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.