Public Service is an Act of Tikkun Olam

Justice, justice, shall you pursue.

From 2013 until 2017, I was honored to serve as a political appointee in President Obama’s White House. In my role in the Domestic Policy Council’s Office of Urban Affairs, Justice, and Opportunity, I entered the White House gates each morning with the responsibility of expanding and protecting the civil rights of all people in our country. On any given day, we could have been working to coordinate better services for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, expand access to voting rights, reform the criminal justice system, and close the pay gap for women--just to name a few.
In 2019 I, along with nine other young women who worked in the Obama Administration, published the New York Times bestseller Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope and Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House. Our goal was twofold. The first was to encourage more young women, no matter what they study in school--from infectious diseases to political science--to consider careers in public service. We argue: it’s an exciting and meaningful career choice where young people can make a difference. The second point, intertwined with the first, is that policy affects all our lives and it is made by those who are in the room. When women and other underrepresented groups like people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and the disability community, are not in the room, in the best case, policies we care about are ignored. In the worst, policies are created that are actively harmful.
Personally, I approached my work in government with the teachings I learned every week at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, as well as in my Jewish home from my parents and grandparents. As Jews, we are taught to practice tikkun olam--repairing of the world. In my Yes She Can chapter, I quote President Obama in his 2016 proclamation for African American History Month--his last as President. “America's greatness is a testament to generations of courageous individuals who, in the face of uncomfortable truths, accepted that the work of perfecting our Nation is unending and strived to expand the reach of freedom to all.” Bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Creating that more perfect union. Sounds like tikkun olam to me.
I have thought a lot about my Jewish identity and my work in public service over the last week. Most Jews in America today have not experienced direct anti-Semitism, and if we have it is likely not on the scale of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors before them. While the struggle for our right to exist and survive is documented and real throughout history, for us in America, it does not compare to those of our African American brothers and sisters. And for Jews of color, especially Black Jews, the discrimination they face is often intersectional and heightened, sometimes from within our own community. We cannot be afraid to raise these facts because they make us uncomfortable. In fact, we must raise them precisely for that reason.
However, it is because of our history of persecution that we owe it to ourselves, neighbors, and our ancestors to join the fight against racism. Against oppression. Against systematic, state-sponsored murder. Never again means never again--not just for Jews, but for anyone. It is not enough to simply be non-racist. We must be actively anti-racist.
In 2017, I left DC to continue my public service in state government. I now live in New York City, not far from the famed reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue. Right across the street, etched into the side of the building that formerly housed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations is the message: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy god.” To me, public service--forming the laws and norms of our nation’s government-- is how I follow that dictum. It is how I work to make sure that never again is truly never again and that we are protecting all of our rights, but especially the most vulnerable.
This week particularly, as Jews, I hope we are all redoubling our commitment to tikkun olam and in particular racial justice. If you are looking to learn more or get involved, below are recommended resources. And do not forget to register to vote. Check your registration or register at And be sure to register with the RAC’s “Every Voice, Every Vote” Civic Engagement Campaign.
Organizations doing work in this area include:
If you are interested in purchasing Yes She Can, we hope you do so from your favorite local independent bookstore, as they need our help now more than ever. Find your local indie at Indiebound. Yes She Can is also available on Audible.
Molly Dillon is the compiler and co-author of the New York Times Bestseller, Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope and Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House. After serving in the Obama White House from 2013-2017, she became a Senior Policy Advisor in the New York Governor’s office. She is currently a policy, strategy, and communications consultant and a co-founder of the C19 Coalition, working to bring critical PPE to frontline healthcare workers. She holds a B.A. from Johns Hopkins University and a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University. Originally from Highland Park, Illinois, she now lives in New York City.

Published: 6/08/2020

Categories: Our Social Justice, Civil Rights