Making the world thrive through tikkun olam


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

I am a tikkun olam junkie. Finding stuff to do in the community — especially the Black community — that repairs it, empowers it — makes my socks go up and down. I love tutoring little Leon at Confluence Academy and training police recruits and Sigma Aldrich employees to read with kids in the St. Louis Public Schools.

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While I know I’m but one of many Jewish volunteers in our community, what if we all stepped it up? What if we all performed more mitzvoth and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness) and gave a little more tzedakah (justice and righteousness)? What if, as a community, it became a way of life for more of us?

Tikkun olam and relationship building are my answers to questions posed by Barry Rosenberg last month in the Jewish Light: What is our vision for the future of St. Louis and American Jewish life? What must we do today, to ensure we thrive in the future?

For us to thrive, everyone has to thrive. And how do we make that happen? By having our Jewish community see tikkun olam as our responsibility. By pitching in and doing our part. Our responsibility to change, improve, and fix our earthly surroundings is powerful and huge — no question about it. It implies that each of us has a hand in working toward the betterment of our community, as well as the lives of future generations.

Tikkun olam means working in all communities, not just Jewish communities. We Jews are members of the wider community, and as such, our actions must not be limited to our own communities. Helping those who are in need, no matter in what capacity, is crucial and “holy” work.

It is said that the ultimate goal of mitzvot is for moral and religious values and deeds to permeate the Jewish people and ultimately the entire world. A vision of social justice is rooted in the Jewish commandment to remember the experience of slavery and the Exodus from Egypt because “we are all harmed by oppression directed at any group or individual.”

And make no mistake. We still have oppression in our region. Disparities and inequities permeate all aspects of our society – economic, social, and psychological, and affect education, healthcare, the criminal justice system and economic development. Our community needs to change. We need to be more inclusive, decrease bias and discrimination and increase equality.

I’m proud to know that we American Jews have a rich history of championing the cause of social justice in our country, like when we were at the forefront of the Labor movement and the Civil Rights Movement. The problems we have today — racism, poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare for all — are just as great, if not greater, than they were during the Jim Crow era, though not as visible to many of us in our self-segregated neighborhoods. But out of sight is not out of mind and too many people in our community need our help. There is no end to helping all people who don’t have our opportunities.

Opportunities for service to repair or perfect the world are endless: There are so many times we need to stand up and speak out; there are too many students who read below grade level who we could tutor; we all have neighbors who need a ride to the doctor. What about going with your family to help build a house, volunteer at the Kornblum Food Pantry, serve at a soup kitchen. Doing these things, especially with our families, sets an example and is as important a lesson as piano, or gymnastics or even Hebrew!

To thrive we need to have “the right people on the bus” to use a phrase from Good to Great. We are the right people. It’s our mandate to pursue social justice and righteousness. Tikkun olam is right up our alley. Tikkun olam is G-d’s work. It is tzedakah. It gives us a world where everyone thrives, including the Jews.

Karen Kalish is founder and executive director of Cultural Leadership.

Editor’s Note

This article is a response to “Toward Thriving” — a reduced version of a paper that Barry Rosenberg, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, wrote last year, which appeared in the Sept. 23 issue of the Jewish Light. “Toward Thriving,” which has been edited with the author’s consent, discusses key issues associated with the future of the local and world Jewish communities.

The Jewish Light is soliciting responses to the ideas expressed in “Toward Thriving” from a variety of voices within the local Jewish community, and will provide those voices in coming issues of the Light and on our Web site, and via links on the Web site.

We encourage letters on Toward Thriving for publication in the Jewish Light or join the discussion via blog at