How Can We Enact Jewish Values?

Madeline Albright

Madeleine Albright speaking at the Consultation on Conscience conference

We live in a world of infinite choices, from the most minute (the sheer volume of restaurants that will deliver dinner within an hour), to the most important (the multitude of ways, places and communities in which we can express our values and sense of identity). With whom do we spend our time? What kinds of communities are important for us to belong to? How and to where do we donate money? All of these choices are an expression of our values, whether we know it or not.

Often we make choices out of convenience: which pre-school is closest to our home, has the best hours alongside their educational pedagogy and general warmth? And we make choices out of comfort or lack thereof: I’m not sure my Catholic spouse would feel comfortable joining a synagogue as a family, even though we have decided to raise our children as Jews, and we’re not sure it’s worth the hefty price tag if we don’t really feel welcome … AND we’re not sure about the God thing … AND we have found other types of non-religious communities that share our values.

I have heard from so many of my peers of all religious backgrounds that they are no longer moved by ritual or what they remember of religious community and spiritual life but do want to express their sense of religious values in other ways. (I must mention that as a rabbi, someone who does still find great meaning in ritual, music and synagogue community, that I am saddened by this trend. There are so many amazing synagogue communities that are constantly striving to evolve and create meaning for all generations in a great number of ways!)

A Jewish friend of mine takes his family to a soup kitchen twice a month to volunteer and takes the time to explain to his children that this is how they enact their Judaism: by feeding people who are hungry, by welcoming the stranger as Abraham and Sarah did, by “praying with their feet” as Abraham Joshua Heschel said about his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. I imagine there are many others who also find similar value in these kinds of social justice/social action choices and have chosen this form of prayer, of meaning making, of religious expression over organized religious practice.

There is so much power in action, in getting up and doing something, in making even one person’s life better in real time, if only for a moment.

Two weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington, D.C., created by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism called, Consultation on Conscience. The goal of this conference is first to educate those who attend about the political and justice issues that our country is facing through high level speakers and conversation and secondly to provide tools to take back to individual communities to help galvanize increased involvement on these issues through a Jewish lens.

The issues ranged from Iran’s nuclear capabilities to environmental protection and marriage equality to fighting poverty. A third goal, easily achieved, was that of inspiration. I certainly left feeling not only a sense of pride to be involved and connected with people working to make our country and world a better place, but also inspired to find more ways to enact my Judaism through justice work. I was profoundly moved by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization enacting justice by attempting to rectify the injustice in our justice system, one case, one person at a time. (Check out his TED Talk here if you are looking for a bit of inspiration. And you can see his RAC conference talk here. He begins 51 minutes in.)

I told many people after hearing his incredible stories and message that I would like to just follow him around for a while. (I’d even hold his bags, just to see him make the world better and more just, one person at a time.)

I get it, action is powerful. But so is community. Bryan doesn’t work alone, and neither do any of us. It is so important for each of us, for our families, to raise our voices for those things we believe in alongside moving our feet, and we have learned that the song sounds a bit sweeter in a choir and the dance always works a bit better with another person; the power of community.

The choices we make come from many sources and many needs but they do reflect our values and how we understand our identity and place in the world. Our children remember and learn from the things they feel a part of along with the things we teach them. We are stronger and can do more together.

So my question for you is: How do you enact your values (or how do you WANT to start)?

Relief in the Summer Months


Donating foodI am trying to raise my kids to think more about the world than their next playdate, TV show or snack. Recently a friend decided to host her 40th birthday party at a food distribution warehouse for the hungry. My first thought was, I’d rather take my friend out for a drink to toast her birthday, but I knew this was a nice thing to do. I thought about bringing a gift for her but I will do that another time. Little did I realize, I was the one to receive the real gift.

It was a Sunday morning on a beautiful day. My kids wanted to swim, sleep, watch TV… anything but go to the food warehouse. Through some serious and exhausting negotiation, I was able to encourage my oldest child to go with me.

In the warehouse, there are lots of smiling volunteers handing out cans and boxes of food to other volunteers holding boxes. Once the boxes are filled, they are closed and given to volunteers to distribute locally. I heard the requests over the loudspeaker to come and sign up for a route to deliver boxes to the elderly. My son and I hadn’t planned on delivering boxes. The boxes are a little heavy and, well, he’d rather be swimming. Frankly, so would I. But we decided that these boxes needed to be delivered and so we stepped up to get our list and directions to the address building where we would be delivering food.

When we arrived, we saw lots of people in the apartment building going out for the day and receiving Sunday visitors. What surprised me was that I drive by this building a few times a week. I never knew that there were hungry people living there. But there are. And the people in the building look just like my parents, aunts and uncles. Retired, happy. But some of them don’t have enough food to eat. I realized that one day that person without enough food to eat could be me. Or it could be you.

I dutifully delivered the boxes and suddenly wished I could do more. I thought about how lucky I am that I don’t worry at the grocery store about whether there will be enough money to pay for the food. It certainly puts life in perspective. And last night, I slept better than I would have, had I just gone swimming all day. Once again, by giving, I ended up receiving so much more through an increased level of appreciation for all that I have.

In Judaism, there is a concept of tikkun olam—repair the world. It happens that the organization that coordinated the food distribution is the Jewish Relief Agency based in Philadelphia. The organization distributes food once a month throughout the Philadelphia area. Many of the hungry folks are immigrants but some are not. Many are Jewish but some are not. (Click here to learn about upcoming dates to volunteer with JRA.)

In this crazy time of graduations, camp and vacations, repairing the world is important to remember. It also helps us repair a little of ourselves!