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In my Tulsa, Oklahoma, home in the 1950s and '60s our dinner table conversations revolved around social and political issues. As a member of a family with five children, it was often hard to get a word in edgewise as the conversations were fast and furious and the topics changed in rapid-fire manner. Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners were the best because we always had my maternal grandparents and rotating family friends who brought their opinions into the family mix. We were liberal on social issues such as civil rights, the beginnings of the women's movement, the Vietnam War, anti-McCarthyism, Brown vs. Board of Education, emerging music, polio vaccines, etc. The roots of social liberalism were laid down early by our parents at the nightly conversations that occurred from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. every evening.
As I became a parent in the late 1970s, I envisioned the same tradition occurring in my California home. Several differences were obvious--my non-Jewish husband and I only had two children, and the pace of suburban life had changed drastically over the quarter of a century since I had dined and argued the issues of the day at my parents' table. Open discussion was a goal for both my husband and me, and although we were a busy two-working-parents professional home, we tried to have dinner together no fewer than four nights a week. This practice continued until our children left for college.
During these nightly conversations we discussed a wide range of topics similar to those covered in my youth, and encouraged our son and daughter to ask questions and express their opinions about local and world issues. With two liberal parents, a liberal focus was inevitable.
Early on, our younger child, Robin, showed a keen interest in social action issues. Years before tikkun olam (reparing the world) became fashionable in Hebrew school and Bat Mitzvah preparation, Robin and her good friend Shana decided to hold garage sales for the poor. Most of the items that they decided to sell were from our house and Shana's parents' home, but we didn't care because they planned, organized, and advertised the events themselves with some help from the adults. They did this several times before they were eleven years old.
Then they moved onto collecting blankets and taking them to the Mission District in San Francisco and handing them out to homeless people. They collected money from more garage sales and solicitations and bought McDonald's gift certificates and distributed those to homeless people. Robin said, "I don't want to give money that might be wasted. I want to give an opportunity for food."
Around the time of her Bat Mitzvah Robin told us that she thought she wanted to be a social worker. It is quite common for kids to be consumed with doing good works at this time in their lives, so we nodded and said, as we always did, "You can go anywhere and do anything that you put your mind to."
When there was a requirement in middle school and later in high school to do community service, Robin chose to work in the local battered women's shelter. Instead of doing it for just the required semester, she continued there for her entire senior year in high school. She chose working with young people in a juvenile detention facility near her dorm as a freshman in college, participated in Intergroup Dialogue for Social Justice and always found the social action issues that fitted her interests throughout her educational career. The important thing to note is that Robin has always been the participant who has done the jobs without forcing everyone she knows to follow along.
There are many of us who may simply sit and discuss issues. There are others who formulate plans and policies, and then there are others who do. Robin is one who has always done. I asked her once where she got her drive and interest, and she said she wanted to be a social worker because she was lucky and fortunate to be born into a family that provided for her well-being and that she wanted to "share the wealth." The realization of how fortunate we are compared to many others originated at the family dinner table and she was "required" by her inner conscience to "give back."
Robin now holds a Master of Social Work. She works for Catholic Charities and counsels teen moms and pregnant teens in the Chicago Public Schools. She followed her early instincts to put action in front of talk. I was most pleased when she recently returned to work from her honeymoon and told me, "It was easy to go back to work when you work at a job you love."
Tikkun olam was a value my non-Jewish husband and I agreed on, and one we passed on to our children. Our daughter Robin not only learned this family value, but decided to devote her life to it.