When I was in third grade, my incredibly creative and thoughtful teacher announced one morning that our class would be knitting a blanket for a homeless mother and her child. The nineteen eight year olds in my class looked at her in amazement. How would we knit a blanket? None of us even really understood what it meant to knit. After a few lessons, all the boys and girls spent many hours knitting squares that one of the class parents sewed together into a blanket. We then presented the completed blanket to a mother and son who shared their story with us. We were proud that our hard work helped someone else stay warm and that we could contribute to creating a better life for this young family.
Yes, we sacrificed many recesses to knit the squares; we gave up time on the playground and the soccer field – valuable time for third graders. We also gave up class time to learn to knit; we traded math for stitching lessons. And yet what I remember today is not what I gave up. I don’t look back longingly for that extra hour swinging on the monkey bars. I remember the family’s story. I learned about the world around me—how people live differently than I do, and how I could affect someone else’s life. And I even still remember how to knit.
Over a decade later, I traveled to Uganda to once again work on repairing the world. Just months after I graduated from college, I moved to East Africa to spend twelve months building a library at a local non-governmental organization. I could consider that year a sacrifice in terms of income and savings, professional development and networking, as well as time with family and friends. Instead, I prefer to consider the year abroad as the first of my professional career in which I learned a tremendous amount about navigating cultural diversity, listening carefully and actively, and communicating effectively. The experience shaped who I am and how I understand the world.
But more importantly, when I reflect on the year in Uganda, I think of what I helped create. When I arrived, the children in the rural villages surrounding Mbale town did not have access to books, even the textbooks corresponding to their curriculum, nor did they have a safe lit space to read after school hours. Most of the children resided in one room homes along with six or more family members that didn’t have electricity or running water. Now, the children use the library to read books, participate in spelling bees, and gather to hear stories. They spend free time exploring worlds through literature to which they otherwise have no access. For me the sacrifice is not about what I gave up. I gained more than I gave. However, had I not gone, it would have meant giving up increased access to learning and literature for hundreds of children.
When we work to repair the world, we are working toward a shared vision of a more just future. Isaiah, like other Jewish prophets, implored: “learn to do good, commit to pursuing justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow (1:17). And Ethics of Our Fathers 2:21 obligates us to never shirk this responsibility despite not being responsible for having to fix the entire problem. Realizing the profound change that we create when we dedicate ourselves to this vision makes me wonder not what we have given up to do so, but what we sacrifice when we do not repair the world. What becomes of our vision? What would our world look like and who would we be if we didn’t engage in this valuable work?
Maital Friedman is currently a Jewish Service-Learning Manager at Repair the World. As a Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, she is pursuing an MPA with a specialization in International Policy and Management at NYU.