These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Dvar Tzedek

Posted on September 27, 2011 by Derek Kwait

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In Social Justice, everyone must give at least one d’var tzedek during the course of the semester. Here is my first:

I was raised by television. When I was little, we lived on a busy street with no boys, meaning instead of going outside to play, I sat inside watching TV and playing with action figures. At the age when most boys my age wanted to be athletes, I wanted to write sitcoms. When I used to have to take a break in the adventure I was acting out with my toys to go shopping with my mom, I thought of it as a commercial break on The Derek Channel.

Long story short, this background is both why I currently have a degree in fiction writing with a minor in film studies and why I am here at Pardes in the Social Justice Track. There came a time in life when I realized that I was seeing people as objects, all of life as a joke: All the world was indeed a stage, and it occurred to me I was in the audience.

I instinctively turned to Judaism, a religion I did not practice and knew virtually nothing about, for answers and learned that my tradition says men and women being created in God’s Image is less a privilege than a responsibility, that Abraham and Moses were chosen for their hospitality and concern, not just to Jews, but to everyone. I also began, among other Jewish things, reading the American Jewish World Services’ divrei tzedek online, books by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I learned that loving the stranger is the most oft-repeated injunction in God’s Law. In other words, I learned that I needed to stop watching VH-1’s I Love the 80’s Strikes Back: “1987” for the 4th time and get off my butt and help people, for God’s sake.

This led me to places and experiences that, while I never could have dreamt of them for myself before becoming religious, I now see as every bit as much of a Jewish imperative as laying tefillin: including being a Big Brother to an inner-city 7th grader; living in the InterCultural House, where students from diverse backgrounds live and volunteer together and discuss racism in America; and volunteering as an after school homework helper/reading tutor/friend for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund of Pittsburgh. I don’t think you can appreciate the value of education until you’ve tried helping a poor child whose mother is too busy doing drugs to read to her learn to read. It was awkward sometimes, being this white suburban Jewish (sometimes when feeling chutzpadik I wore a kipa to the shelters) college student joining other white people in trying to teach these overwhelmingly black kids lessons it must seem like only their white teacher wants him to learn. But it was more than worth it: A child jumping on your lap with a book asking you to read to her, gaining a child’s trust or seeing the look in his eye after you’ve made even a tiny break through with him—the feeling that comes with knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life—is the best, most transcendently rewarding thing in the world, even better than a Seinfeld rerun, and is indeed, I believe, an experience of God.

As we head into the New Year, I’ll close with this quote by Elie Wiesel that makes my point 10,000X better than I ever could:


I remember: as a child, on the other side of oceans and mountains, the Jew in me would anticipate Rosh HaShanah with fear and trembling. He still does.
On that Day of Awe, I believed then, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator.
This is still my belief.

—to be Jewish today is to recognize that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God…
A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.

Shana Tova