D’var Tikkun: A Teaching About a Social Justice Issue

By: Joelle Novey

At Tikkun Leil Shabbat (TLS) in Washington, visit DC, more than 150 people, most in their 20’s and 30’s, gather regularly on Friday evenings for songful, soulful Shabbat services featuring a teaching about a social justice issue and followed by a potluck vegetarian dinner. We emphasize social justice at each of our Shabbat gatherings by ending services with a regular teaching called a d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue).

We invite activists from organizations working in Washington on workers’ rights, domestic violence, environmental issues, LGBT equality, and more, and we place their message in our service in lieu of a d’var Torah (word of Torah). We ask each speaker to aim to speak for about eight minutes about their organization’s work and ways that TLS community members could get involved.

We’ve been delighted that in the more than three years since TLS began meeting, we’ve never had any trouble finding local nonprofit organizations that are happy to send speakers for free; in fact, we’ve only repeated organizations a couple times. Small local nonprofits seem eager to share their message and their work with TLS’s room full of potential volunteers and supporters. (While we do periodically have speakers from organizations that work nationally and internationally, our community has made a decision for now not to have any speakers from organizations working in the Middle East. While this blanket policy can feel a little blunt when we say no to groups doing environmental or anti-poverty work in Israel, the community’s organizers feel it would be too divisive for our community to venture into this area.)

When the person leading the service concludes Kaddish Yatom (the Mourner’s Kaddish at the end of Ma’ariv (evening service)), a member of the TLS community introduces each d’var tikkun by connecting a Jewish teaching and the theme of that night’s talk. Sometimes the introduction uses themes from the parasha (weekly Torah reading) or an upcoming holiday, but more often the speakers find a teaching in other Jewish texts. Even with that freedom, it can be a challenge to find a Jewish text that speaks to issues addressed by organizations doing very specific work in a modern context, such as the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (which is working to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the US military). The congregation, though, seems to enjoy listening for the creative hook that he or she will use to make a Jewish connection to the organization’s work.

For example, some introductions have used the halachah (religious law) about feeding one’s own animals before eating one’s own meal in an introduction to a d’var tikkun by Pets DC, which provides pet care for people with AIDS. Another quoted a contemporary Jewish poem by Merle Feld in which an Israelite woman regrets that she could not record her experiences of receiving the Torah at Sinai because “I was always holding a baby” as an introduction to a d’var tikkun by the DC Childcare Collective, which provides free childcare for low-income women of color to enable their participation in activist organizations. We’ve heard the Talmudic story of Rabbi Hillel getting inadvertently excluded from the Beit Midrash (house of study) as an allegory for the exclusion of Washington DC citizens from full representation in the House and Senate; and we’ve heard a line from Psalm 130, “my soul waits for G-d more than those who keep watch wait for dawn” quoted in an introduction to a d’var tikkun from SEIU Local 32BJ, which fights for better wages and working conditions for security guards, who keep watch in area office buildings.

Since many of our d’var tikkun speakers are not Jewish or are not familiar with Jewish prayer communities, we’ve developed a fairly detailed email to help them know what to expect. We describe our demographics and assure them that people dress all kinds of ways for TLS; they don’t need to dress up on our account. We let them know that some folks in our community do not write on Shabbat, so we’d appreciate if they were mindful of that diversity of practice in their comments (“If you write on Shabbat, there’s a sign-up sheet on the table; otherwise, please help yourself to a brochure and contact our organization by email after Shabbat.”) We’ve also learned from experience that the speakers sometimes fish around for the right way to end their talks. So we suggest that it would be appropriate to conclude by saying, “Shabbat Shalom.” When our speakers are activists who are Jewish but are not involved in any Jewish prayer community, they seem to appreciate the recognition that TLS is providing to the moral importance of their work; sometimes Jewish activists who discover our community because they have been asked to speak return to pray with us at subsequent TLS services.

The organizations bring paper materials that are displayed at an information table throughout the evening and continue to be available on the information table at subsequent services. Attendees can also peruse a “voices of Tikkun Leil Shabbat” binder with information from each of the organizations that has given divrei tikkun (words of justice; sermons). After Shabbat, we send a “Leading to Action” email to our full email list with ways to support the group we learned about in that week’s d’var tikkun. This way, people who attended TLS receive another reminder about how to follow up with each organization through their website or by emailing the speaker, as well as sharing the d’var tikkun with the several hundred folks on the TLS email list who do not attend every TLS. (The email’s name quotes Talmud Kiddushin 40b, which asks, “Which is greater, study or action? … Study is greater, for it leads to action.” Each email opens with a reminder that “The learning we receive from our divrei tikkun on Shabbat can lead to action during the rest of the week.”)

We’ve tried to keep track of good stories about ways TLS participants have gotten involved in social action through hearing divrei tikkun. Our attendees have volunteered, donated, and attended rallies and other events after learning about local efforts at our services. Tikkun Leil Shabbat is also a program of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), and divrei tikkun have connected many attendees with opportunities for activism through JUFJ. When Tikkun Leil Shabbat organized our first Purim celebration last spring, laptops were set up so that attendees could donate to any of the organizations that had given divrei tikkun over the past year as matanot la’evyonim (gifts to the poor). In a very transient community, we feel that TLS’s divrei tikkun familiarize many transplanted young adults with some of the organizations doing good work in DC’s neighborhoods, weaving them into the life of the place where they live.

Through the practice of the d’var tikkun, our small congregation is making a powerful statement. Those who attend TLS hear a call to action at every gathering of our Jewish prayer community. We’ve quietly placed words of instruction for repairing the world in our services in place of a more conventional d’var Torah, and in the process, are shaking up what “counts” as a sacred teaching.

Joelle Novey attended her first NHC Summer Institute as an Everett Fellow in 2000, and coordinated the Chesapeake Retreat in 2006.

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