Joel Edelson only meant to sell books to pay for college. Instead, going door to door, he became the first Jew many of the folks in a rural area he traveled had ever had met in their lives.
“I became an ambassador for Judaism,” says Edelson, president of the Mountain Synagogue in Franklin, recalling his experience in the Midwest, still vivid decades later. “Soon, people in the rural area starting telling each other about me, welcoming me into their homes, urging their neighbors to meet me. My difference from them became a way to open doors.”
In his own way, Edelson became a bridge between cultures, and by reducing prejudice, he did tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase often translated as repairing the world. Deeds both big and small can fulfill the mitzvah, or command, of tikkun olam.
“Each person carries a divine spark that can bring light into the lives of others,” says Rabbi Shaya Susskind, executive director of Chabad-Lubavitch WNC, an organization that provides social, religious and educational opportunities at The Chabad House of Asheville. “This world has to become a place where everyone feels at home. God, too, has to feel at home here. Traditions and kindness never become ancient or outdated, but are timeless.”
Setting the world right
In the Lurianic rabbinic tradition, divine sparks scattered as the vessels holding the light of creation shattered in their travels through the universe. With tikkun olam, each person has a duty to restore the world, sending those sparks back home to the creator.
“At this time of year, when it is so dark, many religions celebrate the bringing of light,” says Rabbi Rachael Jackson of Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville. “Every act of tikkun olam lightens burdens and helps set the world right.”
For some, tikkun olam means restoring the world through social action. For others, tikkun olam manifests most clearly in a warm smile shared on a cold night. Through tikkun olam and an understanding of the unity of all creation, human beings can create a better home for all beings, Susskind says.
“Tikkun olam means making the world a better home, for ourselves, for others and even for God,” Susskind says. “We can do this through philanthropy, charitable acts, extending a hand, sharing a kindness. If someone’s not feeling well, smiling or offering a kind word can be so healing. Without a doubt, who I am today as a father, a person, a spouse and a teacher, literally has been built on singular comments from parents, friends, teachers and others who took the time to care.”
A duty to help
Every individual and each branch of Judaism has a slightly different perspective on tikkun olam, but for all — be they Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — doing good for others deeply matters. It’s a duty, one of the 613 mitzvot, or obligations, for leading a fulfilling life.
“Each one of us can do something to help in this world,” says Jackson. “We can’t solve everything, but we can help. It doesn’t matter how you help, as long as you do something to heal the hurt in the heart of the world.”
Every time someone does an act of kindness, or gemilut hasadim, and every time someone gives charitably, or tzedakah, a little bit more light — long ago shattered and scattered — returns to the shining beauty of the Lord, Susskind says.
“So many times, we ourselves don’t even know when a simple, kind gesture can be completely life-changing. When we speak, we don’t quite realize the effect it can have,” Susskind says. “Sometimes a meaning we never intended can leave a person hurt, or something kind can make another person feel so much better, far out of proportion of what we intended, and it works in both directions.”
The deep-rooted commitment to tikkun olam exists at the core of religion, says Sam Hausfather, head of the Lotte Meyerson Tikkun Olam Committee at Congregation Beth HaTephila, a Reform congregation in Asheville. Making a difference to others, to the community and to the world becomes central to daily life.
“Being raised Jewish, tikkun olam is something built into you because so many of the stories and holidays emphasize that we were once slaves in Egypt,” Hausfather says. “It’s our responsibility to work for a better world so other people don’t experience that struggle.”
Social justice and sharing kindness
As Jackson says, tikkun olam is both fundraising and friend-raising alike.
“At Agudas Israel, we donate to many nonprofits, including Boys & Girls Club, the Hunger Coalition and many others,” Jackson says. “We choose different organizations each month for Mitzvah of the Month, determining what the organization needs and how we can help. We also fund the Interfaith Assistance Ministry.”
Beth HaTephila interprets tikkun olam as doing acts of social justice, Hausfather says, through supporting communities in need and advocating for issues. Groups from the congregation volunteer monthly at MANNA FoodBank, provide meals at the Veterans’ Restoration Quarters (a program of Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry) and read to preschoolers at local Head Start classes. They also work with the sanctuary movement to provide assistance on immigration issues and to give direct support to families. Many synagogues and churches, too, work with Homeward Bound’s Room in the Inn, which provides housing for homeless women in Asheville.
Sometimes, tikkun olam revolves around special holidays.
“On Yom Kippur, we have a fast day, so we all donate the food we would have eaten that day instead,” Jackson says. “On this one day in the past year, our 160 congregants at Agudas Israel donated 1,500 pounds of food.”
On the first night of Hanukkah this month, The Chabad House of Asheville hosted a ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the Chabad House on McDowell Street, which offers a new place of belonging for the Jewish community. Tikkun olam helps the whole world feel like a better place to belong, Susskind says.
“In a way, the home in our hearts becomes a portable sanctuary within us, within the hearts of each one of us and part of who we are,” Susskind offers.
Mountain Synagogue in Franklin provides a home for a Holocaust Torah, a treasure saved from ashes and despair. Tikkun olam there includes a mitzvah day, when community members gather to serve others.
“Hate is taught, so if we can learn not to teach hate, but to share kindness, then it’s a lesson learned,” Edelson says. “We always embrace new people and help in any way we can.”