I am Jewish.
However, I am Jewish. I feel Jewish. Why? Perhaps my feelings are rooted in the concept of “tikkun olam.” Translated as “repairing the world,” the concept of tikkun olam is rooted in doing “mitzvot,” or good deeds— basically, doing the right thing.
There is a strong social justice aspect to tikkun olam.
In 1992, I was living in Omaha, Nebraska and, together with my wife, we were named the first Chairs of Temple Israel’s newly formed Social Action Committee. Our first major endeavor was partnering with an all-black church in the “inner city” of Omaha. This was a tough, lower-income section of town; most of Omaha’s Jewish population lived in the more well-to-do western fringe of the city. Additionally, at the time, there was a growing rift developing on the national and local scenes between Jews and Blacks.
We partnered with this wonderful church and its congregation in developing, together, the “Lord’s Vineyard.” We organized, seeded, and grew a garden of vegetables directly across from the church, with members from both congregations working side-by-side in the dirt with a common cause and purpose. Many children were involved. We also took turns visiting each other’s places of worship; and, when the rewards of our efforts were harvested, we all shared in the abundance with a joint dinner and celebration.
This felt like an act of tikkun olam at its finest. I can recall our Social Action Committee spearheading a “sleep out” on the Central Park Mall on a cold, wintry type night in October to bring awareness to the homeless issue in Omaha. There I was with my wife and two boys—ages 9 and 14, at the time—each of us sleeping in our own cardboard box. We awoke in the morning, and had a rally in support of the city’s homeless. While I vividly recall how challenging it was to sleep unprotected outside on that very cold night, raising the consciousness of, at the very least, those participating; and, more than likely, thousands of people who either saw or read about what we did was doing good. We were doing mitzvot.
Today, everywhere, we have increasing disparity among those who have, and those who do not. We continue to have significant homeless issues, and we continue to have disparity when it comes to race. The concept of tikkun olam asks each of us to look inward, to look outward, and to seek opportunities to do good, to help others, and to influence others to do the same.
Yes, I am Jewish, and my “Jewishness” is rooted in one thing—tikkun olam. I realize, appreciate, and am thankful for all those people—whether Jewish or no—who are also out there “repairing the world.” No one, thankfully, has a monopoly on doing good. It is simply how I define myself, and connect with my religion.
Barry Siff lives in Boulder, CO, together with his wife, Jodee, and dog Jackpot. He can be reached at [email protected]