Q&A: The Jewish imperative of tikkun olam

CEO of poverty-fighting British NGO Tzedek, tells the 'Post' that it is essential that all Jews work toward justice around the world.

Tzedek Chief Executive Jude Williams 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Tzedek Chief Executive Jude Williams 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
British Jewish charity maven Jude Williams believes that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is imperative for all Jews. She takes time out from the Israeli Presidential Conference to tell The Jerusalem Post how she has brought her vision to the local Jewish community via the Tzedek NGO which she heads.
Tzedek runs UK-based educational programs about poverty, forges relationships between Jewish British children with children in the developing world, sends volunteers to Ghana and runs development projects in developing countries.

How did you become involved in Tzedek?
I actually only joined about 15 months ago. I have a long career of working in Jewish education, here in Israel and actually in Britain as well and I think my childhood also brought me close to the issues of justice. And so bringing the two together is very much what Tzedek is about, which is why I was very attracted to Tzedek when the role came up for Chief Executive.

Why is it important that Tzedek be a Jewish NGO?
Jews need to be involved in this work. There are around a billion people in the world who are living in conditions that are unacceptable, living in extreme poverty, who have not got enough food, clean water, a good education and so forth. For Jews not to be heavily involved in that work is of course unacceptable. I think we have a long tradition of the idea of justice, and ethical behavior and I think this has to be an expression of it on a global level. There are many organizations that do do some of that work, but in Britain, Tzedek feels that there is a niche in terms of educating and bringing awareness about those issues and in doing that work specifically.
It's always really nice when we meet people and we say that we do work in Ghana and they say "oh I didn't know there were Jews in Ghana." Well there aren't, and that is of course, the point. It's another level of work. The British Jewish community is amazing when it comes to Israel, and our work with UJIA, and our youth movements and internal Jewish care, but this is the more global level, the tikkun olam level that Tzedek tries to bring to the community.
Tzedek states that the NGO "inspires action that uses the skills and resources of the Jewish community to better the lives of those less fortunate." What are these skills and resources?
Primarily it's about using the energies of the volunteers to help us do some of the work. We have a very committed group of volunteers, who help allocate money and funds that go abroad to different partners on the ground in Africa and Asia. We have volunteers who help us do our educational work. Part of this is also money – people fund-raise for us, people donate to us, people are on standing orders with Tzedek. Both large and small regular amounts all go into a pot that works to increase that awareness, especially with young people, children, and then also does the work overseas.

Do you do any work with the Palestinian territories?
We don't. We've always worked in places where people have approached us, and we've actually not had any approaches from the Palestinian territories, so we haven't had to deal with that. I think when that time comes it will be an interesting discussion for myself and the board to have. We put out every few months a call for people to send in ideas and proposals for partnership projects, and we get about 200 every time, and many of those are from areas in India and Africa. So that's where we are primarily working.

Do you directly work with non-Jewish communities in the UK?
We don't. All our work in Britain is about the Jewish community and raising that awareness and understanding of the issues and putting that into action. So that can be about becoming a better, more conscientious  consumer, and it can be about changing your own lifestyle; it can be about fundraising and volunteering and getting involved in those issues or campaigning. And it’s also about fundraising in order to be able to do work in the developing world.
Of course, the other part we do is about volunteering overseas, so we take people to go and experience. In the Jewish world and other places as well this is called service learning, but I like to turn that on its head and think about learning service; because we go for short amounts of time. And I think if you want to go and serve in say, Africa, then you need to go for a year or two years and work through projects in a more coherent way to make a difference. So when we send people out for 6-8 weeks, I think we're doing more of a “seeing and experiencing it for yourself, and understanding it through that experience, and learning about what it means to serve those in poverty.” And hopefully building a life-long commitment. Of course for us it’s about building that on the Jewish tradition, so using our techs and our sources and role-models to help us learn that.
How do people abroad respond to the fact that Tzedek is a Jewish organization?
I've been at Tzedek 15 months and I've never heard anyone tell me a negative story so on the whole it's all been very positive. We're not out there saying “we're the Jews, we've come to do this work," we don't make any demands on our partners to understand Judaism or to understand why we might be doing this; we come very much to listen, understand and to partner people.
But people do ask, we don't hide it, and when volunteers go out it does come up. And they question “what does that mean, who are you, what's it about?” Certainly in Africa the conversation is "oh you're Jewish, what’s that?" And you'd think people would equate it with Israel but actually the thing that they understand is if you say "the Bible, all those old stories, that's us." And then they go "ah OK that's the Jews." We don't find any of that anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism that one might fear is out there. 
What is the climate like in the UK at the moment for the Jewish community in terms of anti-Semitism?
As a Jewish educator it's not always my primary concern to worry about what the non-Jews are thinking of us. I’m one who sits in the camp of, “anti-Semitism is their problem not mine.” I’m not going to internalize their issues with my Judaism. I’m a proud Jew and a Zionist. I think the fact that the UJIA And other organizations got behind this big Trafalgar Square party to celebrate Israel’s birthday  is testament to how British Jews feel about Israel , and being out on the streets and Jewish and proud, supporting Israel and saying "we're with Israel."
I don't think British Jews have been unwavering in their support of a Jewish state, but what has interestingly come about is the ability to be more critical of what is going on and do that in a more vocal place within the community, and then begin to engage some of the anti-Zionist sentiment.
I've moved more on to Israel rather than anti-Semitism, but I guess that's what is going on in Britain - there is this close link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. And from what I see from CST there are ongoing incidents of anti-Semitism.
After what happened in Woolwich with Drummer Lee Rigby, there have been huge amounts of real violence against Muslims, including arson of a mosque in Muswell Hill. And the Jewish community was one of the first communities to come out and be there for that community, to offer sympathy and cups of tea and so forth. And I think that's absolutely right. There are many people united against hate. It's a little more than "everyone's out to get the Jews,” there is just a lot of hate out there, it’s not just against the Jews.

The school Twinning Project appears to be central to the NGO's work. What is the main idea behind it?
Twinning is about classes in British Jewish schools twinned with classes in Ghanean schools in Tamale, which is in the northern region of Ghana. It's a program with primary schools in year 4, (8-9 year olds) and we have started in secondary schools now too.
The program is based on a sense of global citizenship – we are all equal and worthy of respect and dignity. The program comes to show life in different places, to show how similar people are across the world, and also some of the differences that we might have in our cultures and our day to day lives. So it definitely highlights difference, but from a starting point of "look how much we're the same."
They have written projects - drawing pictures and writing - that are exchanged in the post. So each class gets a big bundle of work that comes in the post. For the British kids that’s really exciting because, when on earth do they get post? And for the Ghanean kids, they don’t have computers and they don’t have that access to technology. For both sides it's really exciting to handle work done by somebody so far away.
And similarities come out in: “who are you, how old are you, what do you want to be when you grow up?” You'll find the same kind of ambitions, games, ideas of childhood, and ideas of what's interesting and important to them across the board. And that’s really important for everyone to hear. It’s important for British kids to know the world is not the same as North West London, and for the Ghanean kids it’s important for them to feel connected to the wider world. It epitomizes our approach to this work that poverty is a man made injustice that can be fixed. We're hoping to leave a seed of a sense of “I am part of a global picture and whatever I do in my life I should have a sense that is local, national, and also global.”
What are your impressions of this conference?
It's a great conference. I usually go to professional conferences, so this is a different type of conference. I think some of the speeches have been extraordinary and some of the talent that has been on stage and talking is brilliant.
It (the conference) is talking about tomorrow and there is a thread that has been talking about tikkun olam and even [former US President Bill ] Clinton and [Quartet Middle East envoy Tony] Blair use the phrase. But it keeps coming back to war and peace and the conflict. There is a lot of good will and ideas about how we can do that using technology or psychology or deeper understanding, and I've also heard some deep pessimism about it. I have found it fascinating. I feel people are being really quite honest. Bill Clinton saying "you've got to make peace" and Ayaan Hirsi-Ali saying: “ I’m not sure who your partners are but there is a small fraction of younger people who are ready to be partners with Israel - go find those people.” It's very hopeful.