Today, on the eve of Israel’s elections, several of the Jewish world’s most respected philanthropies—including the Alliance for Global Good, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Pears Foundation, are launching a new initiative—called, simply, OLAM (World). The new initiative’s raison d’etre is to create “A shared platform to promote global Jewish service—volunteering and service learning, international development, and social justice advocacy— in order to support communities in need around the world”—in short, tikkun olam, that celebrated and lambasted phrase.
Why are these Jewish foundations putting prestige, effort, and funds behind an initiative whose mission is to strengthen Israeli and Jewish organizations aimed at helping the world’s poor? Shouldn’t their first concern—and ours—be the survival and flourishing of the Jewish people, particularly at this moment, the moment of ISIS, Iranian nuclearization and BDS on the one hand and the Pew Report, with its documentation of rampant intermarriage and the alienation of much of US Jewry from the organized Jewish community, on the other?
Although the organization I founded, Tevel b’Tzedek, which is dedicated to creating a Jewish and Israeli platform for work with the poorest populations in the 2/3rds world, has been supported by two of these foundations—Pears and Schusterman—I cannot speak in their name. I can affirm, however, that the vision of creating a just society is at the very spine of Judaism, and that we have a responsibility to be part of making this vision a reality in the world as a whole. In this we are following figures such as Rabbi Chaim Vital, who said that the commandment “Love your fellow (hu)man” applies to all human beings, the Baal Shem Tov, who said that we have “arvut”—responsibility—together with the nations of the world in creating a just world, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook and Rav Yehuda Ashlag, who speaks of Jewish global responsibility in the age of globalization. Not to mention the usual suspects, such as Heschel, Buber and other luminaries. Today the argument is even stronger: If Jews and Israel are global in every other respect, in terms of what we eat and consume, how we invest our money, what companies we own, who tends to the needs of our aged and demented, who we sell arms to, and so forth, and in just one area—ethics—we are only “local”, we are in the process of losing our soul. As Rabbi Hillel famously said: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Focusing our attention on the great ethical challenges, including abject poverty, which the world faces, is good for Jewish peoplehood as well. Many young Jews are turned off because they see Judaism as turned inwards, unconcerned with the future of humanity, even though there are so many critical and urgent issues, with so much at stake for all of us. The irony is that Judaism contains this universal vision at its core. Our desire to integrate the physical and the spiritual, to make a place for God in the world rather than devaluing it, to believe that humanity can be transformed for the good and that the world can find rejuvenation and repair, is part of the mainstream of our tradition. So is our belief that creating societies that are just and compassionate to all, including the poor and marginalized, is a central part of our mission—what separates us from Pharoah and protects us from his fate.
Understandably and rightly, much of our collective energy in the post-holocaust years has been devoted to ensuring the safety of Israel and preserving our unique identity and culture. But we’ve reached a time—and some of our leading foundations have reached this conclusion as well—in which it is critical for our soul and our survival to create a new fusion of particularism and universalism. There is a great need to offer our young people models of identity in which Jewishness is a platform, not an obstacle, to their desire to touch and heal, to help create a better future for all of humanity