Years ago, I had a contentious interaction that I will never forget. It was with a man who was involved in the Jewish community. He was speaking to a group of us who gathered monthly to discuss Jewish culture, issues, and traditions. He asked all the people who donated money to charity to raise their hands. He then asked us to again, by a show of hands, identify if we had donated to Jewish charities. His final directive was to raise our hands if we donated to non-Jewish charities. We were then treated to a public reprimanding. I remember him throwing out statements like “…take care of our own!” and “…no one else will!” and “…they have their own communities!” I could have barfed.
Instead, I raised my hand. I remember being shaky and on the verge of tears. “Excuse me. I don’t share in your perspective – not at all. I am raising children and I am teaching them that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place for ALL people who live in it. It’s not us against them. We are all responsible. All of us, for everybody.” He scoffed and started relaying percentages showing Jews as the tiniest minority – and insisted if we didn’t take care of one another, no one would. “I refuse to believe that about people,” I said. Then I referenced the following quote attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
I have volunteered in Englewood, a community far from “us,” for many years. I have always been received with open arms by both the leaders and students there. My friends sometimes worry about my driving there at dusk to teach life skills to the kids on the far South Side, but I scoff at their worry. I don’t spend time hanging out on the corner or eyeballing people. I bring snacks and hopefully a little bit of helpful discussion. I always learn something myself and the reward is worth the risk of being there. I give to the kids and I get from the kids. It’s perfect.
However, Englewood kids are not technically “mine” – they don’t call me mom and they don’t live with me. We don’t look alike, we don’t live in the same community and we have different cultures and religions. But these kids are mine. I am invested in them and I care about them and I want them to succeed. I am not a Rabbi or anyone renowned in the Jewish community, but in my humble, reformed opinion, being Jewish has everything to do with making a difference in the world at large. Not just in “our” world with “our” people.
When this initial interaction happened years ago, I had two kids. I am now the proud mother of four. There are so many reasons to not take the long drive to Englewood anymore. But I do it because I believe in order to live a meaningful life; I need to extend myself beyond what is easy and beyond what is right in front of me. So in short, Tikkun Olam. Let me always see beyond myself and what is “mine”. I have hope that I will always have something I believe in to offer that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
Oy!Chicago is published by the Jewish United Fund which provides critical resources that bring food, refuge, health care, education and emergency assistance to 300,000 Chicagoans of all faiths and two million Jews in Israel and around the world.