Christian missionary work spans the globe. But Jewish mission trips?
Your average American synagogue is not planning a congregational visit to a poor corner of the world. But a few are starting to, and some rabbis are lobbying for more to follow.
“At a time when synagogues are losing market share and ‘Next Gen’ Jews are deeply ambivalent about how much they are prepared to identify as Jews, I can testify that this kind of service mission is a game changer,” said Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founding rabbi of Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in suburban Bethesda, Md.
Unlike many Christian groups, Jews don’t believe in proselytizing: It’s just not in their religious DNA. But alumni attest that synagogue-sponsored mission trips provide a hands-on way for Jews to fulfill the obligation of “tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “heal the world,” as they strengthen Jewish identities.
Schwarz and 20 congregants returned from a 10-day trip to Haiti in December — the congregation’s third trip in four years to the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There, they partnered with a pastor and used their bodies and their bank accounts to build houses and provide school tuition for Haitian families, many who had been living under tarps since the devastating 2010 earthquake.
Schwarz can point to less than a handful of synagogues that have done similar mission work. One is Temple Beth El in Hollywood, Fla., which has made more than 10 mission trips to Haiti since 2007 and leaves again for the island on Jan. 19.
“The Christians have a tradition of missionary work, and part of it is to Christianize the world. We Jews have no interest in Judaisizing the world,” said Beth El’s Rabbi Allan Tuffs. Nevertheless, “we should be out there.”