Alison Lebovitz (photo from Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver)
The original meaning of tikkun olam, as seen in the Talmud, was to “decorate, beautify or refine” the world. The modern meaning of “repairing” the world came to be emphasized much later, in kabbalistic writings. Alison Lebovitz was taught the importance of this older sense of tikkun olam by her grandmother Mimi, though she had a different way of putting it: “Pretty is as pretty does.” In the Jewish ethical context in which she was raised, “beautiful actions” meant making the world a better place. To this day, that priority shapes Lebovitz’s life.
Lebovitz is among the speakers who will help launch the annual campaign of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver on Sept. 22, with this year’s FEDtalks.
Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Lebovitz was an active volunteer in the Jewish community. One summer, she worked with refuseniks, who had come to Birmingham as refugees. Seeing them clustered around a shelf offering several different kinds of toothpicks, paralyzed by the alien surfeit of choices, unable to select a brand, Lebovitz had a visceral confrontation with the way people lived outside of her middle-class American bubble, and how much our own over-abundance of resources should inspire us to be givers.
After moving to Chattanooga, Tenn., Lebovitz became involved with the documentary Paper Clips, working to have it shown in more schools. Paper Clips takes place in the rural Tennessee community of Whitwell, where a middle-school class attempts to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust by collecting paper clips, each of which represents a human life lost in the Nazis’ slaughter of six million Jews and millions of others.
For Lebovitz, this work naturally developed into her initiative One Clip at a Time, which is a program for taking kids from the message of Paper Clips further, into personal application and action. Students discover ways to make positive changes in their own classrooms and communities and are encouraged to continually look for ways to make a difference. “For me, growing up,” Lebovitz told the Independent, “the question my family always asked about any idea was, ‘So what?’ What does it mean in the real world? Next was, ‘Now what?’ How are you going to put that into action?”
In addition to her work with One Clip, Lebovitz has been involved in an impressive roster of other activities. For 20-plus years, she has written a column on the trials and tribulations of daily life and lessons learned called “Am I There Yet?”; columns of which were published as a book by the same name. She is host of the PBS talk show The A List with Alison Lebovitz, and is a regular public speaker, including for TED Talks.
Lebovitz views herself as a “curator of stories” and an entrepreneur with a passion for social justice. These two themes will coalesce in her FEDtalks presentation in Vancouver, where she plans to speak on “the power of story and the power of community.” She said the end game, for her, is to light the torch of the next generation and invite them to run along with us, but then to also pass on the flame to the generation that follows them.
FEDtalks takes place at Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sept. 22, 7 p.m. For tickets and information about all the speakers, visit jewishvancouver.com/fedtalks2016.
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.