Were you to ask Iszy Hirschtritt Licht or his brother Aitan where their interest in social issues came from, they would direct you toward the Jewish principle of tikkun olam. The Hebrew phrase translates to “repairing the Earth,” and suggests that we receive the world broken, and that it’s our job to fix it.
“That was a really profound concept that was always really interesting to me,” Aitan said. “It’s something I thought was really important.”
Aitan, a Weinberg sophomore, and Iszy, a Weinberg senior, were raised around an atmosphere of social advocacy and community outreach. Both volunteered with their mother at an Alzheimer’s care facility, and both involved themselves in outreach events sponsored by their schools on major Jewish holidays. Having attended Jewish schools all their lives, they came to Northwestern with clear motivations for social outreach.
“I knew I wanted to get involved in a Jewish way because I grew up in a Jewish home and went to Jewish schools all my life,” he said. “I wanted to get involved Jewishly.”
A relatively new student group called ZOOZ, which in Hebrew translates to the verb “to move,” naturally seemed like the ideal choice for Aitan to foster social outreach. A service learning group associated with NU Hillel, ZOOZ plans events throughout the year that focus on themes of social activism and service learning.
“We formed it because Hillel didn’t have a volunteer community service group,” said Natalie Stern, a Weinberg junior and President of ZOOZ. “We knew that people really wanted a chance to give back to the community and maybe do so with a Jewish lens.”
For Stern, it came down to a matter of values. “A lot of what goes into Jewish values is giving back and helping others and putting the other person before yourself,” she said. “It’s inherently part of the Jewish lens.”
Recently, ZOOZ and the Northwestern Committee on Gun-Violence Prevention (NCGVP) hosted a “teach-in” about the lack of a level I adult trauma center in Chicago’s South Side. The event kept with ZOOZ’s self-described mission to provide students the opportunity to engage with the surrounding community on social issues. Iszy, President of the NCGVP, invited representatives from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs to speak about the issue.
Speaking in hindsight, Iszy believes that issues of gun violence, like the trauma center campaign, reflect broader institutional problems of racism and discrimination. “I think that it really is an issue that brings in a lot of things that I care about,” he said. “The most important thing I’ve learned in college has been about race and identity, and how complex it is, and how important it is.”
Iszy and Aitan were raised by what Iszy calls his parents’ “liberal values.” He says that they were made aware of their privilege, especially as white Jews. “It’s important to be aware, and to learn about the history of racism and the history of segregation in the United States,” he said. “It’s so important for me to be an ally of people who are still fighting those issues, and I think my activism over gun violence is one way for me to be an ally.”
Iszy, like his brother, points to his Jewish background as the source of his interest in these concerns. “I believe in activism to repair the world, to recognize that the world is not complete, that there are things that need to be changed, and that we as white, privileged, Jewish kids have the responsibility to help out,” he said. “I’d say that the value of tikkun olam and the necessity of Jewish engagement is not only a theoretical idea.”
On a macroscopic level, Iszy believes that Jewish history provides an important context. “70 years ago in Germany, I would have exterminated just for my bloodline, for being who I am,” he said. “I can’t sit idly by while other people are being discriminated against based on race or based on ethnicity or based on culture.”
He believes that the Jewish identity, especially concerning social justice, was shaped in the wake of the Holocaust. “You need to be aware that others are experiencing discrimination and racism, and you should be there to ally yourself with them,” he said.
Today, Iszy knows he can fit into the “norm” of society. As a white male, he can easily pass as Christian to someone who doesn’t know his religious identity. And this privilege informs what he sees as his own responsibility. “I recognize my place and privilege, and I think it’s important to work with it,” he said. “Given my position in the United States today, where I’m in a position of privilege and recognize that privilege, I should help other people get the rights that they deserve.”
His brother Aitan doesn’t believe that what he or Iszy are doing is necessarily their religious duty. “I don’t believe that there’s any power telling us to do anything,” he said. “I just believe that if we’re affirming our Judaism, then pursuing values of social justice are fundamentally intertwined to what it means to be a Jew, and to be a good person.”
That being said, Aitan doesn’t think his Judaism is the sole reason behind his commitment to social advocacy. “For me, the place where Judaism fits in is where it becomes a venue for those values to be brought to light,” he said. “It’s provided me with the opportunities to get involved in social justice issues, and has also helped to frame these values in a context that I find truly meaningful.”