Renewal of Tikkun Olam: Tradition and Imperative

Rodney W. Nichols, past President and CEO Emeritus of the NY Academy of Sciences, is Senior Advisor to the Alliance.

Can Israel renew its past commitment to assist developing nations? Let’s call it 21st Century Tikkun Olam.

Yes, Israel can help to “repair the world,” assisting those in distress, those some call the “bottom billion” in annual income. Yes, Israel can help to build more “start up nations” by transferring the lessons and expertise from its own remarkable, and successful, national development.

The historical precedent is clear.  In 1959, then Foreign Minister Golda Meir launched a new initiative for Africa. She told her staff that “coming to the aid of the African States now winning independence after decades of colonial rule is an emotional thing for me.”

According to Yehuda Avner in his powerful volume on The Prime Ministers (Toby Press, 2010), Meir asserted: “Israel’s nation-building experience is uniquely placed to lend a helping hand to the African States. We have a vast amount of expertise to offer…..I have set up a new division for international cooperation – note what I say: international cooperation, not international aid.”

She added: “I want to leapfrog over our hostile Arab neighbors and build bridges of fellowship.”  And she did: Soon hundreds of Israeli experts, as Avner explains, were  sharing their know-how with some sixty –five countries, the vast majority of them in Africa. The drive for Golda Meir’s purpose was humanitarian – a profound, yet risky, expression of Tikkun Olam.

She also knew the program would have long- term political and economic benefits for Israel. And no doubt she was aware of US interests and of the advantages to resisting Cold War influences in Africa.

The results of her bold initiative may be found today not only in Africa itself but also in the sustained exchanges by gifted professionals from Israeli institutions and universities with their counterparts in developing countries – notably at the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa.  When David Brand, President of the Alliance For Global Good, and I visited the Center a few years ago, the energy of this houseful of dedicated people was inspiring

In 2014, a renewal of Meir’s vision is underway.  While Israel is much stronger today – in 1959, it was still struggling to be the nation it came to be – it faces many new challenges at home and confronts threatening hostility from its neighbors.   Meir faced comparable stress. She sought change. The time is again ripe for fresh action: a 21st Century Tikkun Olam campaign, conceived by the Alliance For Global Good and the Reut Institute, and wisely mentored by Avraham Infeld.

Last year my blogs – see — outlined the idea. This year the programs will be fleshed out, critical details debated, a staff organized, start up funds raised, and embryonic steps taken. At the core will be an ambitious global campaign, enlisting the Jewish people to action that fulfills their traditional calling.

Gidi Grinstein, Founder and President of the Reut Institute, with his able staff, led the early work on this effort.  In his new book, Flexigidity (2013), he says “the modern take on the ideal of Tikkun Olam is that Jews will repair the world through their innovations and their contributions to society and humanity…..practical solutions to global problems.”  Many of those contributions can be derived from Israel’s ability to thrive “on the edge of the desert,” as one planning document puts it.  After all, Israel had almost no natural resources – just human capital – and now, fifty years after, it ranks third on the global innovation index, ranks first in the percent of GDP devoted to research, and has a GDP per person of more than $31,000.

Although Africa has been growing rapidly in recent years – a third of the countries hit 6% in annual GDP growth – crippling constraints persist in education, infrastructure, electricity, and especially water. Israel’s neighbors – many with a GDP of less than $3,000, a tenth of Israel’s – may well welcome cooperation, in due course, if political winds begin to blow more favorably.  Israel’s experience – especially exploiting inventions in arid agriculture, for example – can be extended to lift the quality of the lives of millions of people.

If not now, when?   Persisting challenges exist and their urgency intensifies every day.  Yet traditional Western sources of aid display “donor fatigue.” At the same time, ironically, when the will to assist more is flagging, the progress of technology and the lessons of experience create feasible options for extraordinary, even leapfrogging advances unavailable in the past.

So Israel and the Jewish people throughout the diaspora can move out once again, as Meir did a generation ago.  She saw the opportunity as a moral imperative to lead a campaign that many others then would join. She was wise. Today it is this generation’s time to act.

A 21st century Tikkun Olam initiative must fulfill Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty.” [See Liberty, 1969] He defined this as the absence of the obstacles or the external restraints that block human action and progress.

Let us diminish, if not eliminate, the past national and tribal and religious divisions that obscure common goals and undermine transfers of useful experience. Let us knock down the man-made blockades to development and solve the environmental problems people face. Let us build free, healthy, and prosperous societies. Humanity aspires to no less.

Rodney W. Nichols

February 2014


Proud to announce our newest partner


Leonard Kaplan’s creation of the Alliance for Global Good was the expression of his passionate philanthropy.  It’s also the logical outgrowth of all that came before it.  Together with his wife and philanthropic partner Tobee, and through a family foundation later renamed TOLEO, they gave unselfishly of resources and time to improve their community and the world for more than twenty-five years.

Tobee & Leonard Kaplan

Tobee & Leonard Kaplan

The Alliance’s focus on five areas of giving—health, education, environment, poverty, and world relations—is mirrored in Leonard’s past.  He has made major gifts to Duke University Medical Center and the Duke Comprehensive Cancer and Heart Centers, to the Lineberger Cancer Center at UNC Chapel Hill, to the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Moses Cone Hospital, and had a leadership position at the Greensboro Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.  In 2004, Leonard and Tobee built the new building for the Women’s Resource Center in Greensboro. He created scholarships for residents of Guilford County to attend North Carolina colleges and universities, and was a founding donor of Elon University Law School.  Critically, in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, Leonard helped create the Center for Organizational Leadership, a philanthropic studies program (which was one of first nationally to educate non-profit executives).

“Everyone wants to leave something to their grandchildren.”

“The money won’t matter if the world they live in is so far gone,” Kaplan says. “The opportunity now is to take some of what might become their inheritance, and use it soon to make the world a better place.”

Addressing poverty, Leonard made possible the building of two houses for Habitat for Humanity, and by providing food for hungry people both close to home in Greensboro, and as far abroad as the former Soviet Union.   The Kaplans were staunch supporters of Trickle Up, which provides grant financing to women in the developing world who want to start their own microenterprise.

Leonard gave not only of his wealth, but also of his time and expertise, taking on leadership positions in many organizations and campaigns such as the Greater Greensboro United Way DeToqueville Society, and as a Core Member of ACTION Greensboro, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public education, revitalization of downtown Greensboro, and leveraging economic development.

Active in their community of faith, the Kaplans built a new building for the Greensboro Jewish Federation, and for the Hillel youth organization at U.N.C., Chapel Hill.  He served on the board of the Jewish Foundation of Greensboro, and on that of the national Hillel organization, and was a founder of Camp Ramah Darom.

Viewing giving as a responsibility of affluence, Leonard led by example, and encouraged others to do the same.  He created Wealth & Giving, an educational program designed to inspire the largest wealth holders in this country to be more generous.  The Alliance continues that work by promoting and providing donors with opportunities for effective and efficient giving.

Read more about the Five Guiding Principles.