This essay was published in February 2021 in The Peoplehood Papers, a project of The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education in collaboration with AJWS, JDC Entwine, OLAM, Repair and Gabriel Project Mumbai. Click here to read the complete collection.
In the midst of a global pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty and the climate crisis, many of us continue to vacillate between feeling angry, distraught and hopeful. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel encouraged us to approach our lives with both “radical amazement and righteous indignation”—a prescription to recognize both the beauty and the brokenness in the world we inhabit. While there are many expressions of Jewish peoplehood, the practice of tikkun olam—repairing our broken world—provides a critical entry point for acting on this righteous indignation—within the Jewish community and beyond.
In my decade of work at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), I have come to understand that as we grapple with the massive challenges that exist in our world today, it isn’t enough to apply our hope and indignation inward, tackling the challenges in our own communities; we must look outward, recognizing that our actions affect people an ocean away, and vice versa. Taking global responsibility is necessary for the future of our planet and its inhabitants, and it’s an essential part of what it means to be a Jewish people in the 21st century.
It’s also eminently clear to me that we cannot do this work alone. As we strive to build a better and more just world for everyone, we can be guided by two core facets of Jewish life that require us to work in tandem with others: partnership (chevruta) and humility (anavah). Together, these values enable us—as Jewish people and as citizens of this world—to advance justice for all people and bring about a more equitable world.
For centuries, the core structure of Jewish learning has been to study with a partner—in chevruta—predicated on the notion that learning is an intrinsically social endeavor. Modern chevruta study is often decentralized, democratic and egalitarian. It often involves a room full of people—or these days, a Zoom gallery full of faces—who learn not from an authority figure who provides the “right” answers, but with a variety of thinkers that each contribute their own unique experiences to increasing greater understanding.
How might we apply a model of chevruta to the work of tikkun olam? What does it look like for Jews to build partnerships that transcend continents, countries and cultures? Partnership is an essential framework for understanding the injustices in our world and for responding to them with integrity and purpose.
This belief is at the core of our work at AJWS. Inspired by our Jewish values, we support human rights advocates and social change movements in 18 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. And in doing so, we recognize the central role local communities play in solving the problems they experience. Just as in chevruta study, we do not see ourselves as the dominant authority with the “right answer.” We see ourselves as a partner. And we trust local advocates to develop and carry out their own solutions to build more just societies.
For example, in March 2020, when India suddenly announced a strict, severe national lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people were left scrambling to protect themselves and their families, often with little information about the frightening new disease. My colleagues and I kept our ears to the ground to make sure people in rural areas—such as the village of Vangadhra in the Western State of Gujarat—were able to get the emergency support they needed. We learned about a 30-year-old woman named Shobhnaben, an elected leader in Vangadhra, who was educating her community about COVID prevention and training others in her village to spread this information in ways that they could relate to and trust. Instead of transplanting our own solutions with a U.S.-centered lens, we funded our long-trusted partners on the ground in India to support Shobhnaben in executing a plan that would meet the unique needs of her village.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors) teaches: “Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not covet honor… Who is honored? A person who honors others.” In our work at AJWS, we emphasize the importance of practicing humility in solving some of the world’s most enduring problems. Often, this means listening more than we speak, and building relationships with people whose lived experiences are different from ours.
We currently see these values at work with AJWS’s Global Justice Chavurah, a circle for learning and action we lead for rabbis and cantors who are advocating for justice. During the pandemic, we offer workshops for clergy to virtually “travel” to countries around the world and learn from local activists pressing for their own visions of justice. These rabbis and cantors are experts in their own pulpits in the U.S., but they become students when listening to experts in different countries describe the complex challenges they face and how they are working to solve them.
Members of the Chavurah then apply the insights to their own advocacy toward the U.S. government. For example, in January 2021, 267 American rabbis and cantors from around the country signed a letter articulating a Jewish vision for progressive U.S. foreign policy, guided by what they learned directly from activists in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Partnership and Humility in Action
The combination of partnership and humility—in other words, acting in solidarity alongside others striving for change and letting those most affected by problems lead toward solutions—is a powerful vehicle for tikkun olam.
One of the most poignant examples I’ve experienced in my work at AJWS is our joining in the struggle for justice for the Rohingya people of Burma. This ethnic group has endured state-sponsored violence for decades—and in 2017, the discrimination and violence escalated to a full-fledged genocide, when the military began a vicious campaign of burning villages and brutally murdering people. Survivors of the genocide and Rohingya activists living in exile around the world are now leading a campaign for justice and accountability, and are calling for the safe, voluntary return of Rohingya people to Burma with equal rights as citizens. AJWS supports their struggle, led every step of the way by Rohingya leaders.
Heeding their call, we launched the Jewish Rohingya Justice Network, a coalition of 30 Jewish organizations from across the American Jewish religious and cultural spectrum, to act in solidarity with the Rohingya people. This group has mobilized thousands of Jewish leaders and allies to call on our government to support the Rohingya cause.
While this continues to be an uphill battle, this partnership of American Jews and Rohingya activists has contributed to incremental wins, from U.S. sanctions on military officials to increased foreign aid for the more than 700,000 refugees who fled the violence. And in 2019, with Rohingya survivors offering powerful testimony and advocacy and AJWS staff in attendance, the International Court of Justice at The Hague made a powerful first step toward restitution, by ordering Burma to stop the genocide.
Yasmin Ullah, a Rohingya activist and friend of AJWS, shared, “We are all seeking the same thing. We want accountability for the crimes against us, and we want to be treated with equality, dignity and respect.”
Heschel’s words remain central to my daily work. I am full of righteous indignation when I examine human rights abuses around the world, from horrific genocide to the marginalization of people in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and yet, tireless activists fill me with radical amazement, both at how they persevere and the wins they achieve.
In fact, our history and our heritage have always called upon us to take action. But we know it is never enough for us to act alone. The future of Jewish peoplehood depends on us widening our circles of obligation and forging trusting, caring relationships with people around the world to honor our shared humanity and usher in a more just world for everyone.
Lilach Shafir is the Director of International Education and Jewish Engagement at AJWS.