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Lynn Schusterman

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An Open Letter For Martin Luther King Day: Give Back and Pay it Forward

Posted: 01/14/12 08:52 AM ET

I was a young girl the first time I learned about the concept of paying it forward. My dad was advancing tuition payments for a struggling medical student, and the student asked how he could pay him back. "By being successful and helping someone else," he told him.

I had already been volunteering with my dad for a few years by then. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of holding his hand as we visited elderly people who had nobody else to care for them.

It wasn't until years later, however, that I understood these expressions of my father's universal ideals stemmed from the millennia-old values that provide much of the moral and ethical foundation of Jewish life -- tzedek (justice), chesed (loving-kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).

As Jews, we are commanded to give tzedakah -- an act of justice, not charity--because it is the righteous thing to do. We are told it is our duty to treat everyone with derekh eretz (civility and humanity) and chesed (mercy and kindness). And we are obligated to take an active role in creating a better world for all people and for future generations.

As we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who transformed our country with his vision and leadership, I am reminded of the deep connections between these values and what Dr. King stood for: Justice and liberty for all. Diversity and equality as fundamental tenets of our communities and our country. Judging people on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin.

From big cities to small towns, as thousands of people across the nation answer what Dr. King called life's most urgent and persistent question -- what are you doing for others? -- they are transcending political, social and religious differences to come together and give back to their communities.

For these precious moments, we are no longer rich or poor, black or white, conservative or liberal, Christian, Muslim or Jew. We are no longer allowing the voices on either extreme to crowd out those of reason, consensus and civility. As human beings, we are taking ownership and communal responsibility for creating a more just world.

But our service cannot last just one hour or even one day. We have to foster a lifelong commitment to contributing to a virtuous cycle of giving back and paying forward, of enhancing our own lives as we better the lives of others. At a time when our country and our world are so divided, it is ever more important that we are united in knowing what it is we stand FOR, not just what we stand against.

It may seem daunting, but I am optimistic. I believe that as we face unparalleled prosperity in some quarters and deep impoverishment in others, it is the willingness of the next generation to bridge the gap between the two that will return us to our sense of purpose and focus.

From the streets to cyberspace, they are mobilizing around their passions, be it eradicating poverty and illiteracy, preserving the environment, or creating educational equity and opportunity for all. Indeed, I look at the educational reform movement currently sweeping the nation, and I see it being powered by inspiring, effective young leaders who believe that through equal access to education, all people can cross the boundaries from which they were born and live self-sufficient lives.

It was, after all, a young college student named Wendy Kopp who, armed only with passion and an idea, turned her college thesis into a movement for educational opportunity. Today, Teach For America has nearly 33,000 corps members who have reached more than 3 million children nationwide, and it has spawned a global effort in 22 countries operating under the banner of Teach For All.

To all of the young people out there who are creating social change or even fomenting social movements: hold on to your idealism and your belief in your ability to change the world. Your lofty goals demand attention and deserve support.

There is a saying in Jewish tradition, n'aaseh u'nishma, we will do and we will listen. To me, this means we are called to put deeds above words, to lead by example. On a day like today, we think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who stood side by side with Dr. King in his struggle for justice and is famous for saying as he marched in Selma, "My feet are praying."

By making a lifelong commitment to service, we put ourselves in the company of great leaders who have dedicated their lives to helping repair our world. Starting today, I challenge all of us to answer the question of what we are doing for others by praying with both our hands and our feet. I challenge all of us to give back and pay it forward.