I don’t always save the world, and that’s okay – Jewish World Watch
To any activist who might need to hear this: if you have been off activism for a while, or have been too busy helping yourself or your family to volunteer, and are worried about being criticized for that if you come back, don’t be. This was the position I was in with Jewish World Watch, and I couldn’t have been more wrong about the welcome I would receive upon my return. I might have sacrificed the chance to continue to make an impact if I had listened to this misplaced fear.
There is a quote that hangs in the boardroom of JWW’s office, saying, “You don’t have to complete the job, but neither are you free to give it up. It comes from Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of Our Fathers”, a Talmudic text. The message is one of perseverance. JWW does not have the opportunity to put “the number of genocides arrested this year” in letters to donors, and there is no expectation that the organization will have completed its mission and can close its doors. . However, not addressing the global problem does not mean that the lives of thousands of refugees cannot be saved or that even preventing a hundred out of millions of deaths is not worth fighting.
The quote was also a source of guilt for me. After participating in the Teen Ambassador program throughout my senior year of high school and leading a March to End Genocide team, I had very little involvement in JWW until I returned for an internship this summer, just before my last year of college.
I was nervous about the interview. I thought it would not be unreasonable for my supervisors to ask me what I had done to support this cause for the past three years and reject me on the basis of the answer: “not much”. I’ve tried so hard to figure this out in my life, and my commitments change every semester with an ongoing effort to balance school, career building, service, and just enjoying college. But what right did I have, in my privileged position, not to remain fully engaged in work? Maybe I just shouldn’t have reached out.
This was not the direction taken by the interview. The team was happy that I wanted to come back, which made me happy to be back, and soon I was on board, “fighting the good fight again”. I have gained so much working with JWW, and I hope during my time here I returned some of that kindness, knowledge and experience to the organization and pass it on to the survivors we support. .
At the end of this summer, Pirkei Avot will start ringing in my head again. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to allocate my time in my final year of college, and it’s going to gnaw at me that there is always more I could do to help those less fortunate than me. I think this feeling is good to have, and I don’t think it should ever go away, even for people who work full time in organizations like JWW. It is a guiding compass. However, just as a true compass will ignore a gorge without a bridge to cross it, our moral compass cannot predict the path of our lives.
There is another quote from the Talmud that I try to keep in mind at such times: “He who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world, and he who saves one life is considered having saved an entire world. It echoes the imperative to continue defending a stranger halfway around the world. However, it also means that sometimes a situation with a family member or friend will require more attention than a global crisis. Sometimes this means that the person you are in the best position to save is yourself. The Talmud teaches us that this is still the good fight.
Research confirms this interpretation. Trying to figure out my next step after graduation, I consulted with the Career Guidance Department at the Center for Effective Altruism. This evidence-based organization assesses charities and approaches to pressing global issues to help donors and volunteers maximize their positive impact. The Center’s first recommendation for a Selfless Career is to take care of your own mental and physical health, as this will make you a more effective leader and helper in the long run.
So this is what I have chosen to get involved in now, which I hope will resonate with other activists of my age. I will stay on the mailing list, contact my reps with the scripts and forms provided, and continue to have conversations and talk to people in my life about these global issues. I believe in the power of small interventions, matches that can keep a fire going and sometimes start a new one. But I also know that we need bigger and more sustained actions to change the world. So I’ll come back to JWW to donate another big chunk of my time or money. If not in the next few months, then August 2023. After all, postponing indefinitely can become infinite postponement. But my worry that this donation is not coming soon enough or that it is large enough is not at all what worries the people who receive it. I have to let go of the guilt so as not to fear future giving opportunities.
We will not give up work. And as long as we know this, no one can judge our pace, and no one asks us to finish it.
Photo: Jonah Goldberg speaks at the March to End Genocide 2018. Photo by Bill Sparks