In his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last Sunday, US President Barack Obama spoke of his personal connection to the bond between the US and Israel, evoking “the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched and guided my life.”
Ironically, the term tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world,” is probably better known to American non-Jews than it is to Jewish Israelis.
Influenced by his exposure to tikkun olam as increasingly used in Jewish communities, primarily in North America, to express Jewish service values, Obama instinctively associated the term with Israel’s tradition of humanitarian service.
Indeed, despite the language barrier, a common set of values does underlie a sense — shared by both the Jewish state and the Jewish people — of a right and obligation to work towards addressing humanity’s needs. Which is why Obama’s comment exposed something much deeper than a linguistic gap between Israeli society and Jewish communities – it exposed a missed opportunity to join together for a common purpose.
Today, Jewish social and business entrepreneurs, visionaries and philanthropists, public servants and innovators are disproportionately present at the frontier of many global challenges. In parallel, Jewish participation in volunteer service projects continues to rise – in my years as president of Hillel, I witnessed firsthand the excitement with which young people react to tikkun olam.
At the same time, Israel has established itself as a “start-up nation,” capable of contending with the top end of the challenges facing humanity in the fields of medicine, technology, communications, and software. It also has world-class expertise innovating to address challenges critical to disadvantaged populations including food, water, and energy scarcity, security threats, large-scale immigration, and society building.
Imagine now the powerful potential comprised in the power of a state and the spirit, know-how, and resources of a globally dispersed people, together mobilized in pursuit of a common vision of making a significant, and distinctly Jewish and Israeli, contribution to solving humanity’s most pressing problems.
Understanding that in an increasingly interconnected world the moral imperative to contribute gains urgency, a joint tikkun olam mission can be a way to strengthen the common bonds of the Jewish people in a time of growing gaps between Israel and world Jewry communities.
Now, more than ever, an unprecedented opportunity stands before us to make a global humanitarian impact, and in doing so to help shape the character, and perhaps the destiny, of the Jewish people – a destiny embodied in the Biblical story of God’s promise to Abraham that his seed will bring a blessing to all families of the earth (‘v‘nivrichu b’cha kol mispachot ha’adama’).