Recently, a friend of mine passed by a blood drive organized by a Jewish institution in New York. The banner hanging above the tables read: Give Blood—Do Tikkun Olam! “Really?” my friend thought to herself. “You’re equating giving blood with pursuing social justice? Call it chesed—kindness—that makes sense. But tikkun olam?”
In case you haven’t noticed, tikkun olam—literally, repairing the world—has become a bit of a buzzword. It’s grown especially popular in the organized Jewish world, which is keener than ever to keep young American Jews engaged and affiliated. Because recent studies show that social justice ranks high among the priorities of these Jewish twenty-somethings, community leaders are capitalizing on the concept’s appeal to keep their youngest constituents plugged in.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ speech at the opening plenary of the JFNA General Assembly today was emblematic of this approach. He began with a slew of questions that he believes plague the parents of Jewish millennials: “Why aren’t our young people more like us? Why don’t they go to synagogue? Why don’t they give to Federation? Why don’t they stand up for Israel?” His answer: Young Jews care about social justice, and because they don’t see that concern reflected in the organized Jewish world, they’re distancing from their religious identity.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, cited a Pew Research Center poll, “‘Nones’ on the rise,” which found that “the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today.” These numbers are frightening for Jewish leaders like Jacobs, but—as the rabbi hastened to point out—they’re not without an antidote. In another survey, this one by the Public Religion Research Institute, 72 percent of respondents cited tikkun olam as a cornerstone of their Jewish identity. By way of comparison, only 20 percent cited support for Israel.
Clearly, then, the way to get young Jews involved is to lure them with the cachet of the social justice movement.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that the American Jewish community is re-upping its commitment to social justice issues. As I wrote elsewhere, the organized Jewish world was once admirably vocal on everything from civil rights to labor unions, and it’s refreshing and heartening to see a return to that ethos. But placing that ethos at the forefront of a campaign to ensure Jewish continuity should still make us uncomfortable, both because tikkun olam is not the sum total of Judaism, and because social justice should be an end in itself, not the handmaiden of continuity.
So please, let’s not make tikkun olam into a portmanteau of all that is good and valuable and interesting about Judaism. Let’s not try to squeeze everything decent—including donating blood—under that rubric, just because we think it’ll help sell Judaism to the next generation. And please, please, let’s not talk about the pursuit of social justice as if its truest, most exalted purpose is to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. Because, last I checked, it was the other way around.