessed implies that God’s world is imperfect; so we give charity and visit the sick.”
The migration of the term tikkun olam back to the Orthodox community in the last decade has led to an “ongoing debate between those who favor increasing involvement in tikkun olam activities and those who respond that this is assimilation, or misguided, and they should be devoting that time to Torah and to the needs of their fellow Jews,” he says.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about social justice — not even at Yeshiva University. This past winter, CJF — and the social justice society in particular — encountered a backlash after a student delegation returned from a controversial humanitarian mission to Thailand, organized in partnership with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). The YU newspaper, The Commentator, reported that students were photographed wearing condoms on their heads while participating in an AIDS awareness parade. And, ostensibly to thank the students for their work, local villagers invited YU students to “a going-away party” featuring belly dancers and “questionable ritualistic bracelets.”
“YU’s reaction was mixed,” said Zev Eleff, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Commentator. “There was a whole discussion about how worthwhile the trip was.”
Despite what he calls the “noise” around campus, Joel contends that the trip to Thailand was incredibly worthwhile, and while YU will continue with its humanitarian missions, “when it comes to supervision and planning, we should have been a little more careful to anticipate situations the students would be placed in.”
In response to the Thailand trip, the Social Justice Society organized a forum dedicated to discussing the Jewish responsibility to the larger world. Stern College Dean Karen Bacon moderated the panel discussion featuring YU president Richard Joel, senior scholar Rabbi J.J. Schachter, and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Michael Rosensweig. The discussion drew a large crowd of more than 250 students. Joel called it “historic.”
“As president of Hillel, I visited more college campuses than almost any other human being,” he says. “But I’ve never seen a social justice program on campus that attracted so many students.”
The social justice society also organized a Shabbaton that focused on issues of global responsibility. Gilah Kletenik, a Stern College senior and active member of the club, led a workshop educating fellow students about sex slavery in Israel — from a Torah perspective. Students analyzed stories of rape within Tanach. “Tanach goes out of its way to include detailed stories about the rapes of Dinah, Tamar, and the pilegesh b’givah; it’s a way of telling us that this is something we should care about,” she says. Sex slavery, she notes, is an unsavory topic. “It often does make people, particularly Orthodox Jews, uncomfortable. Plus there’s the implicit issue of being critical of Israel.”
In the efforts to promote social justice on campus, YU students first turned a critical eye toward their own campus. As a result of discussions during the Shabbaton, students discovered that the cafeteria workers at Stern were forced to eat meals on the street, since they were not allowed to bring non-kosher food into the cafeteria. The students petitioned YU to set aside a classroom as a temporary eating lounge for cafeteria workers, and are working with the administration to set aside a permanent lounge come September.
Yanklowitz and other social justice proponents view such moves as positive signs that Orthodox Jews are beginning to see their destiny as much more interconnected with the rest of society.
Organizations like AJWS say that in the past year or so, the number of applications for service learning programs has increased among the Orthodox. “There are changes happening in the Orthodox world,” says Riva Silverman, director of development at AJWS. “It’s not an either-or thing. Work on global poverty and global justice issues in no way takes away from work on Jewish issues.”
“There’s a stereotype that Orthodox Jews just don’t care about social justice,” Silverman says. “But it’s obviously not true.”
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