As the holiday season quickly approaches, so does that time of year when Judaism’s concept of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) gets more attention and people from all walks of life think more about “giving back.”

But for Jews, Tikkun Olam is a foundational message year-round. Through Creating Connected Communities, the nonprofit I founded, we use this important concept to empower  the 65 Jewish teens in our Leadership Development Program to think about how they can lead the efforts towards repairing the world. We focus on helping them find ways that resonate individually, and then we help our teens realize their capacity to make an impact.

The importance of social action developed in me personally at the age of 12. After hearing a news story about a homeless shelter that was robbed and lost all of its gifts the day before their residents’ holiday party, I was devastated. I kept thinking, “How can you steal from children living in a homeless shelter?!” 

I have to say, if it wasn’t for my mom, the story would have ended there. Instead of my mom saying “Oh, isn’t that sad,” she said “Well, what do you want to do about it?”

In her own way, my mom was reinforcing the idea of Tikkun Olam, and she was asking me what I wanted to do to help repair this particular problem in the world around me.

With her encouragement, I decided to use my allowance and babysitting money to buy gifts for the shelter to try to replace what had been stolen. The next year, my bat mitzvah was in October and my parents gave me $400 to spend however I wanted. With my mom and the help of Jewish Family & Career Services, we planned a party for 25 children with gifts, crafts, food, and a few of my friends. That was the first Amy’s Holiday Party, which has grown over the last 23 years into an annual event for 850 children in need.

As an adult who was taught the value of social action from a very early age, I’m driven to work with teens to develop their own sense of responsibility as Jews to our own communities, the larger community, and the world. We call it “developing your own Jewish lens.” In our program we focus on children and families in need, but the skills we teach our teens are applicable to any social issue and to any person, Jew or not.

The overarching truth for all of us is that no matter what you’re interested in, no matter your age or resources, you can make a difference in your community if you are passionate and are willing to work hard.

Judaism is very personal, and it means something different to everyone. The way that Judaism can be lived varies tremendously – in the synagogue, and outside of it.  For me, my Jewish identity is the driving force behind my community work. I feel that as a Jewish person, I have a responsibility to care for others. I feel proud when I get to do this work with other Jewish people, and I feel even more connected to my community when I am working for and teaching the values of Tikkun Olam to our future leaders.

Judaism is all about connections – to the traditions, the text, your family, your community. I have found my Jewish identity through my work and have certainly found my place in the Jewish community as a result.

If you’re struggling to find your own Jewish identity, or are just seeking ways to further the concept of Tikkun Olam in your own life, I encourage you to take a first step over the next few months! Get involved, sign up for something, work alongside someone else in our community towards a goal. Your personal connections within the Jewish community will grow, and so too will your own Jewish identity.

If you’re looking for places to sign up and get involved, check out Pebble Tossers, Jewish Family & Career Services, Pinch Hitters or Second Helpings. You can also sign up to receive email from Creating Connected Communities here.