Recently I asked a group of my teenage Christian friends about their upcoming summer plans. Rather than receiving the standard responses, such as summer camps or vacations, I heard some unusual answers among my friends.
“I am traveling to Tanzania with my youth group to improve an irrigation system there. We’ve been raising money all year,” said a girl my own age.
“I’m flying alone to Russia with a church planting ministry; we hope to build a pool for a large orphanage there,” said another high-school student.
“I am fundraising for my two-week trip to Haiti so I can teach English to the homeless youth there,” answered a third friend of mine.
I was jealous.
I am 17, and unlike other teenagers, I’ve always been what some people might call a spiritual seeker. As a high-school student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I spend my free time seeking various forms of spirituality. I know it’s a little unusual for someone my age, but since I was young, I’ve enjoyed visiting churches and other houses of worship, part of a spiritual journey—encouraged by my parents—that enabled me to meet other teens who, though from different faiths, share the same sense of spiritual questioning. Many of those people, I noticed over time, come from firmly grounded Christian households, where they are constantly guided and nurtured throughout their spiritual journeys. Through their churches, my friends participate in “mission trips,” Evangelical Christian service-trips that enable them to repair the world, one community at a time. During the most galvanizing events in the world—from natural disasters in Japan, to medical epidemics in Africa, and the increase of women’s rights issues in the Middle East—American churches routinely dedicate hundreds of volunteers overseas, fully equipped with building supplies, food, and Bibles. Because these Evangelical Christians fearlessly spread their faith outside their comfort zones, families that once barely survived in their ramshackle communities are now truly living—both physically and spiritually.
After watching friend after friend go on these missions, I can’t help but ask: Why aren’t we, as Jews, focusing our values toward communities outside of our own?
In Judaism, we promote the ethical concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. While we implement those values through annual “Mitzvah Days” and monthly canned food drives, Evangelical Christians are sharing their faith worldwide, exposing themselves to poverty firsthand. Although we strive to be or l’goyim, or a light to the nations, as a community our social action projects seem limited to our own. Since the ethics of our religion denounce proselytizing or “soul saving,” how can we embody the standards of or l’goyim? How can we emit the light in our faith if we limit ourselves to our local communities?
There are a few Jewish organizations that send hundreds of volunteers overseas to improve communities in need. These organizations, such as the American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, incorporate Jewish values into their relief projects while reaching out to Jews and non-Jews alike, no matter where their ZIP codes may be. But these groups are so distinctive and acclaimed, not only because of the commitment they have to social justice, but also because they are so rare. Our Jewish community at large has yet to consider service groups as anything more than growing organizations, or even worse, “Jewish missionary programs.” The concept of utilizing the values of our faith to rebuild and sustain communities worldwide is still foreign to many Jews in this country, especially to those who may not be visibly in need themselves.
And so, unfortunately, many Jews bristle at the idea of learning from Christian missionaries; fearing proselytism, my co-religionists overlook genuine acts of social justice. Many Jews believe that one of the biggest threats to our faith is the influence of evangelism in college campuses and beyond, but by spiting Christian mission trips, we are only discouraging Jewish forms of outreach altogether.
After watching my Christian friends leave their communities in order to spread their faith worldwide, I realized that the only way to affect another life is to fully commit myself to doing so. Since then, I have volunteered regularly in local soup kitchens, allowing my hands to get dirty while preparing food for others. Having grown up with a family that eats together every single night, I learned the significance of preparing a dinner table for someone else. Also, I hope to participate in international programs that take me to villages and communities in need with the American Jewish World Service. My Christian friends inspired me to become a more accurate representation of my faith’s ethics; their mission trips enabled me to find my own mission in this world: serving others. We do not need open Bibles to nourish the hungry, clothe the naked, or provide shelter for the homeless; we just need open hands and hearts. While I have no intentions of proselytism during my volunteering experiences, I have taken one step toward connecting to my Jewish values; through volunteering, my faith shines through the strongest.
Despite the different religious practices between Evangelical Christians and Jews, we all approach faith with a general conclusion: We want to make this world a better place. We must expand our faith to new boundaries and make social justice our global mission. In order to elucidate the degrading stereotypes that exist today, Jews should not only be encouraged, but obligated to leave their local communities and take their faith to new levels. We do not need to save souls in order to affect the world; we must utilize our faith to truly make a difference.
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