As a Jewish Philosophy teacher in a secular public high school in Israel, I have the unique opportunity to teach young minds about Jewish identity. What makes someone a Jew? What are the most important components of Jewish identity? These and other questions are ones that pervade my classroom discussions throughout the year.
One of the most important principles of Jewish identity that I touch upon with my tenth graders is Tikkun Olam ,”mutual responsibility.” Tikkun Olam, I explain to my students, is the concept of feeling a moral obligation to help others. It only begins with reaching out to the needy in our own city, for one should strive to go out and help those living in countries far away from our own.
“Nu be’emet, Atara,” one of my students once said to me as I shared this information. “Mamash go out to Africa and help the locals? Have you ever done something like that?” I stared at my chutzpahdik yet clever tenth grader, and was at a loss for a good response. “No, Eitan, I have yet to do Tikkun Olam in a foreign country. But I hope to do so one day very soon.”
Last summer, I finally had the chance to translate my Jewish identity lessons into practice when I traveled to Kishinev, Moldova, with the Joint Distribution Committee, to serve as a Jewish educator in their family camp. Along with giving me memories for a lifetime, this experience taught me many new things about the nature of Tikkun Olam.
First and foremost, I gained an understanding that there is a common language that unites Jews together, no matter what language we speak. While I had initially thought that there would be no way that, due to language barriers, I would successfully communicate my ideas, my Judaism sessions proved otherwise.
With the help of a translator who translated my words into Russian, I was able to teach the very eager camp participants an array of Jewish topics. At times my sessions became so heated that an idea I threw out would provoke a ten minute debate. Somewhat mystified, I would ask my translator, “What’s going on?” The response: “They are arguing about the different opinions you just gave them about our relationship with G-d. They hate Spinoza’s idea, but really like Maimonides.” My sessions became one of the most popular time slots at camp. With each passing day, more participants came to my class. “Dobra Otra!” I would greet them. They smiled back, impressed with the Russian tidbits I picked up from the previous day.
Tikkun Olam, I learned, ultimately involves more receiving than giving. I had originally come to camp prepared to cook for myself due to personal dietary regulations, kashrut. However, when the staff saw the pot and bag of lentils that I dragged into the camp kitchen, they asked, rather horrified, “What are you doing?” “Cooking for myself,” I answered. “Don’t worry, I came prepared. I’ve got a whole suitcase full of pasta.” That was all I needed to say before an “emergency” call was made to Chabad to send over Glatt kosher food for my every meal at camp. As I dined like a queen the following days, camp participants made sure to sit next to me and monitor my food intake. The warm-heartedness that was exhibited, centered about food, sent my mind racing back to memories of my Romanian grandmother’s kitchen in Jerusalem where I was similarly treated with warmth and tenderness, while endlessly prodded to eat more.
I never expected that my experience as a Jewish educator in Kishinev, Moldova would be such a positive one. The familial feeling that I felt while teaching, eating, conversing, and dancing with the campers the hava nagila to local Klezmer music is one that I associate with my own roots, my own family. The next time a tenth grader asks me in Jewish Philosophy class what Tikkun Olam is all about, I will know what to answer. It is about seeking out Jewish brothers and sisters in remote places and somehow feeling that you have come home.