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  • Tikkun Olam Ted
  • Nicole Graev Lipson (bio)

I'm sitting with my son on the floor of his first-grade Hebrew school classroom, both of us drawing, according to his teacher's instruction, what we'd like to do to repair the world. My four-year-old daughter, tagging along for the morning, is also drawing, and though she's young for this assignment, she gets the basic idea. She scribbles blotches of flowers on her paper while I add a woman—me?—beside a compost bin, depositing food scraps. I'm feeling pretty good about myself for being down here on the rug, in the thick of things, while most parents sit in a semicircle of chairs, watching from afar. I am a very engaged mother, I think. I am modeling enthusiasm for my children!

It's been a trying weekend, with my husband out of town, just me and the three kids alone—a weekend of back-seat feuds and bedtime brawls, cereal bowls upended and dishes piling up in the sink. I've been vexed by an irritability I don't feel entitled to, that fills me with shame each time I think of the millions of single mothers who do this day in and day out, while three days alone have chafed my patience. But I've made it to Sunday morning. Sun streams through the classroom window and the air smells of cherry-scented markers, and before me stretch three hours that I don't need to plan, in a building—our synagogue—that feels like a second home.

My son's marker scritch-scratches away. He bites the soft flesh of his lower lip and shields his work with his arm, and I keep a respectful distance, [End Page 19] knowing how he loves to craft surprises. After a while, he snaps on his marker cap and holds up his work. I see that it's not a picture after all, but a row of words wobbling across the page. My son, who as a toddler had a speech delay, has been struggling at school to write words beyond his name, and I feel a surge of pride in this effort—a surge that lasts just long enough for me to discern what he has written. Could it be? No. But oh my god, yes. I LUV MI PENES.

This message, surprising under any circumstance, clashes so profoundly with the spirit of this morning's event that I can hardly register it. We are here for an annual tradition at my children's Hebrew school, Tikkun Olam Day. The phrase tikkun olam means "repairing the world" and captures an idea at the heart of Judaism—that the universe is innately good but imperfect, and that our task as human beings is to help restore it to wholeness. Tikkun olam is often associated with social activism, but as Rabbi Zecher—who made history at our temple by becoming its first female senior rabbi three years ago—has reminded the students during today's opening assembly, our world teems with small opportunities for repair work. Conserving water is tikkun olam. Giving to charity is tikkun olam. Opening the door for someone, expressing thanks, welcoming guests into one's home—these, too, are tikkun olam. I've long admired Rabbi Zecher, who is not only extraordinarily wise and learned but also beautiful, her face warmly luminous beneath a halo of silver-white hair. And while this introductory talk was meant for the children, it moved me, as her words so often move me, to remember all the ways that I can do better.

Later in the morning, my son's class will be preparing trays of lasagna for Rosie's Place, a local shelter for homeless women. Their teacher Morah Iryna, who has crinkly eyes and a pixie haircut, has just finished reading them Tikkun Olam Ted, a picture book about a boy who loves improving the world. "Ted is small, but he spends his days doing very big things," this story begins. On Sundays, Ted scrubs bottles for recycling. On Wednesdays, he walks dogs at the animal shelter. On Thursdays, he waters the garden. Ted has...