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Teenagers With a Mission

Evangelical Christians send students around the world to help the needy. Jews should do the same, extending tikkun olam beyond our community.

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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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Emily….you’ll find when you get to college that there are many Jewish-sponsored opportunities to do exactly these things.

onegirlrhumba says:

“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.”

You have quite a bit to learn about the colonizing, imperialist role of Christian “mission trips” and their related projects and why Jewish communities shy away from them, it seems. Many of these communities aren’t too keen on overprivileged Western White kids swooping down and patronizingly “helping” them while simultaneously denying their agency, autonomy, and cultures. Much of the “work” that these Christian mission trips do is very problematic, and I would suggest looking into the ways in which mission trips and Western volunteerism in the Global South often harms rather than helps people.

MichaelSklaroff says:

In the summer of 1966 (Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine), I traveled to Wisconsin with a youth group from the American Jewish Society for Service to help build a library building for a summer camp that included inner-city children from Chicago. AJSS has been operating for 60 years, sending small groups of young people all over the United States on work projects. Our goal then was not to proselytize on behalf of Judaism, but to put into action exactly what you ask about: “…as Jews, focusing our values toward communities outside of our own.”  Check out the AJSS here: http://ajss.org/

Richard Skeen says:

As a  parent, I appreciate hearing a young person’s POV here, but honestly am disappointed both to hear that a bright young person in a well-respected Jewish Day school is unaware of the numerous initiatives available to young Jewish people to do broad Tikkun work, or that you feel Jewish Tikkun efforts lag those of the Christians.  I admire much of the Christian out-facing work; the sheer might of the Mormon missionary effort (where in a very un-Birthright way, kids pay much of their own way to proselytize), the optimism of the various evangelical efforts in places like Africa and the wonderful work of the Catholic nuns worldwide. But surely you’ve run into a young Jewish kid or two on the UWS that has worked with AJWS in Haiti, or worked with any number of orgs working for a more just Israel, or that have done Seeds of Peace or raised money for food justice, women’s rights or any number of other worthy causes. 
You are right suggest we look at what the Christians do well, and I think any of us involved in Jewish non-profit work would agree the Universal/Particular struggle of Jewish Tikkun Olam is evolving as our young people demand (rightfully) an approach to Tikkun Olam that reflects the pluralistic, integrated, complex world in which they live. But “Be kind to the stranger in your midst” is a pretty core part of Jewish tradition, and has driven much of Jewish charity of even the clumsy, easy-to-criticize work of Federations. Kudos for a well written piece and thinking outside the box, but I’d look a little deeper for Jewish programs that do much of what you’ve suggested. 

RabbiAlexander says:

While the focus of the article is wonderful, I fear that the criticism may not be as well founded as the author believes.
My daughter’s Jewish High School in Palo Alto, CA.  sends students who are juniors and seniors to parts of the country and the world in need of service.  My daughter just got back from a significant service trip to Costa Rica.  Students have worked inside the United States in post Katrina New Orleans and in hard hit Mississippi.  Maybe the Abraham Joshua Heschel school in Manhattan needs a similar program and focus.

Elysebeth says:

Our Congregation in a suburb of Boston sends our teens on in inter-faith youth mission with the other faith organizations around town. In addition, NFTY’s Mitzvah Corp is another wonderful way for Jewish Teens to participate in service missions. There are certainly ways for Jewish teens to “Repair the World”!

Jacob Goldfarb says:

I agree with you that it is important to do good work in this country.  Jews are unwelcome in many countries of the world (see the recent article about Sweden) and it makes no sense to me to put the lives of young Jewish people on the line.
It is a shame that most of the world is not welcoming to Jews (and getting worse all the time), but that is not anything we can help by sending our youngsters into harms way. 

gemel says:

It is fine to do social good and charity, but please do not mistakenly assume that tikkun olam is about repairing the world by social action – despite that left-wing misinterpretation. 

Tikkun olam is repairing the  separation of the inner and outer world from the Shekinah; re-establishing the inner/ outer unity or wholeness with G-d. 

And that can be done through religious practices and study, through everyday life, through daily speech, family life and work, as well as charity and social activity.

Shalom Emily. It is true that being the Light to the World is a Mitzvot from HASHEM and we in the Philippines look forward in seeing more of you to show the True Light in Torah. We are a group who Loves the Torah and the ELOHIM of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we love to work with you in such noble cause. Shalom Alechiem.   

Honestly, I don’t see the value in holding up an imperialist, hegemonic religion, devoted to changing people’s innermost beliefs (Christianity) as an example for Jews, even if along the way to achieving their evil and morally reprehensible end, they also accomplish some good.  Things that make sense as a member of a majority culture just don’t apply when you are a member of a minority culture.    To be a Jew is to accept other people’s paths to God, or to justice, as fundamentally equal and legitimate if they adhere to certain minimum standards.   Where does the need to ape evangelism come from?

In my own local community there is an expectation that kids will do a “mitzva project” for some cause around their bar / bat mitzvah.  I think it’s ridiculous how much emphasis is placed on it, and would much prefer that my daughter improve her Hebrew skills, learn how to daven, read Torah, and learn how to learn Jewishly.   I’m doing what I can to draw her away from the tikun olam focus and on to basic learning.   Later in life she can engage with the world as she chooses, knowing who she is and how to be who she is.  
I think it is wrong to hold up a part of evangelist culture, on the grounds that it is admirable in itself, when the spark that animates that engagement is so deeply and aggressively disdainful of others, so totally dedicated to the illegitimacy of other faiths and religions, as is Christianity.     Christianity taints everything it touches with its aggressive dismissal of other paths to God.   There is no community of agreement about “works” and “good deeds” – we have to understand the “kavanot” that the deeds are intended to express, and when looked at in this perspective missionary work is tainted from its inception and nothing to admire.   Sure, go forth and fix the world, but do it for Jewish reasons, and understand that the efforts of Christians are not the model for us to follow.   

What’s annoying about this article is the way in which the author seems focused on keeping up with the others, rather than acting from a sense of who she is as a Jew.   We live in diverse culture and all sorts of people will do all sorts of things for their own reasons.  Don’t assume that you know those reasons, or understand their real motivations.    Based on the article, I’d guess that the author does not.

lamicofritz says:

Dear Emily, I very much enjoyed your well reflected and thoughtful article. I don’t think, that you should be so harshly wisenheimered as in some of the comments, your urge to do good and righteous deeds is very good and in many ways “a light to many of us”. While it is certainly true, that every religion has it’s own traditions of doing good deeds, and several aspects of Christian missionary work in the last 400 years were a far cry from doing charity or even enabling the people being “helped” to help themselves, the urge to help and to reflect how to best do that does not know a creed and should be blind to  denomination. Very fitting that you should be enrolled at Abraham Joshua Heschel school. Few understood the urge to apply radical ethics without reservations and coming forth from a great tradition as well as he did. To you and your project of being helpful to the needy only the best wishes, may you proceed undistracted and guided by your good heart and keen intelligence!

mouskatel says:

There are plenty of Jewish organizations that reach out to help the needy around the world: 

http://www.jhasol.org/- Jewish Heart for Africa
http://ajws.org/ American Jewish World Service.

Google is your friend. Use it before writing articles like these.

Aside from the fact that most Christian poverty assistance is missionizing in disguise. At least when Jewish organizations go to help others, they’re just going to help.

Thank you so much for your feedback!

If you had actually read the essay I diligently wrote, you will see that I actually did include AJWS, among the other organizations I emphasized and described. Thank you for introducing me to Jewish Heart for Africa, though. It looks like an incredible organization. 

I’m sure there are people who would appreciate that Google comment. I, however, see passion as my friend rather than the insight a search engine offers. I write with motivation and  hope to create positive change in the world.  I clearly could benefit from sitting for hours on Google or Yahoo, but instead, I implement those hours into voicing my thoughts to promote social justice among all religions. 

I know I am young; it’s not every day a high school student writes essays to pursue peace, but this is my passion, one that will unremittingly continue to grow almost as fast as the number of references on a search engine. 

I encourage you to share your passions too. Use your voice and help move the world forward.  

Thank you again for reading and sharing your thoughts; they are always appreciated!

-Emily Goldberg 

Why dont you read the article, before posting arrogant responses!

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Teenagers With a Mission

Evangelical Christians send students around the world to help the needy. Jews should do the same, extending tikkun olam beyond our community.

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