This couldn’t be a #TBT article without some old family high holiday pictures looking our best. Rosh Hashanah 2000

By Liza Moskowitz, MHWOW Program Manager

“Because I said so.” – Mom vs. “Because I said so.” – Me

Same words yet wildly different meaning.

I asked myself, “What happens to holiday observances or Jewish practices when we take ownership of them? What happens when I decide to make tikkun olam a priority during not only the high holidays but throughout the rest of the year?”

Without realizing, food insecurity, taking time away from “normally scheduled programming,” and storytelling were integral parts of my high holiday experiences, and now as an adult, I can amplify my impact in these areas.

Fighting Hunger & Food Insecurity

I have vivid memories of the annual Yom Kippur food drive at my childhood congregation, Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX. We always returned 4 paper bags (one for each child in my family) filled with non-perishable food items. My sister even started the food drive at their new congregation to benefit the Houston Food Bank, the largest Feeding America food bank in the country.

There are certain elevated times of giving throughout the year, but the need never lessens. So let’s ask ourselves – how can we amplify our impact not only during the high holiday food drives but throughout the rest of the year?

Our work to alleviate hunger as Jews is grounded in text. Leviticus 23:22 states:

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to edges of your field, or gather the gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I the Eternal am your God.”

The Talmud explains that each Jewish community must establish a public fund to provide food for the hungry, and our sages explain that feeding the hungry is one of our most important responsibilities on earth:

“When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and your answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.” (Midrash to Psalm 118:17).

Fortunately, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is putting these ancient texts to work in modern times. The organization takes a holistic approach in education, advocacy to strengthen federal nutrition programs, partnership grants to support the work of other organizations, and strategic initiatives to address emerging issues.

This infographic (with 6 others available), curated by MAZON, provide context to how hunger is increasingly becoming more widespread in both the United States and Israel. 

We know hunger is a Jewish issue and it’s impacting people probably in our backyard. So, now what?

3 Ways to Use MHWOW to Amplify Your Impact

  1. Are you hosting a break fast for your peers on Yom Kippur? Dedicate your meal. We are blessed to have the choice to skip meals and go hungry as part of our observance. However, this feeling is a reality for others who are challenged daily by hunger. Include the MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger infographics above to your meal and carve our dedicated time to explain why this organization is important.
  2. Host a book club to discuss Mazon Bookshelf materials. Carefully-selected fiction and non-fiction books are listed by MAZON. You have the opportunity to submit a review to the organization while they are developing discussion guides. There are even works selected for children if you are interested in looking at how social justice issues are explained to the next generation.
  3. Host a “This is Hunger” impact story night. With 8 different stories to read through, you can print them out and create your own gallery walk through your home with posters. Hang up each story with enough space for your peers to respond, ask questions, or identify connections to the people they are learning about. Bonus for our Los Angeles area hosts – the “This is Hunger” permanent exhibit space is in Encino, CA.

Rosh Hashanah 2002

Disrupting our “Normally Scheduled Programming” for Direct Service

I would always be upset when a holiday fell on Friday night because services were extra long. On top of that, I couldn’t miss school.

However, I didn’t recognize that we were disrupting our “normally scheduled programming” to take time for the holidays. This was important to my dad, and ultimately me as a kid because I didn’t have a choice. He would explain in his father-like tone while looking through the rearview mirror driving to synagogue, “This is how we live a Jewish life. Making time for something and sticking to it is important to our Jewish identity.”

Unfortunately, it’s easy to breeze past them as adults. What if we took dedicated time to intentionally disrupt our schedules to live a Jewish life another way? Through tikkun olam and direct service?

It could be taking a day off from work. Instead of packing your lunch for your lunch break, what if you went to the food bank and packed lunch for others? It could even be taking a “day off” from the weekend! For me, instead of going to a workout, I would love to find more time to go volunteer with one of my favorite organizations, Girls on the Run – Chicago.  

Steps to “Disrupt Your Normally Scheduled Programming”

1. Identify & Prioritize that Time

Every year you hear, “When is Rosh Hashanah? When did you say Yom Kippur is next week?” I attribute the confusion to the lunar calendar, but we ask these questions because these dates are important. Instead, what if we asked, “When are we volunteering? When are we going to give back?” We should ask those same questions because giving our time in a meaningful way should be important too.

We can’t say, “Can we reschedule Rosh Hashanah this year? That Wednesday is really inconvenient for me.” How absurd does that sound? Identify the time and stick to it.

2. Identify a cause that is important to you

Finding a cause you are passionate about might seem overwhelming in today’s world because so many issues are important. Should you work on the environment? What about racial inequality? Gun violence prevention? Voting rights? If you think like this, hard stop.

Complete this simple activity:

  1. Draw 1 circle. Inside this circle, write your strengths or things you like to do. Are you a strong writer? Are you strong in organizing? Do you have a lot of friends who want to make an impact?
  2. Draw a second circle. Inside this circle, write the causes you care about. The causes could be any of the ones I mentioned above or others.  
  3. Connect the two circles and see which of your skills could have the most impact on a cause. From there, create action items.

Don’t send yourself into a tailspin. If you care about the cause, you are more likely to motivate your peers to make a difference with you. And who’s to say that you and your peers all need to care about the same thing? Everyone in your community can be a champion of what they care about. Start a rotating monthly volunteer group where someone brings forth a different issue to address your local community. This brings me to step #3.

3. Stop caring about a “1-Time Volunteer Opportunity vs. Long Term Impact”

I hear all the time, “Am I really making a difference if it’s a 1-time opportunity? I would rather make a long term impact.” My answer is that BOTH are great.

Your 1-time opportunity might be the catalyst an organization needs to get something moving. My most recent 1-time volunteering opportunity with Girls on the Run had us stuffing coaches packets and folders. My volunteer contact was so appreciative because we gave her the ability to focus on training and curriculum modification rather than the administrative work. My 4 friends were able to tackle close to 400 folders and packets in less than 3 hours; whereas this task would have taken her days.

Single volunteer organizations can keep you connected to the organizations that you care about when long-term opportunities aren’t feasible in the moment. Volunteering in any capacity is better than not volunteering at all.

Sermons & Storytelling

I don’t remember much about the sermons I listened to as a child other than what my mom deemed the “sermon exodus” – the mass exit after the sermon was over so people could get out of the parking lot quicker.

Sermons often weave together present day challenges with ancient teachings or historical examples through a storytelling narrative. We hope we can learn about our past and present through stories to apply pertinent lessons to our future. Stories in Judaism are not only contained to high holiday sermons. Storytelling is engrained in Judaism; after all, we are the “people of the book.” What decisions can we make today to keep storytelling alive? Do we need to wait to hear lessons once a year? I have one word for you: podcasts.

Podcasts: A New Age for Storytelling

You might be asking yourself, so what good I am doing in the world by listening to podcasts? Staying educated. Education is included in Moishe House’s tikkun olam definition. Education equips individuals with background information about a particular cause or issue affecting a society. To have a real impact on an issue, it’s crucial for a group to understand the underlying causes and history of that topic.

An Institute of Southern Jewish Life Education fellow wrote in her article Listening to a New Twist on the Storytelling Tradition, “Through listening to all these stories, I am able to become more appreciative of the Jewish tradition of storytelling and the richness that it can bring to all of our lives.”

In Stories We Tell, a podcast from the Reform Movement, a different story is shared every Thursday. With episodes usually less than 10 minutes long, different stories and lessons can be learned in a shorter time than it takes to commute to work.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency put together a list of the “Top 7 Jewish Podcasts” for all to enjoy. You’ll know have a tid-bit of Jewish learning between your weekly episodes of “The West Wing Weekly” and “My Favorite Murder.”

You don’t need to wait once a year to hear about Judaism from your rabbi’s sermon because the Jewish space is catching on. Luckily for us, there are dozens of people talking about particular issues monthly, weekly, or even daily.

In a recent MHWOW tikkun olam survey, many hosts asked for more resources toward tikkun olam programming. The high holidays are an excellent time for reflection and planning toward a bright future, and this article can help you with your programming.

  • If you were looking for different content areas to program on, try hunger and food security with the MAZON resources.
  • If you were looking for tips and tricks on how to get started with direct service, you just need to disrupt your regularly scheduled programming with things like www.volunteermatch.org.
  • If you were looking to infuse social justice practices into your everyday life, stay educated. Challenge yourself to find a new podcast on an issue you want to learn about. It’s truly easy and accessible.  

Incorporating Tikkun Olam into your high holiday season can be easy because you’ve probably been doing it since you were a kid without realizing. Imagine the impact you can now made as not only a young adult but also a MHWOW host.