Tikkun Olam for 2008

Sloshing through Hezekiah’s tunnel near the City of David in Jerusalem brings home what fear and faith can do. The … Continued

Sloshing through Hezekiah’s tunnel near the City of David in Jerusalem brings home what fear and faith can do. The 530-meter-long tunnel was chiseled out of rock over 2500 years ago, deep underground, by men without flashlights or scientific instruments to guide them. They knew that if they were attacked they could survive only if they were sure of their water source. To this day water flows through the tunnel from a spring to a reservoir.

Both faith and anxiety were in evidence at a conference last month in Israel, organized by the University of Tel Aviv. It brought together a diverse group of scholars, human rights activists, philanthropists, NGOs hoping for ideas and financing, and rabbis. The topic was faith and international development and how Israelis and Jews could and should engage, through private charity and public development programs, on programs ranging from HIV/AIDS to global warming and water desalination.

The theme woven through two days of discussion was Tikkun Olam. Generally translated (from the Hebrew) as “repairing the world”, it is a call both to charity and to social activism, going far beyond the family and immediate community. The challenge for this diverse group from many parts of the world was what Tikkun Olam should mean today.

Some of the oldest and wisest teachings about charity and development come from Jewish traditions. Take Maimonides, for example, whose eight stages of charity, set out in the 12th century, are widely quoted today – the “lowest” rung of the ladder is giving publicly and grudgingly when asked, the “highest” is giving anonymously without being asked in a way that sets someone on a path to independence. Jewish charities are active across the globe and Jewish leaders are part of the finest traditions of philanthropy. They have been leaders in development work in many countries, especially in Africa.

But Israel’s development programs have a low profile. A survey presented at the conference suggested that 77 percent of Israelis have never heard of Mashav, Israel’s development agency. Mashav’s programs have shrunk in recent decades, and Knesset support for development work is at best tepid. Israel’s active civil society is not engaged, a message that came through in blunt terms.

Yet the conference heard many positive stories. Aya Navon is deputy director of Tevel b”Tzedek, a nongovernmental organization that offers young Israelis the chance to volunteer in Nepal, especially in health clinics. Her infectious enthusiasm spoke to a new generation infused with a modern spirit of Tikkun Olam. And Anne Heyman, described by her panel chair as a “South African softie” with unshakable determination, is the force behind a youth village for genocide victims in Rwanda. Inon Schenker’s Jerusalem AIDS project is training South Africans how to perform adult male circumcision, a key tool in containing the spread of AIDS in Southern Africa. Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service is a powerful voice both for youth service and for taking action on the genocide in Darfur.

The workshop both signaled and called for change. The determination of Israel’s young people to engage on global challenges is a key driver. So was a resounding sense that the true Jewish identity – the identity that links religious and secular, Israeli and diaspora Jews–is built on a value structure that calls for active responsibility for global neighbors. Looking to these values is the way to bring religious wisdom and teaching – the spirit of Tikkum Olam – together with the rich experience and creative vigor of Jewish development specialists and philanthropists.

There is plenty to be afraid about in today’s world, terrorism, environmental catastrophe and hunger among them. But there is ample space for faith and hope as well.

It was inspiring to see hutzpah and high hopes, skepticism and questioning of stale jargon, blending of traditions of wisdom and very modern doubts, and the willingness to look both fear and faith in the face. That’s a good way to grapple with the question of how ancient charitable ideals fit in with the demands of the 21st century.

By Katherine Marshall | 
April 21, 2008; 12:03 AM ET

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