Monday, July 8, 2013

A Bridge to Tikkun Olam

Last month, more than 20 AJC interns met with executive director David Harris for a meet-and-greet. After a short debrief about AJC’s history, Harris dove into a more serious conversation. He asked us, the intimidated and somewhat shy interns, to rank the most significant facet of Judaism in our lives. The options were community, culture, faith, tikkun olam, and Israel.

My first thought was, well, all of them.

But after reflecting for moment, I realized that at the helm of all of these elements is my faith—my all-encompassing, abounding faith – that helps me find meaning and purpose in the other aspects of Judaism and in everyday life.

My first runner-up was an easy choice: tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means “repairing the world.” It is a phrase, a concept, and a lifestyle stemming from Lurianic Kabbalah, a major strand of Jewish mysticism. Today, the term connotes social action and the pursuit of social justice.

By the end of the meeting with David Harris, it dawned on me that this Jewish principle subconsciously drove me to seek an internship AJC.  Elated by this new perspective on my work, I hurriedly debriefed my boss about the meeting. To my surprise, he said he never considered AJC’s work to be tikkun olam. I respectfully disagreed.

It’s true that AJC isn’t microfinancing in Africa, rebuilding Haiti, or donating food to soup kitchens. It isn’t sending rescue teams to Syria or teaching English to migrant workers. “But it is definitely tikkun olam,” I insisted. “It is a different type of tikkun olam. It’s preventative tikkun olam.”

As the AJC website notes, the organization works to “identify trends and problems early” in order to “take action.” But what is “action” if it isn’t hands-on action?

At the start of my internship, I asked myself that very question. It was hard for me to understand what AJC is all about. But after the ACCESS Summit and the Global Forum conferences in early June, I learned that the “action” AJC undertakes involves educating the public, meeting with diplomats, influencing policy, and most notably, building bridges to connect the Jewish community with the rest of the world.

Over the course of four days in Washington D.C, I schmoozed with Jewish peers from around the world, who shared with me the joys and struggles of a small Jewish community.  I attended panel discussions with rabbis and scholars, who highlighted the necessity of Muslim-Jewish bridging.  I heard speeches by influential politicians, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. I dined with foreign ministers, AJC lay-leaders, and social entrepreneurs, with whom I engaged in meaningful conversation about Iran, energy, Israel, anti-Semitism, and global threats.

During both conferences I was chameleon of sorts; a student in one panel, an advocate in another, a leader of Israel activism in one, and a young professional in all of them. ACCESS and GloFo stimulated every aspect of my professional life and academic interests—which is more than I can say about any other conference I’ve attended. 

On day four I was sad to bid D.C farewell, but certain I was taking with me new knowledge, friends, and business connections. I boarded my bus to New York—full with inspiration and kosher food—glad to have experienced bridge-building firsthand. 

When I returned to work that drowsy Wednesday, I had a greater understanding how bridge-building is done and why it is so vital to the Jewish people. Quite simply, when AJC champions immigration rights, the Latino community is there for us, too. When AJC ACCESS hosts interfaith Passover Seders—during which Christians, Jews, and Muslims bond over wine and persecution—the likelihood for future discrimination lessens. And when AJC invites German military officers to private luncheons, it reinforces the Jewish commitment to forgiveness and respect – which we hope to receive in return.

A true bastion of enlightened self-interest, AJC is committed equally to supporting democratic values for all peoples as it is committed to Jewish continuity.  By forming connections over common interests and democratic values, the bridges it builds have sturdy foundations. These bridges will serve – and have already served—to prevent world Jewry from drowning in the rising tides of anti-Semitism.  By exposing world leaders to AJC’s concern for the rest of the world, the world will return the favor. It’s this beautiful and simple formula that I've come to truly believe in during my time here at AJC.

However much I carry this idealism with me, I also realize that AJC’s mission isn't easy. And it isn’t working everywhere. In the last year, anti-Semitic acts in Europe increased by a staggering 30%. The world is still severely broken. But AJC is working to pick up the pieces – to “repair the world.” It is carrying out its unique tikkun olam, and I’m proud to be on board.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Blueprint for Middle East Peace

Last week, I journeyed from Boston to Manhattan to attend “Time to Lead,” a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
As a leader of Israel activism on and off campus, I have been to many such discussions. And by the end of them, I tend to leave disheartened by complexities of the conflict and uncertain whether my efforts are affecting change. 
But this conversation was different. I walked out of the 92nd street Y doors more empowered and hopeful than when I entered. I believe this has a lot to do with the message of OneVoice, the organization that put on this event. Its founder, Daniel Lubetzky, said that the movement is meant “to empower ordinary Israeli and Palestinian citizens to mobilize at a grassroots level to propel politicians toward a two state solution.”
What differentiates OneVoice from other peace movements is that it defines the ambiguous word “peace.” For OneVoice, peace is human understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, combined with state lines and legislation to institutionalize it (a two state solution). The “Time to Lead” discussion reflected these ideals, incorporating panelists from different ends of society to reinforce the notion that peace comes from ordinary people, not only politicians.
This notion was well received by the panel’s audience. A few hundred students, activists, and professionals, Jewish and non-Jewish, sat in Kaufmann Hall, eager to hear from the five influential figures on stage: Daniel Lubetzky (founder of OneVoice, PeaceWorks, and Kind Bars), Daisy Khan (executive director of American Society for Muslim Advancement), Ambassador Dennis Ross (diplomat and former Middle East envoy), and Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame).
The panel’s diversity allowed the conversation to appeal to those invested in all facets of the conflict, be it political, religious, cultural, or humanitarian. And the celebrity bonus – Jason Alexander – added an element that is generally absent in these conversations: comedy.
Alexander began by sharing an anecdote from his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank. He described his apprehension before stepping out onto the streets of Ramallah. How are Palestinians going to treat an unmistakably American Jew? He braced himself for scornful glares. But as soon as he left the taxi, a street vendor pointed to him and yelled with excitement, “George!”
The audience roared with laughter as Alexander painted an odd picture in everyone’s mind: a Palestinian watching, and enjoying, Seinfeld. 
In his attempt to brighten the conversation with humor, Alexander conveyed a meaningful point: human interests and inclinations – like the need for humor – do not vary much from person to person or from culture to culture.
“[My role] in all of this is to communicate the humanity,” said Alexander after explaining his personal connection to the conflict. Humbled by Dennis Ross’s vast knowledge of the Middle East, Alexander did not answer challenging questions from a historical or political perspective, but rather drew from his personal experiences and values. The result was a more intimate, comprehensive, and positive conversation.
Even more positivity came from Daisy Khan, who assured that the source of the conflict is not rooted in religion. Proclaiming Islam as the main issue, Khan explained, is a hopeless way of viewing the conflict. She explicated Islam’s appreciation for the Jewish people, and the very real possibility for coexistence between Muslims and Jews. Ultimately, Khan underscored two key ideas: the necessity of recognizing Palestinian strife, and necessity of making peace with one’s enemies. She believes that reconciliation is needed even with Hamas, a “terrorist” organization according to the U.S, Israel, and many other nations. Though Hamas may not be a legitimate partner for negotiations, she said, we should not forgo the prospect of making peace with them.
Dennis Ross was more skeptical about peace with Hamas, but he brought to the table an “optimistic” perspective backed up with keen political analysis. Beyond being well versed in the subject, Ross contributed his experience working as an envoy to the Middle East under president Clinton. After years of failed peace talks, withdrawals from territories, and intifadas, one would expect Ross to be jaded by the ever-stalled peace process. Yet he remains optimistic, though he prefers to call it “realistic.” When it comes to affecting change for good, Ross noted, realism is optimism.
Finally, Daniel Lubetzky, the brain behind OneVoice, focused his participation on discussing progress that has occurred (and is occurring) “on the ground”.  For Lubetzky, progress is seeing “ordinary” Israelis and Palestinians grow healthy food together in cooperative business ventures through PeaceWorks. Progress is watching youth become leaders in their communities, and then using their leadership to amplify the moderate voices on both ends. Progress is bridging the gaps between grassroots organizations and politicians to inspire action toward a two state solution.
Lubetzky’s repetition of the phrase “on the ground” got me thinking. All of the above efforts are actually happening, yet most people in the world have no idea they exist.
According to one of the panelists, about 70 percent of Israeli and Palestinian citizens wish to coexist with their neighbors. Wouldn’t you, then, expect more people to be involved in—or at least aware of—these efforts?
I think what these organizations lack is meaningful public relations. Not just internal PR, but PR from people who care about the peace process. People who can spread the word, get others involved, and become “peace ambassadors” for their communities. Or at the very least, they can change the framework of the conversation, just as “Time to Lead” did.   
I left “Time to Lead” with something greater than a few business cards in my back pocket. I left with a more nuanced understanding of the peace process, a desire to carry on the message of OneVoice, and a refreshed confidence in my ability to affect change. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why I Choose Joy

A gray cloud descends on the Boston skyline. It’s 9 am on a Monday morning in mid-March. Slushy snow begins to fall, melting into mini pools at every crosswalk on campus. NorthFace-clad students walk to class with their heads down, hiding their faces from the snow and sporadic hail. Some stop to commiserate about the weather, about Mondays, or about fatigue. Others march along, indifferent to the world around them.
            I am among these students, lost in my own thoughts while crossing the Boston University Bridge. I think of my errands, my schoolwork, and then my newest predicament: there’s a blizzard outside and I am not prepared. I am angry with myself for not checking the weather, but I take out my iPod and trudge on with my peers.
            Within a few moments, the sounds of a flute and the beats of a Tarbouka drum stream through my headphones. My mind travels to a place I feel most at peace: Arad, a tiny city in Israel’s desert. I pause for a second and remember falling asleep under millions of stars, in awe of the boundless universe. I remember the children at the Arad foster home, whom I nurtured and cared for like family. I remember sitting next to Holocaust survivors at Shabbat dinner, listening to their stories over bowls of homemade chicken soup.
I stop at Marsh plaza, close my eyes, and a surge of gratitude pours in like an insight. I feel like I received my golden ticket.
Soon, I’m nearly skipping across campus, allowing the water to seep through my boots until my feet are blocks of ice. My hair is rain-soaked, my face blackened by mascara, my fingers are numb--and I am overcome with bliss. 
            I continue walking down Commonwealth Avenue, smiling at strangers and saying hello. Some give me quizzical looks, but most smile back.  I hope that they too see beauty in the clouds, the naked trees, and in the rippling puddles.
            A friend stops me on the street and asks, “You look so happy today—how come?”
            I reply in a matter-of-fact tone, “Because I choose it.”
            I want everyone to understand that happiness does not depend on external events, people, or weather—It comes from gratitude, which is a choice. Of course, friends and sunny days bring joy to moments. But does the sun make you generally happy? Does that “A” grade make you a positive person? People often think, Once I lose ten pounds, I’ll be happy.  When I have these clothes, I’ll be happy. When he loves me back, I’ll be happy. But if we constantly depend on external “things” for happiness, we will inevitably be let down.
I want to start a gratitude revolution on college campuses. During my few years at university, I have heard too many conversations centered on complaints, the main ones being, “I’m so tired,” or  “I have so much work.” The one I dislike the most is, “I’m so bored.” 
 I can’t take it anymore. 
 I go to one of the best university's in the nation, and yet I hear more complaints about dining hall food than I hear gratitude for professors or for the amazing city we live in.
But this phenomenon of negativity is not entirely our fault. Our society encourages it with consumerism. Our education system facilitates it by awarding grade point averages over achievements in altruism or innovative thinking. We are constantly being told that getting job right after college will make us happy and fulfilled.
Although these institutions may be difficult to change, we do have the power to change our perspective nowWe can see the slushy snow as a burden to our own day, or as an opportunity to make a stranger who looks miserable smile. I promise if you choose the latter, you will be better off because of it. It’s not only the more joyful way to live—it’s the only way to truly live.