Steven Bayar
Steven Bayar

My Tikkun Olam May Not Be Yours

The closest I ever came to rabbinic burnout came in Juarez, Mexico. I was there with close friend and journalist Phil Jacobs to visit detention centers holding refugees. Eva Moya, a social worker and professor at The University of Texas at El Paso, was our guide and teacher.

As we crossed into Juarez from El Paso we asked Eva if Juarez was safe.

“Of course,” she assured us. The next block she suddenly veered right to avoid a group of cartel gunmen at the end of an alley. “We just have to be careful where we drive.”

“What are those crosses in the roadway?” Phil asked.

“Each cross is in memory of a girl who was murdered or disappeared.”

There were a lot of crosses.

At the detention center we off-loaded our supplies, including 25 Teddy Bears gathered by another friend, Peter Freimark. The director read the names of families to come and receive the stuffed animals. Fifteen minutes later there were 25 children, most with parents, lined up.

As they took their Teddy Bears, they gave us hugs and began boarding busses.

“Why are they boarding buses?” I asked.

“They are being deported to their country of origin.”

I learned over the next several days that many of them were returning to death sentences, sexual slavery, or to become cartel “soldiers.”

And we were giving them Teddy Bears. Teddy Bears!

Two days later on the return trip to New Jersey, my flight was canceled and I had to stay in the Houston airport for 26 hours. I had misplaced my laptop and had to sleep on airport chairs, wash up in the men’s room and wait patiently for the Dunkin’ Donuts to open so I could get a cup of coffee.

Worst of all, I had time to think about what I had seen: the enormity of the tragedy I witnessed with no power to change the outcome. The only weapons at my disposal were socks, underwear, T-shirts and Teddy Bears.

As a congregational rabbi I endured a constant barrage of people with causes. People who aggressively demanded my support and could not understand why I did not share their interests. Some felt rejected if I didn’t immediately make their cause my priority.

But often their interests were ephemeral, ignorant or self-serving. How could I respond that a charity that spends 70 percent on “administrative costs” is not one I would support? Why do I not want to be included in another’s quota of recruits?

I support any movement that works toward fixing the world: too many people only talk and do not walk. But I am not looking to get a plaque at a meal. Nor do I think my involvement and approval should be needed to validate another’s efforts.

What many fail to understand is that while the primary goal of Tikkun Olam is to alleviate suffering, the secondary goal is to derive personal meaning from the action. I want to feel good about what I am doing – even as I am saddened by the tragedy that engendered my participation.

So I, and others like myself, dedicate ourselves to specific causes, not specific organizations – and we work at our own pace in our own way.

My crisis of faith came at the Houston airport where I realized that in the face of human tragedy, we can only do what we can do. But we must “do” even as we realize that we have only alleviated the suffering for a 6-year-old for a brief moment. We cannot look away.

For the first time, I understood the dictum found in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors): “You are not obliged to complete the task but you are not allowed to desist from it.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone had a passion and exercised it? If every person dedicated to just one cause, I believe the world would be fixed. And wouldn’t it be more wonderful if you didn’t interpret my non-involvement in your cause as rejection of you?

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar is Founder and Executive Director of JSurge, an organization providing Jewish education and services to unaffiliated Jews. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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