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United Shabbat for Darfur: I like the concept but find me an orthodox synagogue that cares across the country will be dedicating their upcoming Shabbat services to raising awareness of the genocides and atrocities taking place in Darfur.

Spearheaded by the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the nationwide unified Shabbat, which will take place over the Shabbat of Jan. 22-23 (Parashs Bo), will be the first of its type in about nine years as well as the first time such an initiative will be taken for a non-Jewish cause.

I discovered this event while reading a story about it in the Toronto Star yesterday morning.

The article stated that:

“Rabbis across the country have been asked to dedicate their services to Darfur, to encourage their congregations to get involved, and to hand out pamphlets from Darfur organizations – including the CJC Darfur Action Committee.”

That pamphlet is also available on the CJC’s website (and by clicking this link.)

But beyond outlining the purpose the Shabbat, the article also quoted CJC national executive director Benjamin Shinewald, who said “because of own history of persecution, Jews feel an affinity to those targeted in Darfur, while the basic tenets of their faith compel them to take action.”

According to a CJC press release about the shabbat, the date was chosen because it falls a few days before the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (Jan. 27). The release also stated the “CJC’s intent is to use the date to say that the world’s apathy to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust means that as Jews we must speak out against what is going on in Darfur.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I think this is a great idea. That a large Jewish organization can exercise its focus and support on a large and worthy international cause is a commendable thing, especially when the cause has nothing to do with Jews and the problems facing the Jewish community. That itself is recognition of unity when there’s a lack of entitlement to focus on internal community problems, or should I say a lack of problems to deal with, thus targeting that unity on world scale problems. It’s tikkun olam without question.

But as much as I want to believe that this kind of initiative will reverberate throughout all synagogues and communities in Canada, this is where my optimism comes to a halt. And that last breath of optimism is taken right outside the doors leading into my orthodox synagogue.

Not to say that my specific orthodox shul won’t care – every synagogue is obviously different in how they approach any kind of matter (hence the proliferation of shul politics). I just don’t see orthodox synagogues caring too much to be a part of this initiative. I genuinely believe this, which is very unfortunate. (And I haven’t spoken to anyone from my synagogue about this as of writing this post.)

There are two reasons for my take on this:

1) It’s not that they don’t care, of course tikkun olam is a meritorious undertaking, I believe that in orthodox synagogues, other matters take precedent – the community & the individual.

After becoming religious to me, it seemed very clear that two “Jewish things” reform and conservative Jews cared about was tikkun olam and Israel of course. Having been religious for a few years now and after gaining different perspectives in interacting and observing the activity of various types of Jews, clearly this notion wasn’t the entire story of reform and conservative Jews (and no disrespect to the work they do in those fields – they are vital to the progress of the Jewish people and hard work and dedication should be universally valued). My point is that with orthodox Jews, there’s this completely different undertaking of responsibilities and values that have high priority levels. That can vary from davening, learning, kosher supervision, to matchmaking (even that too). Once again, this isn’t meant to diminish the work of non-religious Jews, it’s merely an emphasis of how Judaism is valued on a different day-to-day scale with orthodox Jews. (Not better, different!! No Jew is greater than another).

To put things in a more simple way, orthodox Jews feel the need to take care of themselves before taking care of others. And how do you define “taking care” of yourself? I would answer that by the maintainance, or better yet the progress of one’s hashkafa (one’s personal inner spirit; it’s the direction and strength of their faith). And once that’s taken care of, that list of “others” usually has fellow Jews at the top of that list.

And it just comes off as tikkun olam is not that important.

Or maybe the application of tikkun olam is achieved through different means and methods as we see with Darfur Shabbat. This brings me to reason #2:

2) The way the CJC is doing this simply doesn’t fit the mold of how orthodox communities want to approach tikkun olam.

When I was in yeshiva, I was appalled to learn that Yom Hashoah would not be commemorated. The rationale from my rosh yeshiva was that observant Jews don’t views acts like standing for a moment of silence as effective ways of commemorating the lost souls from the Holocaust. He said a better way was to learn and pray in their merit, which is an everlasting act of building up a nesham (soul) in merit even after it has left the physical body.

While the above example may not explain why orthodox shuls won’t take part in the United Shabbat, it does show that observant and non-observant Jews clearly have different ways of engaging in public actions such as tikkun olam, while hoping for the same result.

While the CJC may think it’s effective to have synagogues passing around literature about Darfur on Shabbat, some rabbis may find it ineffective.  There’s a reason the “two synagogues, three opinions” joke is so funny – it’s true!

And to argue with semantics, CJC is a member of a family of national Jewish organizations that come under the umbrella of the United Israel Appeal Federations Canada. Being under the umbrella of the UJA, you don’t have to look far to find examples of disagreements with UJA actions and practices. Heck, B’nai Brith doesn’t even agree with everything they do.

But looking beyond the reform and conservative movements’ infatuation with tikkun olam (or lack thereof from the orthodox movements), I still believe the initiative is a great idea. The Jewish community has a great opportunity to conspire others to take action and take awareness of the atrocities going on around the world.

So now that I have attacked the supposed unity of the Jewish community, I would like to reverse that notion and challenge the orthodox communities of Canada. Throw away the politics and take part in the United Shabbat. I don’t care if that participation lacks future commitments or comes off as face time. It’s worse to avoid the problem then it is to argue over how to solve it. In the end, there isn’t a soul who believes what’s going on in Darfur isn’t atrocious. We should know this best with the Holocaust and the rest of devastation that has shaped our Jewish history.


9 thoughts on “United Shabbat for Darfur: I like the concept but find me an orthodox synagogue that cares”

  1. See letter below from 2006 sent by the Orthodox Union (Orthodox congregational association) and the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) to then President Bush on the plight of Darfur. One should not rush to judgement.


    Orthodox Union

    OU/RCA Letter To President Bush Praises His ‘Strong and Principled Stand’ On Darfur Atrocities
    The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, representing hundreds of Orthodox rabbis and congregations, today wrote to President Bush to “commend” his “strong and principled stand concerning the atrocities being perpetrated on innocent people of Darfur.”

    The letter was signed by Stephen J. Savitsky, President, and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President, of the Orthodox Union; and by Rabbi Dale Polakoff, President, and Rabbi Basil Herring, Executive Vice President, of the Rabbinical Council of America.
    (NOTE: The President of the OU and RCA is the volunteer leader of the organization; the Executive Vice President is the chief professional.)

    The text of the letter is as follows:

    April 6, 2006

    Dear Mr. President,

    The Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, representing many hundreds of Orthodox Rabbis and congregations, commend you for your strong and principled stand concerning the atrocities being perpetrated on innocent people of Darfur.

    Our tradition teaches the transcendent value of even a single human life, a value rooted in the fact that each person is created in the image of God. The Passover season reminds us that we, too, were victims of tyrants, in the same region of the world. Moreover, our own history teaches us the bitter lesson of what happens when the world is silent in the face of genocide.

    Our rabbis have joined with other clergy to publicly call attention to these horrors; we have urged all possible efforts to stem the violence; and we continue to mobilize our communities to stand up — and not stand by — while innocent blood is shed. It is indeed heartening to hear the powerful voice of the United States government and its Chief Executive placing their weight behind this important collaborative effort.

    We will continue to work in every way we can to prevent genocide in the Sudan.

    May the Almighty bless the work of our collective hands, help avert this disaster, and bring to justice those who perpetrate and countenance such evil.

    1. Thanks for posting the letter. However, my issue lies with Canadian orthodox synagogues joining hand-in-hand with other synagogues as part of the Darfur Shabbat initiated by the Canadian Jewish Congress. Any orthodox Jew – who wouldn’t stand up and say what’s going on in Darfur is terrible – is ignorant and misled. (I think we both agree on that.)


    “To put things in a more simple way, orthodox Jews feel the need to take care of themselves before taking care of others. And how do you define “taking care” of yourself? I would answer that by the maintainance, or better yet the progress of one’s hashkafa (one’s personal inner spirit; it’s the direction and strength of their faith). And once that’s taken care of, that list of “others” usually has fellow Jews at the top of that list.”


    Where do you find a single source in all of Jewish literature that can defend such a selfish attitude – and a hillul hashem to boot!

    1. marky j:
      You tell me if it came down to a Jew helping a Jew or a Goy, who wouldn’t help the Jew first?
      Yes, it’s an insensitive response, which it pains me to write, but even though we constantly say that no Jewish soul is more valuable than another, we don’t apply that same logic alongside Goyim (whereas if it was between two Goyim – the concept works since how can you truly judge the life of one Goy over another.)
      As for “the selfish attitude,” one of the most important lessons I learned from one of my rabbis in yeshiva was to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. And while that task itself is a lifelong journey, obviously we eventually reach a comfort level where we can appropriately utilize our time and efforts beyond our personal needs. And don’t forget, this is just my opinion, which is neither right nor wrong. It’s a conclusion I’ve drawn from my own experiences and interactions with other Jews.

      1. I asked for a source. You don’t have one.

        There is no such thing as ME coming before THEM.
        The whole goal is tikkun OLAM…that’s how YOU grow!

        You can’t say that the WAY to become selfless is to be selfish for a long time!!!!

        It’s the other way around!!! Being selfless is the most selfish thing in the world….you will grow so much more.

        Just because you and your rabbi have an opinion does not make it correct or Judaism.

      2. “And don’t forget, this is just my opinion, which is neither right nor wrong.”
        Clearly, you forgot because you’re still claiming that what I’ve written is the absolute truth, no questions asked, which I EXPLICITLY said it’s not correct.
        As for a source:
        “It’s a conclusion I’ve drawn from my own experiences and interactions with other Jews.”
        Clearly, I haven’t drawn my conclusions from a tangible source since I didn’t say I did in the quote above.
        So let me make this very clear to you before you twist my words and try to ex-communicate me from Judaism:
        The sources for my opinion are my experiences and interactions with other Jews.
        And you seem to have all the answers. And everything you say is the absolute truth. I’d ask you for a source, but at this point I think it’s unnecessary because you’ve clearly convinced yourself that everything you type is the truth. And because of that, it allows to overlook what other people are saying because chas v’shalom, it contradicts the almighty truth.
        I’m not trying to denigrate what you’re writing. I AGREE WITH WHAT YOU’RE SAYING! I just think your approach is quite arrogant and demeaning.
        Yes, I agree- There is no such thing as ME coming before THEM – Having that Me vs Them attitude is what creates those divisions between people and attributes to identifying people on an totem poll of inferiority. That only causes rifts.
        Yes, I agree – THE ONLY REASON TO FOCUS ON LEARNING IS TO TEACH – What purpose is there to keep the knowledge to yourself? If you read a sefer or a piece of scripture, clearly it was written for the purpose of YOU reading it to learn. And so the cycle continues and the knowledge is passed down from generation to generation – which began at Har Sinai and is nicely outlined in Pirkei Avos (there’s a source for you!)
        Yes, I agree- The whole goal is tikkun OLAM…that’s how YOU grow! – At the end of the day, the healing of the world is what matters. And by helping others, you help yourself. Nothing foreign or not-Jewish being heard here….
        Where we do disagree is right here: “You can’t say that the WAY to become selfless is to be selfish for a long time!!!!” Tell me exactly where I said that! If it’s when I talked about my rabbi’s lesson, than you misinterpreted that message. Taking care of yourself is NOT BEING SELFISH. Not everyone is completely confident, prepared nor intelligent enough to simply put on a cape and call themselves “Captain Tikkun Olam” (you’ve probably claimed that title anyway.) As wonderful and as idealistic it may be to focus solely on tikkun olam, you have to know what you’re doing and have some smarts as well. Even Avraham Avinu, who even though Midrashim portrayed him as having logical gifts and spiritual insight that enable him to see the inconsistencies of the idolatry, he still needed to learn for himself and to a degree where he could confidently say nothing could hold him back from trying to pursue tikkun olam. (I’m talking about the midrash where he’s hidden in the cave due to Nimrod’s predictions and when he came out, he saw the stars, believed the were G-ds, but when they were gone in the morning he knew he was wrong before.
        Hashem didn’t create everyone to be “tikkun olam majors”. However and please tell if I’ve limited your definition of tikkun olam, just because some have a hard time simply handling their own lives, it doesn’t deter them from contributing to tikkun olam. Heck, G-d put us here to discover our duty to improve the world. Is that a better definition of tikkun olam?
        Some of us may be better at chesed or charity, others with mentoring younger people, or doing blue-collar work that has to be done. One can do obviously many more things. And just maybe, some people aren’t cut out for things like advocacy like we see here with Darfur. And just maybe, some people may be very limited in their capabilities and they are the ones usually being cared for. Regardless of abilities or rivaling standards of what is considered tikkun olam, everyone must play their role, in any way they can.
        But DON’T tell me that working on yourself FOR THE PURPOSE OF FULFILLING THAT ROLE IS SELFISH.
        Have I made myself clearer?
        One shouldn’t have to sit and read diatribes like this, but I will not sit back and let someone tell me my beliefs or sincere opinions are not Jewish. And let this diatribe be an example of how much I care to make myself absolutely in what I’m saying so that word twisting, insensitive people like you completely comprehend what I’m trying to say.
        Bottom line is that, if you are Canadian and you go to an orthodox synagogue, don’t let what’s going on in Darfur fall to deaf ears. Even a small conversation will make this comment war worth the trouble. You can count on me to say something.
        Have a fantastic shabbos.

  3. Think about what Shabbat is/what it’s all about. Do you really think that shul is the place for pamphlets about Darfur? Maybe if they are out in the hall..but to be the main topic of, say, a Shabbat afternoon sermon-the one day each week the rabbi gets a chance to speak to his congregants…I don’t think that that should have to focus on Darfur. Perhaps the genocide could be incorporated into a greater speech involving not standing by idly as Moshe didn’t stand by idly…that would be last week’s parshah, though, so perhaps this Shabbat should have taken place last week…hehe.

    I think such an idea would better be suited to a week -night schmooze of sorts-where photos could be shown as well.

  4. Sorry for being insensitive…..but me thinks thou protests too much!

    “Hashem didn’t create everyone to be “tikkun olam majors””

    ummm….it’s actually the goal of the Jewish people.
    Ergo: your opinion here is not Jewish.

    again, just because you have sincere belief or a rabbi told you something doesn’t make it Jewish. Where is the source that you come first?

    1. What I meant when I said “tikkun olam majors” was that is that some people (aka me) SOMETIMES view tikkun olam from a very narrow standpoint. What I’m hearing from you is that in a sense, every good action, deed, mitzvah we do is considered tikkun olam. I like that concept and finally see what you’re getting at.

      So will let me be Jewish again (by your standards)?

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