Ryan Leszner, Camper, CIT, Staff 2002-2012
The phrase “Tikkun Olam“, translated as repairing the world, is a common phrase amongst liberal Jews that enforces our commitment to social justice. We use it as a mantra to justify the good things we do in the world, whether it’s a social action fair, Mitzvah Day, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or the local 5k run. We use it as a critical part of our identity, a mandate to make the world a better place. As I grew older and began taking on leadership roles in my community, I often came to rely on the term myself, teaching my students and NFTY kids about it. I used this phrase as an opportunity to share the injustices that exist in the world, and how it is a deeply rooted aspect of our Jewish heritage to make our world better.
However, like so many aspects of my religious identity and practice, I found my understanding of this concept expanded and reconfigured during my first year in Rabbinical School at Hebrew College. Rabbi Jane Kanarek taught about the idea not of Tikkun Olam, but Tikkun Ha’olam. We looked at Mishnah Gittin 4:3, a chapter that describes a multitude of situations regarding what happens when a woman brings forth a get, a bill of divorce, and wants to collect the debt owed from the marriage signing. In this Mishnah, the Rabbis are discussing how the existing laws must change for the sake of Tikkun Ha’Olam.
When our sacred texts use the phrase Mipnei Tikkun Ha’olam – for the benefit of Tikkun Olam, we are talking about issues of public welfare. Tikkun Ha’Olam presents itself in the Mishnah in a variety of social and institutional issues such as divorce, marriage, slavery, captivity, sacred literature, debt loans, land ownership, lost property and relationships to non-Jews. These laws were put into place, not necessarily to change the world, but for the sake of keeping the community together and bettering people’s daily lives. The Rabbis often talk about the need for the laws to be redefined for Mipnei Tikkun Ha’Olam. This focus on legal redefinition emphasizes that Tikkun Ha’Olam must also inherently involve systemic change, not only good or just deeds.
When we use the phrase Tikkun Olam today, we aren’t usually thinking of legal practice. I believe when we say Tikkun Olam, we are referring to something more individual: an intention of compassion, generosity and loving-kindness. I would argue this is Chesed, righteousness. Chesed is one of the most central acts in the Torah, which teaches us the importance of taking care of everyone. There are countless examples of this in Jewish text. Acts of Chesed are immediate responses to an individual human need. They are responses to men and women on the street who need a sandwich, or a dollar to get them through the day. They are holding the door for the person who has their hands full of groceries and offering someone else a seat on the bus before you sit down.
They are not, however, Tikkun Ha’Olam. Tikkun Ha’Olam is quite different from these immediate acts of Chesed. It is a response to an overhaul of injustice, a sense that law must be modified to create a more balanced society. Chessed reminds us to be compassionate to the people who make up our societies, and Tikkun Ha’Olam teaches us to try and change society itself. True Tikkun Ha’Olam involves systemic change, not isolated deeds.
As a global community, we are witnessing a social uprising. We are now awake to unjustified police shootings, the system of mass incarceration, the lack of fairness in our justice system, and the oppressive laws that discriminate Black folks and promote white supremacy. Some of us have taken this time to protest, donate to Black action groups, support Black business, or been reading and listening to podcasts and books. These are beautiful acts of Chesed that are deeply important, and we must not forget that the Black Lives Matter movement is asking for sweeping systemic change. For generations, the Jewish community has failed to own their part and work to help end systemic racial injustice, and instead have actively or passively perpetuated these injustices. Our sacred texts show us that Tikkun Ha’Olam implores that we work to change our society for the sake of the entire community. For every living and breathing soul.
Now more than ever, we need Tikkun Ha’Olam. Rabbi Art Green teaches that if we are to mend or repair something, we first must acknowledge that it is broken. Tikkun Olam begins with recognizing the fact that the world we live in is broken, and continues by accepting that it is our responsibility to work for actual systemic change. We as a Camp George community need to commit to having difficult conversations because we recognize that without engagement and discussion around issues of Racial Justice, we turn a blind eye to our complicit role in enabling white supremacy. It is time for us to be leaders in this fight, and join those who are fighting for their lives.
During my time at Camp George, I learned what it means to be a leader in the community. Most importantly, I learned that a leader is not always the one at the front of the room, the Maccabiah captain, or the one leading a camp-wide program. Everybody leads in their own way, and with everyone bringing their own leadership styles and skills to the table, only then does camp become the special place where we can grow and learn. The leaders of Black Lives Matter are paving the way and inviting us to join. We have an opportunity to bring our skills to the table, use our collective resources to participate in supporting our Black community. Our Black family is crying out, and it is now up to us to bring our resources to be of service. It is time for us to use the values and skills we learned at camp to this movement, to support those who are asking for Tikkun Ha’Olam.
The Camp George Year-Round team and its Alumni would like to extend an invitation to join us in conversation. We are committed to having difficult conversations as a community because we recognize that without engagement and discussion around issues of Racial Justice, we turn a blind eye to our complicit role in enabling white supremacy. If you would like to be a part of these conversations, we are offering a safe space for alumni to grapple with these topics, because we know that it is not enough to say “I’m not racist”, instead we have to be Antiracist every day.
Our goal is to mobilize our alumni and develop a plan of action for camp in the following areas:
- Staff and Alumni engagement opportunities
- Action-oriented events for campers and their families to participate in
- Resources to help camp families to engage in conversation at home
- Infusion of antiracist curriculum into the existing camp program
This is step one. We are just beginning the necessary work, and have a long way to go to uncover and confront our role in the injustice of the Black community. We need to take on this global effort to educate ourselves and implement lasting change. We hope that this can be the beginning of a long term effort for our community to work towards a more just and equitable society for everyone in it, especially Black folks and People of Colour.
Sunday, August 9th at 7:00 PM.
We hope you will join us in this effort. Let’s get to work.