In the first of what will be many interactions with USYers throughout the year, 2015 Danny Siegel Changemaker-in-Residence Matt Fieldman met this summer with several of the groups traveling the North America with USY Summer Experience. Emphasizing USY’s core principle of tikun olam, he wanted to impress upon the USYers that they were capable of making a real difference, both in the communities they passed through this summer and at home.
He succeeded at having in a profound impact on the USYers, however; the USYers also ended up having a huge impact on him.
“What the heck am I doing here?” That’s that thought that crossed my mind as over 100 USYers stared at me, waiting to hear what I would say to spark and fuel their passion for tikun olam. A couple of days before, I had flown halfway across the country from Cleveland to Portland to meet and work with TivnUSY: Building Justice and two other USY Summer Experience trips, USY on Wheels, Bus A and Pacific Northwest. Now was my big moment–I was the keynote speaker for the evening. But rather than use my notes, I decided to improvise, because what I had seen during my time in Portland truly moved me. What I saw was a real demonstration of what it means to enact tikun olam in the real world.
Why did I chuck my notes and spend hours recreating my presentation for the teens? Simple–I saw and was moved by three values I saw the USYers demonstrate during my time there.
Tikun olam starts at home. Repairing our world can be found in our every interaction. The Tivnu teens were a diverse group, with lots of different personalities, but in moments of tension and conflict, the respect and compassion the teens showed each other was really remarkable. From my own USY experience, I remember the cliques and the power dynamics, yet among these teens, this wasn’t the case at all. Seeing the group cohesion was really inspiring for me!
As we worked to beautify the Learning Garden, a massive community educational garden run by Portland State University, one of the teens asked a great question, “Are we really making an impact by weeding this garden?” Asking probing, tough questions is critical; a real changemaker doesn’t accept the status quo, but constantly challenges the world around him or her. While the short-term impact might be very low–meaning those weeds would grow back next month and another volunteer would have to rip them out again–the purpose of our mission was to learn about how we could change the world through working with our hands.
What we learned was that despite the seeming futility of it, the fight to beautify the garden and help the fruits and vegetables grow was an important one. Lo alecha ham’lachaligmor–it’s not upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. Even though the garden would never be rid of weeds, for that one day, in that one area, we could enjoy the satisfaction of knowing we had won an important battle on behalf of the fruits and vegetables. And that was good enough.
When the USYers were asked to build a bench, one teen in particupar leaped into action, as engineering is his passion. He sketched what the bench could look like, identified what tools and materials we would need, and guided the group’s efforts. In the giant, shattered world around us, knowing what you are passionate about is the crucial first step towards fixing it. This USYer was able to find a project that excited and engaged him, and through showing leadership and in turn, engaging others, used his personal strengths to make a tangible difference.
The passion for tikun olam, accompanied by intellectual curiosity and compassion for each other, I saw firsthand in these USYers in Portland was truly inspiring. And while throwing out my notes and completely revising my presentation was a little nerve-wracking, I felt compelled to respond to the amazing things I witnessed. My experience in Portland made me truly appreciate the opportunity to be your Changemaker-in-Residence, and I hope I get a chance to meet even more inspiring teens in the weeks and months to come!
Check out all of the photos from Matt’s time in Portland and of the TivnUSYers hard at work here!
The USY Danny Siegel Changemaker-in-Residence program is funded by a generous gift from Dianne and Martin Newman of Providence, Rhode Island in memory of their parents, Sylvia and Leonard Zimet and Lillian and Morris Newman. The Newmans chose to name the program for Danny Siegel because of his tremendous impact inspiring Jewish teens to work to improve the world. A past USY International President, poet, author and lecturer, Siegel has shared his passion for “doing good” with generations of USYers, and his name has become synonymous with tikun olam in USY and around the world.