Lehrhaus classes probe concept of Jews as global citizens

Comedian George Carlin once mused that the best thing to come out of religion is the music. But then again, no one ever told him about tikkun olam and tzedakah, the Jewish passions for repairing the world, pursuing social justice and making a contribution.

The benefits of serving one's world and/or fellow humans are liberally sprinkled throughout the Talmud and Torah. And though the ideas are thousands of years old, a five-part Berkeley lecture series has been teaching that they're anything but anachronistic.

"The difference is that for the rabbis of talmudic times, their worlds were, in a sense, much smaller and they were more focused only on the Jewish community or the community just beyond it," said Rabbi Zari Weiss, one of the instructors of the Lehrhaus Judaica series.

"The world today is much more open than that. We're not just living in shtetls or isolated Jewish communities; we all traffic in a much broader world," said Weiss, who is also the Jewish community rabbi of the Greater East Bay. "I often teach that a lot of people talk about just being a good person, being a mensch. But I explain that the Jewish tradition teaches the concept of k'vod ha'briyot — honor of creation, honor of all created beings. That's a Jewish concept, a very rich way of seeing the world."

The lecture series, called "Jews as Global Citizens," began Oct. 24 and will conclude Dec. 19, with roughly one class every other week. Classes are being held at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

Maimonides, the 12th-century historian, philosopher, physician and rabbi, argued that the highest form of tzedakah was to give the needy the means to help themselves, according to Rabbi Joshua Saltzman, who is also a teacher in the series.

"Maimonides said that giving a beggar alms is not nearly as important as what he considered the highest form of help — giving a grant or a loan to allow him to become economically independent," added Saltzman, director of communications and outreach for the American Jewish World Service.

Saltzman and Ruth Messinger, AJWS executive director, are sharing with students how their organization puts Maimonides' words into action.

"A great deal of the work we do is in micro-credit, providing small loans for individuals, allowing them to actually go into business for themselves," said Messinger. "This is exactly as it has been prescribed in commentary on the Torah. This is the best way there is of helping a human being."

Both Messinger and Saltzman have been making the trip from AJWS headquarters in New York City to teach three of the series' five classes. While they have been imparting ideas and fostering discussion, Messinger and Saltzman have an ulterior motive — they're looking for recruits.

"In addition to learning the role of Jews as global citizens, you can also become a global citizen," said Messinger. "Obviously that's not right for everyone who's taking the course, but I hope the people who take this course will talk about doing this kind of work with people in their own communities."

These conversations, in turn, may inspire others to join AJWS' missions overseas, Messinger hopes.

The AJWS has worked to irrigate cropland in El Salvador, battle child labor in India and establish micro-credit programs in Peru, Zimbabwe and Gaza. But even for students who don't plan on venturing any farther than San Jose, there is still meaning in the course.

"I did a text study from the Talmud looking at rabbis' insights into study of the Torah and notions of sustainability, local grassroots sustainability. I think the big question on a lot of people's minds is why is this uniquely Jewish as opposed to humanitarian," Saltzman pondered.

"One thing that occurs to me is that our actions help define what it means to be a Jew. For example, when someone is helping to provide emergency relief, if you look in the sources, we're told to imitate God's behavior. One thing God does is clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Our particular action becomes a vehicle to reflect on and understand God's work in the world."

Sy Horowitz, a semi-retired Oakland engineer and author, was among 30-some students in the Oct. 24 debut class. (The series is now full.) The 70-year-old signed up because of a desire to have his "spiritual batteries recharged."

Horowitz was hardly surprised that the talmudic examples still have a bearing on everyday decisions.

"As human beings, I don't think our brains have gotten any sharper," said Horowitz. "It's always refreshing to look back and discover the wisdom people had then is relevant today."

While not yet ready to ship off to Zimbabwe, Horowitz is entertained and challenged by the class, and says it inspires him to, at the very least, be a mensch.

"I feel like I have to redouble my commitment and action to do something," he said. "Whether through any known organization like the federation or different temples and synagogues, I feel like this a sense of duty. It's a good feeling to sense that I'm being a good person and contributing something to our little world here."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.