Building Identity, One Roof at a Time

By Michelle Lackie

Published March 24, 2006, issue of March 24, 2006.
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To me, a well-constructed roof looks a lot like Jewish identity (“Teach Model Citizenship by Example,” March 10).

Right now, 700 Jewish college students are in New Orleans and i n Biloxi, Miss., cleaning up the damage wrought by hurricanes Katrina and Rita nearly seven months ago. The chugging of the air compressor, punctuated by the pop of nail guns, provides the soundtrack as students put roofs on dozens of homes.

The students are repairing homes, but they are also building their Jewish identity and their Jewish campus communities. The same inspiring magic wrought by Taglit-Birthright Israel in the Judean desert is taking hold along the Mississippi. As one student said, “When I stood on a rooftop in Biloxi, that was my Masada.”

Tzedek, or social justice, work is not just an expression of Jewish identity; it also can be an entry point to Jewish identity. For a student with a limited Jewish background, learning to build a roof in one day seems less daunting than mastering Hebrew. It is no wonder that today’s Jewish students, who often hold multiple ethnic identities, would prefer social justice work to religious observance: A recent study by Brandeis University’s Center for Modern Jewish Studies showed that Jewish students are more interested in “leading a moral/ethical life” and “making the world a better place” than are interested in Sabbath observance or belonging to Jewish organizations.

Whether we agree or not, actress Natalie Portman spoke for a large number of her generation when she told journalist Abigail Pogrebin: “To me, the most important concept in Judaism is that you can break any law of Judaism to save a human life. I think that’s the most important thing. Which means to me that humans are more important than Jews are to me. Or than being Jewish is to me.”

Let me be clear: Social justice work is not a replacement for religious observance or for traditional learning. Many Jewish students derive deep satisfaction from traditional forms of Jewish expression and should be supported. For many students, social justice programs, when framed in a Jewish context, can provide an immersive, meaningful Jewish experience that deepens their Jewish identity. The American Jewish World Service, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, Chabad and other groups all offer students opportunities to do social justice in a Jewish framework.

Hillel recognizes that social justice is not a monolith. The recent Spitzer B’nai B’rith Hillel Forum on Public Policy included a broad menu of approaches.

Students heard from the Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, and his Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman. They worked to make structural change in society by lobbying on Capitol Hill with our colleagues from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and they heard about grass-roots advocacy from Eric Shockman, executive director of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. They applauded the president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, for her work in Darfur, and Karen Austrian, who created the Binti Pamoja Center, a reproductive health and women’s rights center in Nairobi, Kenya. And they acquired information and skills that they will bring back to their campuses.

It’s educational to do social justice in a Washington hotel and on Capitol Hill, but it’s not enough. Much more often the face of social justice is not pretty. During a tzedek mission to Israel in January, Hillel students worked in underprivileged immigrant communities and among illegal workers. In New Orleans, one group of students worked and slept in a shelter with the homeless. In Mississippi, students grew to appreciate the convenience of porto-potties.

The Jewish community needs to give students tzedek options. At this point in their lives, students are experimenting with their identities, their political beliefs and their professions. By exposing them to a variety of social justice opportunities — conferences, internships, service-learning trips — they can learn, test, network and make informed choices, whether it’s with Hillel, the Jewish Funds for Justice, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, or another group.

For our part, Hillel is trying to shape a generation that is distinctively Jewish and universally human, proudly engaged in its tradition and in improving the world around it. Our goal is to double the number of Jewish students who are involved in Jewish life and who have meaningful Jewish experiences. By immersing young people in social justice we will teach them about their heritage, and by immersing them in their heritage we will teach them about tzedek.

Either way, they’ll learn the meaning of tikkun olam, of repairing the world. And they may never look at a roof the same way again.

Michelle Lackie is director of the Weinberg Tzedek Program at Hillel.

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