By Elana Richman, Rabbi Liz Bolton, and Robin Yasinow
Congregation Beit Tikvah
Many Reconstructionists have their most profound experiences of God through tikkun olam. It is not out of charity that they align themselves with people who are oppressed or less fortunate, but rather out of the teaching that all human beings are worthy of respect and opportunity… and tikkun olam may be the most concrete and palpable way to make God's presence manifest in our world. Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub, Exploring Judaism, p. 84
And God said, "Let us make adam in our image, after our likeness... And God created adam in God's image, in the image of God, God created adam, male and female God created them. Genesis 1: 26-27
Isaiah 5:16 teaches us that we can actually enhance holiness in the world through acts of tzedaka. We can expand the presence of the Divine in our midst through these acts of righteousness. We thereby help not only the recipients of our gifts, but our community and ourselves. Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski from RRC’s Guide to Jewish Practice, Tzedaka
Robin reflects: Since the Baltimore Interfaith Hospitality Network (a program that shelters homeless families in houses of worship) welcomed its first guests into the network in January, without any deliberate decision to substitute volunteering for structured religious observance, I haven't been to services. Fellow congregants have asked me where I've been. "I've got a lot on my plate," I explain. "I can't fit in services on top of BIHN." Lately, though, I've realized there are reasons that have nothing to do with time.
The truth is that my experience with BIHN fulfills a need that Beit Tikvah also satisfies—the desire to connect with people in a context that's relatively free of judgment about material wealth, professional status and physical appearance. But my BIHN experience also answers something that going to services does not. It engenders a sense of something infinitely bigger and more powerful than the individual.
Rabbi Liz reflects: As the spiritual resource for a congregation with many passionate Reconstructionists, as well as a few passionate atheists—sometimes embodied in the same person!—I am challenged to articulate for the whole community a vision of doing just work as an element of religious obligation or spiritual practice.
My personal guiding Biblical pasuk is the verse from Genesis. As Rabbi Arthur Green teaches, “The belief that every person is a tselem elohim or an “image of God” is the most fundamental moral claim of Judaism and its basis for a universal interpersonal ethic…[T]he universality of God’s image leads to the ethical norm of kevod ha-beriot¸ respect for all persons. Every human being has a right to such basic needs as food, shelter, work to sustain oneself without the gifts of others, and respect.” (These Are The Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life; p. 183)
The verse from Isaiah links God’s holiness to acts of justice. In this way, our IHN activities link up these two texts. Serving our guests as we do, offering this method of hospitality and shelter is not a disembodied, distant, or unengaged act of charity. It is a mutualized witnessing of the union of spirit and action. For many, IHN offers an alternative to the "white-glove" approach to tzedakah, we now open the doors of spiritual homes to those we serve, those, who like us, are created tselem elohim.
Elana reflects: We differ in the role IHN plays in our religious lives. For some who are regularly involved in tikkun olam work, Beit Tikvah’s services are a time for rest, refueling and prayer and the hospitality network is an additional way to carry out the teachings of Judaism. Some feel drawn to the IHN not only because of the importance of its work, but because it is being done in a setting where those you work with are also their because of their faith, including, or especially because, it is an interfaith group. While volunteering in a community of faith, the union of spirit and action is strong.