Traditions of Service

July 10, 2017

The summer is here! The pace of life on campus has slowed—but not stopped—giving me some moments for reflecting and taking stock about what is important. 

I recently stumbled across some handwritten notes I made several years ago, when I was provost. The text included details about a wonderful interaction with alumni who wanted to support Yale in different ways. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and vision, as I often am when I meet with alumni and friends of the university. It also immediately reminded me of some very early lessons—about service and giving back—that I learned growing up.

In my parents’ home when I was a child, you could always find what is typically called a tzedakah box—a small receptacle where loose change can be collected to give to those in need. Such a box is often a child’s first introduction to the concept of tzedakah, which translates loosely and imperfectly as “charity.” The major difference between charity and tzedakah is that the latter derives from the same root in Hebrew as “justice” or “righteousness.” Acts of tzedakah are not only about giving charity to the poor; they also help make the world a better, more just, and even righteous place.

Here at Yale, I am surrounded by people of many backgrounds who, whether they realize it or not, are doing acts of tzedakah. This summer, about thirty recipients of a President’s Public Service Fellowship are working with government, business, and non-profits to serve children, families, immigrants, refugees, and other vulnerable populations in New Haven. Dwight Hall, the country’s largest student-run service organization, continues to operate in the summer months, supporting organizations that provide meals to the hungry and offer activities for young people in our city. Around the world, Yale students are serving their communities as camp counselors, tutors, and mentors. And of course, our alumni are constantly seeking out ways to carry on the Yale tradition of service beyond graduation, exemplified by the Yale Day of Service each spring and the Yale Alumni Service Corps trips.

Many world religions and traditions share an obligation to serve others and improve the world. Indeed, Yale’s mission statement begins with our pledge to “improving the world today and for future generations.” I am continually impressed by how the Yale community realizes this commitment every day. Yale students, faculty, alumni, and staff are indeed tzadekim: people who are all working to make the world a more righteous, just, and fair place. Today, this summer, and always, I am proud of all the ways you make service a vital, vibrant Yale tradition.