Half a century after John F. Kennedy’s death, our country is again in need of healing. Trust in government is low; our political discourse has disintegrated; and the spirit of “ask not what your country can do for you” is less visible than it should be. Yet there is hope. This week we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Camelot’s end, and I believe a fresh emphasis on the values JFK expressed — Jewish values, in a sense — can bring us back on track.
I was not alive when Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. In fact, I wasn’t born for another 20 years. But I’ve nonetheless become fascinated by his presidency and the idea that there was a certain theme underlying all of his speeches and actions: citizenship.
At its core, the “new frontier” was about challenging Americans to be good citizens — to remind us that we belong to a community larger than ourselves, and that with our rights come certain responsibilities.
In the Jewish tradition, this teaching is familiar. We are commanded to do mitzvot — to promote a spirit of tzedakah — to lift one another up through words and deeds as we seek to repair our broken world. In short, we are similarly tasked with being good citizens.
Kennedy’s vision for a better America offers the secular framework for the fulfillment of tikkun olam. The major initiatives of his presidency — including, for example, the Peace Corps, the space race and civil rights — reflect his recognition not only that we have an obligation to seek progress and help others, but that each of us has the ability to participate and do so.
Of course, Kennedy did not expect all individuals to join the Peace Corps or become an astronaut or participate in the Freedom Rides. But he did try to foster this mindset of service — to challenge Americans to live up to their potential and embrace opportunities to be a positive force in society.
It is this element of his legacy — this emphasis on selflessness and repair of the world — that resonates most deeply today. It can take the form of helping an elderly neighbor with the groceries, mentoring someone with special needs, recycling, carpooling to benefit the environment, donating money to charity, running for office, volunteering for an organization, joining the PTA, helping at a local hospital, teaching children about character, working in a soup kitchen, choosing a career that advances an important public interest, and so much more. This is citizenship in action.
Today, we need more of this emphasis on community and collective responsibility. Though the world we inhabit in 2013 is starkly different from the one Kennedy left behind in 1963, the message of Camelot remains timely because it is timeless: No matter what the circumstances, we each have the power to be a good citizen and choose to make a difference.
As we confront great challenges and seek to move beyond the current political bickering, let us be reminded of this special time in our history when Americans felt a sense of shared promise and destiny — the feeling that tomorrow can be improved through our effort today, and that each of us can make this world a little bit better.
This sentiment is the foundation upon which our devotion to tikkun olam must always rest, and it is something that Kennedy intuitively understood. To heal our nation, we must re-dedicate ourselves anew to this enduring legacy, and JFK’s message can still guide us. He matters now more than ever — especially to a new generation yearning for a time when we can once again be inspired to ask what we can do for our country.
Scott D. Reich, an attorney from Long Island, is the author of The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation. Follow him on Twitter @ScottDReich and visit his website at scottdreich.com.