As I sit in the Scheuer Chapel at the Hebrew Union College on Saturday mornings, the Torah is held and carried around the synagogue before it is read while community sings together: “Al shlosah devarim ha’olam omed: Al ha’Torah, v’al ha’avodah v’al gimilut chasadim.” This phrase, taken from the Mishnah, speaks to the three things because of which our world endures: learning, sacred service), and acts of compassion. Each time I have sung it, I have considered how I connect to these three components in my daily life. Prior to my experience with sacred service-learning, I had considered how I work toward these three pillars individually. Now, after my experience as fellow at the University of Cincinnati focusing on advocacy for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, I realize how interconnected Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim are.
Part of my job as a fellow is presenting “Safe Zone Trainings” to the Jewish community. These trainings are meant to help create advocacy and allyship. They also help organizations create a safe environment for LGBT members of their communities. It was in one such training that I was asked a question that would revolutionize how I understood not only my work, not only advocacy, but also how these connected to my Judaism. I was training some of the Jewish youth group advisors in Cincinnati how to help make their groups more supportive as well how to help their students to be allies to their peers. During this training one of the advisors asked what qualities they should model for their students with regards to being an ally. I explained the fundamentals: listening to others, being careful of one’s language, confronting inappropriate language, creating LGBT visibility in the youth group, presenting various types of relationships in programming in the youth group, continuing to stay educated on the LGBT community, being open and honest in discussion, and recognizing the unique value of every person. After I finished explaining this, the same leader responded to me saying: “So basically, you are just teaching us to model compassion and to advocate compassionately to create inclusion.” It seemed simple enough, but I considered his choice of words—“advocate compassionately.” Although I had never thought of it that way, that is exactly what I was asking of those I was training. I asked them to be compassionate because through that compassion they would be advocates. I continued to consider this and how it could help me model my future trainings and interactions with people who wanted to advocate on behalf of LGBT issues. However, it was the next Saturday as we sang “Al shlosha devarim” at the beginning of the Torah service that I realized the weight of this concept.
As I sang those Mishnaic words, Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim all took on new meaning in the realm of advocacy. Torah: the learning that one had to do to understand the community they were advocating for, their needs, and the research on how to create more welcoming policies in organizations. Avodah: the work and service of confronting inappropriate language and of standing up in situations where someone might be being oppressed because of their identity. In the center of these two stood g’milut chasadim. While this term is usually translated as acts of loving-kindness, it seems to me to be directly related to the compassionate advocacy that the youth leader was talking about. It is an action that grows out of compassion, compassion that is at the heart of wanting to be an ally, compassion that is created by both the learning and the work it takes to be an ally.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how these three pillars were intertwined in our sacred service-learning as well. Torah: the educational building blocks for the work we were doing and the reflections of how to better engage in our work, connecting Jewish texts to our field experience and vice versa. Avodah: the work in the field itself as well as the experiential learning from our fellowships. G’milut Chasadim: the compassion and kindness that motivates our teachers, supervisors, and co-workers to help teach us in each of these new and different workplaces, as well as our own compassionate action towards understanding and improving the way that various organizations function. These three components began to look less like pillars each standing on its own to help support a structure and more like the three strands of the havdalah candle, braided together to support, beautify and bring meaning to each other.
Dana Benson is a TJF Fellow at the University of Cincinnati focusing on advocacy for the LGBT community.