Living Our Values, Leading for Change: A Jewish Approach to Global Development

Responding to: Religion and Development: Building Partnerships to Fight Poverty

By: Ruth Messinger

July 12, 2016

The gravest global problems of our time—genocide, HIV/AIDS, violence against women and girls, hatred of LGBT people, and natural and human-made disasters—affect people regardless of their faith tradition. Hundreds if not thousands of organizations work around the world to help those impacted by these tragedies. Sometimes these groups are secular though in many cases they are religiously inspired. While much is written about Catholic and Protestant development and aid organizations, less is known about international development in the Jewish tradition and how it is addressing today’s pressing challenges.

As president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the first and only Jewish organization dedicated solely to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world, I believe responsible, ethical international development can be rooted in four values: kavod (respect), b’tzelem elohim (the inherent dignity of every person), tikkun olam (repair of the world), and tzedakah (acts of justice).

These values are an important framework for development projects because in many countries religion looms large and has had a major influence on culture, philosophy, politics, art—and, certainly, development and human rights. This sometimes means that religious beliefs and practices add many layers of complexity to realizing human rights—particularly for people who are acutely vulnerable: women, adolescent girls, sex workers, LGBT people, indigenous communities, and others.

The beneficiaries of our work, who may or may not have met Jewish people or encountered Judaism, understand quickly that we do not have a religious or cultural agenda. Often, they appreciate us for this and relate to Judaism as a positive force in the world. On an AJWS program to Uganda, a college student met a farmer who shared that he had decided, after working with this student for several months, that he, too, was Jewish. “Why?” The student asked him. The farmer responded, “Because I, too, want to leave the world better than how I found it.”

Beyond the unintended impact of changing people’s perceptions of American Jews, there are three Jewish frameworks that animate our work for responsible global development: partnership, listening, and organizing for justice.


Partnership is deeply embedded in the particularities of Jewish tradition. The core structure of Jewish learning is to study with a chavruta—a partner—predicated on the notion that intellectual, philosophical, religious, and spiritual learning is an intrinsically social endeavor. Chavruta study is decentralized, democratic, and egalitarian. It encourages learning with neither an authority figure to provide the “right” answer nor the assumption that there is a definitive right answer to begin with. From a Jewish and social justice perspective, leaders are encouraged to wrestle with and live the questions of our time instead of accepting easy answers.

Imagine what our community—and our world—would look like if today’s leaders in international development and beyond adopted a chavruta model for catalyzing social change!


The most central prayer in Jewish tradition is called the Sh’ma, which literally means “listen.” The essence of the Sh’ma is the imperative to pay attention and to do so with focus, clarity, and unity of heart and mind. When applied to development work, the Sh’ma functions as a framework for asking critical questions that enable responsible global development. How can we more effectively listen to people who are silenced, disempowered, or rendered invisible—really pay attention to them and what they say?

One experience that underscores the importance of listening took when place in 1998 when I traveled to Zimbabwe to visit an impoverished rural settlement with no government services. I met a teacher working with 80 children outside under a tree and asked him what he wanted most: Was it desks and chairs, books, pencils, or perhaps a chalkboard? He replied, “I don’t need any of those things. I just need the children to have breakfast.”

I had come to Zimbabwe thinking that my solutions were the key to helping Zimbabwean children get a better education. I thought I had all the answers. But it turns out the people I had perceived as powerless—the people I was trying to help—were the ones who knew best what they needed. They were the ones with the answers, and it was up to me to listen.

Organizing for Justice

The Exodus story is the Biblical centerpiece of Jewish experience. It shapes the core narrative of Jewish communities and offers thematic resonance with the stories and struggles of other oppressed peoples. The telling of the Exodus story, along with so many other stories in Jewish tradition, provides an authentic framework for engaging in social justice work infused with Jewish values.

The Exodus story presents a foundation for understanding ourselves and for approaching responsible global development in the twenty-first century, rooted in the belief that all people have the capacity to move through the narrow, confined passages of their lives to actualize their visions of liberation—if only they had the resources to do so.

AJWS’s curriculum, “Expanding the Universe of Obligation: Judaism, Justice, and Global Responsibility,” offers an educational context for our Global Justice Fellowship, a program that brings rabbinic leaders to the developing world to learn about human rights issues. This curriculum challenges Jewish leaders to experience “productive discomfort”—not guilt or a feeling of overwhelmed paralysis, but a kind of psychic dissonance that pushes them to keep their values present and lead responsibly as global citizens. The units of this curriculum are shaped by several core questions: How does culture affect how I experience the world? How can I be a responsible actor in my own life and in the lives of those around me? Who are the people to whom I am obligated? How do I define poverty and understand its causes and effects? In light of my experience in the developing world, what can I do once I return home to the United States?

By asking these questions, Jewish leaders strengthen their catalytic impact—not only during a one-off experience in a developing country, but as engaged global citizens during the course of their lives.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that “living is not a private affair of the individual; it is what we do with God’s time, what we do with God’s world.” The challenge for today’s leaders is to live the principles of partnership, listening, and organizing for justice. We must engage in acts of loving kindness and mend the world’s brokenness. The wisdom of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors), a collection of Jewish prophetic texts, reminds us that “it is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” Indeed, we are all responsible for building a better world, even if we never witness a world that is fully calibrated, holy, and just.

At a time when religious dialogue is too often dominated by divisiveness, hate, and exclusion, we must create a new paradigm. It is up to religious leaders and religious organizations to write a better story for global development in the twenty-first century—a story that expresses our moral obligations and ethical commitments to improve the world and make it whole.

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Living Our Values, Leading for Change: A Jewish Approach to Global Development