Every person has their own preciousness - opinion

Creating positive change is an expression of some people's Jewish values.

 Cheryl recently served as an elected city councilmember in Englewood, NJ for three years. Being sworn in as a city councilmember by NJ Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg in Englewood, NJ in 2018. (photo credit: Cheryl Rosenberg)
Cheryl recently served as an elected city councilmember in Englewood, NJ for three years. Being sworn in as a city councilmember by NJ Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg in Englewood, NJ in 2018.
(photo credit: Cheryl Rosenberg)

I’ve always connected my desire to do good in the world to my values-forward upbringing and my relationships with my family, mentors, friends and the many people in my life whose wisdom has touched me. I constantly yearn for that deeply spiritual connection to another person that comes with the simple act of hearing their voice and understanding their needs.

What I didn’t understand until I recently started working at Repair the World, an organization that mobilizes Jews and their communities to take action to pursue a just world, is that my desire to create positive change is an expression of my Jewish values, as well. What I have learned is that this desire to connect with, really hear and support people is intertwined with my Jewish value of honoring the preciousness of each human, kavod ha’briyot.

It was this core value that led to my first big commitment to public service, running for the city council in New Jersey. As a lifelong activist, I have volunteered and done community outreach, organizing, education and advocacy since college. The work of an activist is both empowering for oneself and for others, and frustrating.

You are in pursuit of an ideal you feel so passionately must become a reality. You have dedicated your career or life to the cause. And yet, while you may join with others, you are still just one person hacking away at decades or centuries of dysfunction and inequities that are so ingrained in the local culture they seem impossible to dismantle.

Why run for political office?

 Writing letters with Repair the World’s strategy team  with our partners at Voteriders to inform voters about voting ID laws in their state (credit: Cheryl Rosenberg) Writing letters with Repair the World’s strategy team with our partners at Voteriders to inform voters about voting ID laws in their state (credit: Cheryl Rosenberg)

When I decided to run for political office, I did so to put myself on the other side. I decided that for once, I’d like to be the one listening and in a position of more power to make change for individuals and the community. And in many ways, I was able to do that.

But in a local political arena that was deeply entrenched in historical dysfunction and inequity, I quickly recognized that I wanted to prioritize supporting individuals rather than spearheading more large-scale change efforts. Though they are interconnected and equally important, I found my one-on-one human interactions so much more meaningful than pursuing a years-long legislative process to adopt the policy.

Don’t get me wrong, we need the warriors willing to weather personal hardships and endless opposition to make real, long-lasting positive change in this world. But, we also each have an obligation to understand where our own personal impact will be greatest, and, for me, it was connecting with people who felt unseen and unheard to alleviate some of their pain and struggle, and to lift up their voices.

In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), it says, “whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.” This was certainly my experience. The individuals, so long ignored, who came to me to help solve their problems were quite literally saving my life. In turn, together we were saving the world. Through serving them, I was connected or reconnected to my purpose and my passion, which gave me the energy to continue to show up every day not only for them but for my family, community and more broadly, humanity.

AT REPAIR, we intentionally use the language “showing up” for the causes we believe in and the beauty of service is that this is the only real requirement. Pursuing social change can be as easy as just showing up to listen, serve, learn, and connect with and support our communities in need.

After deciding not to run for city council reelection because of a move between states, I felt ungrounded. While I still maintain and find joy in many of the connections I made with community members through public service, when I left government I knew that I had to find other ways to connect with and support my community in very direct ways.

Having worked in the world of reproductive rights and sexual assault (SA) survivor advocacy after college, I leaned on my knowledge of this issue area and reached out to a hospital-based SA advocacy program. I was trained to serve as an advocate for individuals who have experienced SA, supporting them during a visit to the emergency room to provide comfort, information and, most importantly, to help bring back their voice – their power to consent – to the current experience.

Though there is much work to be done in the arena of support for survivors, this service is an immediate way I can impact one person’s experience on what is likely the worst day of their life.

But even with this volunteer opportunity, I felt the need to do more and serve more, and so I was humbled and grateful to join the team at Repair the World. Not only do I start work each day filled with purpose and meaning, as we quite literally repair the world, tikkun olam, but an intentional part of Repair’s service-driven culture is paid days off for service in our communities, and we are given the opportunity to serve at staff gatherings, as well.

Last month, our strategy team met to connect and collaborate, and we began our gathering with a virtual service in support of our Repair the Vote campaign. Through our partnership with VoteRiders, we wrote letters to voters in states with Voter ID laws that gave registered voters information on what forms of ID would enable them to vote in their state.

As I crafted personal messages for each recipient to go with the information on their laws, I felt that familiar rush of gratitude that comes with connecting with and supporting others. If even one person is impacted by this service, that is still one more person who can participate in our democracy with equal access, rights and information, and that is enough.

Parashat Shoftim in the Torah tells us “tzedek tzedek tirdof” (justice, justice you shall pursue) and there are so many ways that we can connect our Jewish values in pursuit of justice for ourselves and our communities. For me, service is one important way that I connect to my values as a Jewish person, a mom, a community member and a person who believes deeply in the preciousness of each human. It has given me energy and strength in times of great hardship, and I am grateful every day to have the opportunity to serve alongside my community.

The writer is a volunteer sexual assault patient advocate in the Bronx and the senior director of marketing and communications at Repair the World. She also recently served as an elected city council member in Englewood, New Jersey, for three years.