by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal, translated from the original French.
On Tuesday afternoon, during a team meeting (on Zoom), the team I work with had a discussion on the protests currently taking place across the United States following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For our American colleagues and residents, the subject is obviously omnipresent and most feel they are personally concerned in the anti-racism awareness campaign developing in the United States. Our “Global Communities” team has members from the Czcech Republic, Uruguay, Argentina, England, France and America – though this person now lives in London – and we work with non-American residents from Moishe House. Apart from our sadness and sympathy towards the situation, we had to wonder what our place is in this conversation. Are we involved in this? Should we be participating in the conversations alongside our North American colleagues? Should we commit to their cause? Should we discuss the situation with our non-American residents? If so, how do we do this? I imagine that other educators, children and Jewish parents across Europe must have also asked themselves these questions, and, therefore, I would like to share my own inferences alongside a proposal.
I would like to state from the beginning that I have the privilege of never having experienced racism linked to the color of my skin, and that I, therefore, speak without absolute certainty on this subject.
In our meeting, we discussed what our American and non-American residents could learn from one another during this time, and how they could support each other in their efforts to build vibrant and engaged communities. It seemed to me that what is currently playing out represents a unique opportunity to discuss with our non-American residents the concept of Tikkun Olam. This term, literally meaning “repairing of the world”, first emerged in a limited sense in the Talmud, then evolved through mystical thought, notably kabbalistic thought, but also in Hassidic realms. Tikkun Olam evolved further, finding new meaning and popularity, through twentieth century American Judaism. In addition, or as an alternative, to the daily practice of mitzvot, Tikkun Olam became a commitment to observe and help repair the cracks in the world around us. It has become the backbone of Jewish identity for thousands of Jews, synagogues and socially active Jewish humanitarian organizations both within the United States and elsewhere around the world. Major examples of these organizations include the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and Repair the World. With this notion of Tikkun Olam, thousands of Jews are investing their time, knowledge, money, energy, and health. At times, they even give their lives, as in the case of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where the killer had written just a few hours before that he was acting out of disgust for Jews helping refugees in the US, particularly through HIAS.
For a French Jew, this notion of Tikkun Olam may be difficult to understand. It is an issue of the chicken and the egg. Jewish individuals and institutions, including those with strong social commitments such as CASIP, have never really embraced this commitment, at least not in such terms. Due to the French relationship towards religion and the national community, those many Jews who do volunteer for a variety of causes do not wish to do so as Jews. So, when we suggest to French residents of a Moishe House to consider planning Tikkun Olam activities for their residents, they have difficulty identifying where to go with it. They are indeed sensitive towards such concepts as volunteering, commitment, and tzedakah, but might struggle to translate the enthusiasm towards Tikkun Olam that their American counterparts feel.
It is here, in our studying the singular engagement of American Jewry with Tikkun Olam, that I think our contribution, or at least our educational opportunity, towards current events in the United States may lie. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful and profound manifestations of Tikkun Olam in the 20th Century was the Jewish engagement with the United States’ Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. Jews were highly represented among lawyers supporting black activists, donors to activist organizations, and were activists themselves in various nonviolent actions alongside the black activists. The many Jews who joined the Freedom Riders, a movement challenging segregation in transportation, come to mind alongside the magnificent “Why We Went” letter written by a group of rabbis locked up in prisons for their participation in non-violent protests for racial equity. Last, but not least, how can we not think of the commitment of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King? We can recall the powerful photo in which they walk side-by-side during Selma’s march in 1965. Heschel later wrote of this day, “In Selma… I felt my legs were praying.”
Perhaps it is in Heschel’s footsteps that we educators can transform the sadness of the moment into an opportunity for engagement and Jewish education. Perhaps it is alongside all of these activists that we can repair the world, according to our own abilities, and pray with our legs.
Faustine Goldberg-Sigal is the International Director of Jewish Education at Moishe House. Faustine works from Paris. The opinions stated in this article are personal and do not represent the positions held by Moishe House.