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Socially Conscious Students Take 'Tikkun Olam' to a Deeper Level

September 17, 2009 By:
Dani Passow
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Dani Passow and friends in Senegal

Recently, along with 23 other rabbinical students from eight different seminaries, I traveled to Senegal in Western Africa on a service-learning trip under the auspices of American Jewish World Service to volunteer in two remote villages.

After arriving at the airport in Dakar, the country's capital, I approached the custom's desk. The clerk looked at me and said, "Je," which, at the time I thought was French for "you" (it actually means "I"). Senegal is a French-speaking country, and my French vocabulary consists of about three words.

So I responded, "English." He repeated, "Je." I said, "I only speak English." He pointed to the top of his head and again said, "Je." He, of course, was referring to my kipah, and was asking if I was Jewish. I said I was. He smiled and stamped my passport.

Beginning in the 15th century, Senegal was a hub for the African slave trade. Given this history, it was a relief to be viewed as a Jew, rather than a white person. Nevertheless, this encounter reinforced the question as to why was our group here. We didn't just happen to be rabbis; we were coming as part of a rabbinical student delegation.

For many in our group, our volunteering in Senegal was part of a mission of tikkun olam -- what many consider a foremost Jewish value of repairing the world through social justice. For me, an Orthodox student somewhat uncomfortable with the innovative use of what is traditionally a far more limited halachic principle, this journey was about expanding the scope of who I feel responsible toward.

I am studying to be a rabbi because I see no greater value than complete dedication to the Jewish people. Yet this singular focus can, at times, stifle my concern for humanity at large.

Upon arriving at our first village, Darou Mouride (which reminded me of Gilligan's Island only without the radio), we were greeted with an hourlong African dance session. We were told that the village elder generally forbids such exuberant displays of excitement, but that our visit made for a special celebration.

After the music and dancing died down, we made some brief introductions. Looking around, I saw women dressed in traditionally Senegalese vibrant colors; children playing and laughing; and others too sick to shoo flies attacking their infected eyes. One boy, about 4, was playing with what seemed to be a ball of sorts, but was actually cow manure.

We then got down to work. When not helping dig, move bricks or till the fields, I was able to make friends by juggling. After word got out about this small talent, children would approach me, holding three small rocks that often crumbled in my hands. I didn't see a single ball in the entire village.

On our last day at each village, we split up into men's and women's circles, where we would be able to have more intimate discussions with the villagers. We asked what people had eaten that day. It was already about 1 p.m., and one villager responded with just a cup of coffee and an egg.

A Responsibility to All 
We asked about how much people got paid, and heard from a barber who earns $6 a day, but hadn't had work in two months. The villagers shared their dreams of having medical care and living in more sanitary conditions. Some wanted to know how to get to America, but most desired to remain right there in their village.

One of the most striking images in Senegal is the garbage that's strewn everywhere. Seeing common Western labels like Nestle or Coke enforces the fact that our lives as Americans are already deeply intertwined with African continent.

That being the case, I feel that we have a deep responsibility in helping African countries overcome the many challenges they face in developing infrastructure, as well as meeting nutritional and medical needs.

As a Jew and as a future rabbi, this trip has helped teach me that my particularistic commitment to the Jewish people must be complimented by a more universalistic concern for all those created in God's image.

Dani Passow is a second-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Manhattan, where he is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow. A graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy, Dani grew up attending Lower Merion Synagogue, which he still considers his home community.

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