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Shabbat Service: Seeing Possibility and Life Amidst Suffering

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Beha’alotcha includes the story of a group of Israelite men who encounter a dead body and, as a result, are considered ritually impure and unfit to participate in the first Passover festival. This pains the men and they ask Moses and Aaron, “Just because we are impure from a corpse, why are we barred from approaching to make an offering to God on this festival with the rest of the Israelites?”

As dvar tzedek author Guy Itzhak Austrian writes, “At first glance, these men are seen only as tainted with death. But the men themselves refuse to be defined by that stigma. Instead, they assert that they, too, are living people with a spiritual need to celebrate life and experience liberation.”

The takeaway: This aspect of the story, Austrian writes, reminds us of the importance of seeing “life and possibility in the midst of death and suffering” – especially when engaging in social justice and service work. Sometimes, when faced with the pain of the communities we work with – whether it stem from severe injustice, war, poverty, or something else – it can be hard to see anything but the pain. But, Austrian writes, sadness and suffering are not the only story.

Woven amidst even the most painful places, one can find moments of beauty and community. So while “some countries suffer more than their fair share, and we should hold ourselves responsible for alleviating their pain,” focusing solely on this aspect of the story is not the only way to engage.

The “to-do”: Austrian writes it best: “This week, sign up with an online news portal to receive every article about one developing country from many sources.” (Note: You can set up a Google Alert for that country to get started.) “Read for an entire week and listen to what voices emerge. Do you hear death or do you hear life? Cries of pain or cries of joy? And how will you respond to what you hear?”

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Storytelling and Empowering Women

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: In this week’s parsha (Torah portion), Naso we come across a moment in the Torah where the words of the Jewish peoples’ most sacred text do not necessarily match up with our modern-day ethics. The parsha describes the law of sotah: the punishment given to a wife if a man has suspicions that she’s had an affair. The Torah reads, “If a man has suspicions…he brings her before the kohen (priest), who makes her drink a mixture of holy waters and earth. He removes her head covering and warns her that if she has indeed been with a man other than her husband, the ingested waters will cause her thigh to collapse and her stomach to distend.”

As dvar tzedek author Adina Roth writes, “Having heard the kohen’s warning and just before drinking the water, the woman must answer “Amen, Amen.” In this context, we realize that ‘Amen,’ despite its benign, comforting associations today, actually means to submit to God’s will. ‘Amen’ is sinister here, as the woman is forced to surrender her fate to forces beyond her control.

The takeaway: It can be difficult to reconcile passages in the Torah like this, when they seem so opposite to our modern day understanding of what’s right and wrong. But Roth writes that the passage – as difficult as it is to read – reminds us that, “the telling of women’s stories in their own voices can be a powerful antidote to oppression…stories can serve as activist tools to help women in all cultures move beyond ‘Amen Amen’—and into empowerment.”

The “to-do”: Roth writes, “Women across all cultures are working to author their own stories. Whether it is the sharing among Jewish women in a Rosh Chodesh circle or the oral narratives of women travelers in sub-Saharan Africa, stories are being used to make room for today’s…women’s voices to be heard.” Support this movement by supporting organizations – like Change.org and WITNESS – that give women, and all people, a chance to voice their side of the story.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

6 Ways to Support Education for All on Shavuot

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot starts this weekend. As far as holidays go, it’s pretty big one: the anniversary of the day the Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai and also one of the Jewish calendar’s three pilgrimage festivals, which celebrates the beginning of the wheat harvest in Israel.

One of the ways people celebrate Shavuot is to stay up all night studying – a practice that dates back at least 400 years. Friends gather together and fortify themselves with big cups of coffee, lots of cheese blintzes (it’s also a custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot) and a stack of Jewish texts – both ancient ones, like the Book of Ruth, and also modern ones. (For some great Shavuot learning opportunities, check out AJWS’ Jewish social justice text database, On 1 Foot.)

For those of us who pull all-nighters for school (or who remember doing that), staying up all night studying may not seem like a lot of fun. But when you think about it, the opportunity to devote a night to education, and having the resources to do it, is not a privilege shared by everyone. That’s why Shavuot, with its focus on learning, is the perfect holiday to think about education for all. How can we make Shavuot our inspiration to promote access to education, literacy and strong classrooms for students throughout the country and world?

Here are a few places to start. Check out the six organizations below, all of which are working to make education more accessible, then click through their sites to find out how you can support their work and make a difference:

  • Global Education Fund: An organization that works to improve the lives of children living in poverty through education.
  • 826 National: An organization that promotes creative and expository writing skills in elementary and high school students in fun and creative ways. (Read Repair the World’s interview with 826 volunteer, Michelle Snyder.)
  • Machshava Tova: An Israeli organization working to close the digital and educational gaps within Israel’s students. (Check out Repair the World’s feature story on Machshava Tova.)
  • Raising a Reader: A national organization that promotes childhood literacy by helping families establish reading routines at home.
  • Class Wish: An organization that empowers parents, teachers and communities to make a difference in kids’ classrooms, by providing them with the school supplies they need to thrive.
  • Edible Schoolyard: Founded by famous foodie, Alice Waters, this organization promotes an “edible education” by building hands-on, sustainable food curriculums for schools.

How will you stand up for education this Shavuot? Let us know by tweeting @repairtheworld.

Shabbat Service: Treating the Poor with Dignity and Justice

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: In this week’s double parsha (Torah portion), Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, God shares a powerful statement with Moses. God says, “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: “You shall be holy, for I – Adonai your God — am holy.” God follows this statement with a whole bunch of laws on sacrificial worship, respecting elders and – interestingly – how to treat the poor. Specifically, God commands two things:

1. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.”
2. With regards to legal justice, “You shall not render an unfair legal decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.”

The takeaway: What does it mean that God included two statements about interactions with poor people in this larger list of holy laws? One idea it suggests is that no society can be truly “holy” without creating a space for dignity and justice for that society’s most vulnerable people. It is not enough that we just provide the less fortunate with opportunities to provide for their basic needs. We must also ensure that those people have access to the same freedoms and possibilities as every other member of society.

The “to-do”: When and wherever you can, strive for holiness by working towards providing direct aid and relief to those who need it, and working to impact long-term and systemic justice issues. Not sure where to start? Check out AJWS’ giving plan, which lets you create a personalized tzedakah plan to balance your priorities and make the most of whatever you have to give.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website. And for more great texts, commentary and Jewish learning resources on social justice, check out the On 1 Foot database.

Shabbat Service: Standing Up for Girls and Women’s Full Inclusion in Society

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Tzaria-Metzora, talks about menstruation (yes, the Torah discusses *lots* of fascinating topics!). Particularly, it covers the uncomfortable-to-think-about notion that, according to the Torah, a woman is rendered “ritually impure” by her period. (Read the passage here in Leviticus 15:19-24).

As this week’s dvar tzedek author, Sigal Samuel writes, “In addition, women in Israelite society were likely forced to withdraw from the public sphere during their periods [in part] because of their impure status—which prevented them from entering sacred spaces or eating sacred foods.”

The takeaway: Thousands of years after the time of Torah, many girls and woman – especially in developing countries, still find that menstruation is a barrier to their inclusion in school and society. As Samuel writes – feminine hygiene products are not always available or affordable and, “for millions of girls, school attendance suffers as a result. According to an Oxford University study, in rural Ghana, many girls miss up to five school days each month because of their periods.” Meanwhile, menstruation is still considered taboo in many developing nations. For more information, check out this article in the New York Times and watch the video below:

The “to-do”: Support organizations that work for women’s health, education, and the full inclusion of girls and women in society. Checkout Sustainable Health Enterprises, the Alliance for African Women Initiative, The Fistula Foundation.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website.

Alternative Break Interview: Yehudit Goldberg on AJWS in Nicaragua

This past year, thousands of high school and college students spent their winter and spring breaks volunteering to help other people. Yehudit Goldberg, a 21-year old student at Stern College in New York City, was one of them. She volunteered in Nicaragua with Repair the World grantee-partners American Jewish World Service and The Center for the Jewish Future.

Now that she’s back, Yehudit is back to the busy school grind. But she took the time out of her hectic schedule to speak to Repair the World about her desire to reconnect with the issues she cares about, what it’s like to help build a school, and how to keep the passion for service alive once a trip is over.

What is your background with service?
Growing up I went to a modern orthodox day school in University Heights, Ohio (near Cleveland) that did a lot of volunteer work within the Jewish community. We worked with children with special needs and did events around the holidays. We also had a yearly event called Make a Difference Day where they sent students to 20 different locations around the city for various service projects. My school also partnered with the Jewish Federation of Cleveland on their Public Education Initiative where we’d tutor children in the inner city on reading.
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On Yom Hashoah: Remembering & Honoring Through Service

Never forget. Today is Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day – the official day of commemoration for the 6 million Jews — and millions of other persecuted people — murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Inaugurated in 1953, on April 19, people all across the world pause to remember and to honor those who were killed in the Holocaust with special services and gatherings. Some people read names of lost family or community members, light yartzheit candles or spend time with survivors. In Israel, residents observe an official moment of silence in the morning. Some people remember through art – like this essay on the Huffington Post by Andrea Strongwater that imagines all the potential “good” the world lost by losing so many people in the Holocaust. Or like Andrew Lustig, who expressed himself through this powerful video:

Yom Hashoah also offers a unique opportunity to honor the millions of lost lives through service. No, we can’t change history. But we can contribute to and shape a future of greater tolerance. We can take a stand and help make sure that persecutions like those of the past don’t happen.  Here are some ideas for serving on Yom Hashoah, and everyday.

  • iVolunteer:  Volunteer to spend time once a week with a Holocaust survivor. Hear their stories and provide them with comfort and companionship.
  • Yad Vashem: Learn the history. Visit the Holocaust museum and education/resource center in Jerusalem.
  • Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village: Volunteer or donate to this Repair the World grantee-partner, which provides a residential community in rural Rwanda for children who were orphaned during and after the genocide in 1994.
  • AJWS: Join Repair the World grantee-partner American Jewish World Service in their campaigns to provide humanitarian aid to and promote lasting peace in Sudan.
  • Teaching Tolerance: Serve through teaching others. This website is the place for educators – or anyone looking to learn or teach about diversity, equal opportunity, and promoting respect for differences.

How will you commemorate Yom Hashoah? Let us know in the comments below or by tweeting @repairtheworld.

Shabbat Service: Keep the Fire for Service Going Strong

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Tzav, is a continuation from last week. It continues to lay out the many detailed instructions for the Isralite sacrificial rituals like, for example, that the priests must keep the fire for burnt offerings perpetually burning on the altar.

The takeaway: Jews no longer burn things on altars – and haven’t for a long time. So some Jewish scholars understand this commandment metaphorically, as an instruction to keep one’s enthusiasm and engagement burning like a fire. Historically, this referred to keeping one’s passion for Jewish tradition and observance going, but it can also apply to our commitment to service and changing the world.

As this week’s dvar tzedek author writes, “working for justice can be a daunting proposition. That is why it is so crucial for us to invest time in examining what we can do to keep our fires—of passion, energy, and commitment—burning, and to seek out the people and resources that keep us excited and primed for action.” We couldn’t agree more.

The “to-do”: Getting tired or discouraged sometimes while doing service and social justice work is common – and nothing to be embarrassed about. It happens to absolutely everyone engaged in this work. So as you’re out there in the world caring for others, be sure to care for yourself as well. Maybe that means going on a retreat, or scheduling time with your friends where you don’t talk about service. Maybe it means reading inspiring books like The Impossible Will Take a Little While, an anthology of social justice activists all talking about keeping hope in tough times. However you like to recharge your spirit, go for it and keep the fire for service going strong.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website.

Shabbat Service: Schedule in Time For Service

Shabbat Service is a weekly bit of Torah-inspired do-gooding, brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Read on to see how these ancient stories can apply today. Seem far fetched? Check it out:

The story: This week’s parsha (Torah portion), Vayakhel Pekudei describes the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in super specific detail. In exhausting detail it lays out the structure’s exact height, the materials used to build it, it’s colors and patterns – not a single thing goes unthought of or unrecorded. It’s as if the ancient Israelites were trying to make up for their inability to envision God by creating the most ornate, ungapatchka (look it up, it’s Yiddish!) physical structure for God possible.

The takeaway: According to this week’s dvar tzedek author, Sigal Samuel, the ancient Israelite’s enthusiasm for creating a physical structure for God “makes perfect sense against the backdrop of last week’s parshah, Ki Tisa, which depicts the Israelites as a people whose desire to see God is both tremendously strong and fraught with difficulty…[their] desire for visual evidence of God is so great that they fashion the golden calf—a visible, if false, symbol of divinity that calms their fears that God and Moses have disappeared.”

Furthermore, she writes, “the story of the “ancient Israelites’ ambivalence toward representing God resembles our contemporary struggle to represent the realities of the developing world. While the Israelites yearned for but were wary of an image too awe-inspiring to behold, we are fascinated with but repelled by images too awful to behold.” The specifics of the Israelite’s hesitation might be the inverse of our own, but the end result is the same: sometimes it all simply feels like too much.

The “to-do”: Sometimes when we feel too overwhelmed by something – like the struggles in the developing world – we look away and disengage completely. Resist this urge by working to make service and philanthropy a regular part of your life. Build your capacity for helping others with the same energy and commitment the ancient Israelites had when building the mishkan. Schedule it in, the same way you schedule in trips to the gym or coffee dates with friends. If you make a monthly (or weekly) commitment to volunteer, donate to an organization doing world-changing work, or help spread the word about a cause, it removes some of the anxiety. Soon, helping others – even in an overwhelming world – might begin to feel natural.

Read the full Torah commentary, on which this excerpt is based, over at AJWS’ website.