By Lynn Schusterman
This weekend, in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service, more than 1,200 people from New York to Knoxville to San Francisco symbolically invited Dr. King to Shabbat dinner.
Initiated by Repair the World–a national organization that mobilizes American Jews to address global and local needs through volunteering and service–the dinners were part of the Points of Light’s Sunday Supper campaign, designed to inspire dialogue and action on key issues affecting our communities.
The MLK Shabbat Suppers focused on the theme of educational inequity, which Dr. King considered inextricably linked to the struggle for equality and justice. It is disheartening that more than half a century later, the achievement gap continues to plague our country, as an average of 7,000 students drop out of school every day and 89 percent of children growing up in low-income households read below grade level.
I believe the Jewish community can and must play a central role in addressing this critical issue. One powerful way we can do this, as the participants at the MLK Shabbat Suppers learned, is by volunteering our time as mentors and tutors. It is striking to see the magnitude of impact mentorship and tutoring can have on student performance and young lives. Consider these two facts in contrast to those above:
- 62 percent of students with a formal mentor improve their self-esteem, which can have a significant impact on their academic success and likelihood of graduation; and
- 40 percent of below average readers improve with an average of just 1.5 hours of tutoring per week.
For too many students, however, their needs go unmet because access to quality mentors and tutors depends on volunteers. Rather than throwing up our hands in frustration at the problem, let’s roll up our sleeves and be a part of the solution.
Many organizations, including the Harvard School of Public Health, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and the Corporation for National and Community Service, are working to raise awareness and match volunteers with year-round opportunities during National Mentoring Month and beyond.
Across the Jewish community, the MLK Shabbat Suppers are part of Repair the World’s multi-year effort to mobilize Jews across the nation to serve as tutors, mentors and college access coaches for public school children.
This initiative is in the spirit of the Jewish community’s legacy of leadership on social action and civil rights. Indeed, in March 1965, so many rabbis marched with Dr. King from Selma that hundreds of the freedom marchers actually wore kippot in solidarity. Foremost among the rabbis was Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm in arm with Dr. King.
“What we need more than anything else,” Heschel once said, “is not textbooks but text people.” We become “text people” by putting the values that form the moral and ethical foundation of Jewish life–tzedek(justice), chesed (loving-kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world)–at the forefront of our efforts to serve the common good.
It was another great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, who helped us understand that there is no greater gift you can give a person than the opportunity to become self-sufficient. A high school and college degree are linked to greater employment prospects, higher earning potential and the ability to contribute more to our communities. In this spirit, giving our time to help today’s youngest learners prepare to become tomorrow’s skilled workforce and engaged citizens is among the deepest manifestations of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.
The statistics may be daunting, and the questions they raise about the social and economic fabric and future of our country overwhelming. But the Shabbat Suppers this weekend served to highlight the power we have as individuals and as a community to make a difference, even if we have not devoted our professional lives to the classroom.
Today, as we consider the role we can play in helping to foster a more equitable, caring world, we think of what Dr. King called his audacious belief that “peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
It is time for each of us to get up from the table and do our part to carry that belief forward.
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