In an article published in the March 2010 issue of Commentary, Jack Wertheimer, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, provides a thought-provoking critique of the high cost of a committed, traditional Jewish life in America. But after laying out his case at length, he takes an awkward and confusing turn, focusing his attention on our new organization, Repair the World, taking our founders to task for believing in the value of service, and questioning our rationale for existing.
Wertheimer fundamentally misunderstands and mischaracterizes our mission as ignoring service to Jews. If he were unclear about our purpose, then his only mistake would be in not having reached out to us for help understanding what we do; but he ironically makes our argument for us:
Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s are deeply invested in contributing to the world at large — a commitment, we might add, many have imbibed from their parents. To get their attention, Jewish organizations must harness this idealism and teach young people that their quest to aid fellow human beings is in fact congruent with the deepest teachings of Judaism. In this way we can do good for the world, while simultaneously bringing together Jews of different backgrounds and educating them about their traditions.
But then comes the puzzling question: “One could ask, of course, why this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews?” Short answer: it does.
As we work to inspire a commitment to service and make it a defining part of American Jewish life, all of us at Repair the World embrace the full breadth of what that entails: serving both Jews and non-Jews, working with Jewish and secular organizations — new and old — and engaging Jews who are already involved in the community and those who are not. Galvanizing American Jews to serve, as Jews and rooted in Jewish tradition and values, is a mission that we believe will have meaningful and long-lasting impact. And we’ve only just started the process.
In 2009, our first year and our first grant cycle, we granted almost $2 million to 12 Jewish organizations to support service opportunities. Seven of them have an explicit aim of serving within the Jewish community as part of their mission. Otzma? Jews serving Jews in Israel. Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future? Strengthening Jewish communities in North America and around the world. BINA, Hillel, JNF, and the Jewish Organizing Initiative all do great work within the Jewish world, and all are funded with the help of Repair the World.
The article recounts the story of a young volunteer whose service in the former Soviet Union was her first exposure to Jewish poverty. Repair the World is a generous supporter of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish service-learning programs in the former Soviet Union and around the world.
Still, even were he right on the substance of his argument against us, his broader theme—that service outside the Jewish community is in some way illegitimate, and that we should instead be focusing all of our service inward—sells short a substantial part of Jewish tradition. On the just-past holiday of Purim, Jews are expected to give in two ways: gifts of food to friends (mishloach manot), and gifts of charity to the poor (matanot l’evyonim). This tension, between sustaining our relationships and reaching out beyond them, is also deeply rooted in the Jewish experience, and finding the right balance between the particular and the universal is part of our historical calling.
How Repair the World works to meet this challenge is, in sum, exactly in the way Wertheimer seems to seek. Our aim is to make service a core part of the American Jewish experience: an authentic, ongoing, commitment to serve Jews and non-Jews alike, not standing on its own, but informed by the full content of our rich tradition. Jack Wertheimer should be proud of that goal.
This article originally appeared on the Fundermentalist.