In just under a week, I’ll be boarding a plane with my CJP Project Inspire cohort on our way to Kenya. The ocean between here and there feels like a universe away. Africa is a place I have only experienced through media portrayals and rare interactions with someone from the continent. In the week before I depart, I am working hard to set aside the pop culture images of Africa so I can arrive with an open mind, open heart and open eyes.
Every person on the trip has a role to play, and I’ve taken on the job of cohort musician. Messing around with a guitar for years and years has finally come in handy. It’s a chance to contribute to the cohort by supporting our Shabbat service and offering music at other times during the trip. But it’s also a chance to share with our hosts in Kenya—music can bridge cultures and pull people toward one another. I expect to take in as much African music as I can and share some of mine when appropriate.
This trip is also taking place at a meaningful juncture in my life: I left my job of eight years as a government attorney to begin a one-year graduate degree program in public administration. This trip is a chance for me to think more deeply about the role of public service and the responsibility to repair the world. At the same time, I’m not crossing an ocean to be a fixer.
In our trip orientation last week, we discussed the meaning of tikkun olam, repairing the world. We discussed the importance of doing more than talking or thinking about challenges, and taking action to improve the world. But there is a tension because our trip is not a service mission, it’s a study tour; we will be doing a lot of learning and listening, but we are not there to fix.
I recall the words a professor in my program offered the class two weeks ago: “You are not here to change the world. You are here to learn how to change the world.” That applies equally to Project Inspire. We are going to Kenya to learn about the work of Israeli individuals and organizations that share their knowledge and experiences to improve the lives of people there. We are going to Kenya to learn from the local people we meet and experience the world in a new way. We are going to Kenya to understand what it means to repair the world before we embark on the difficult task of doing so.
I am grateful for this opportunity and for the chance to learn from people in Kenya, my cohort and our Israeli hosts. I expect to come back with many questions, some new perspectives and a rededication to this year’s mission of learning to repair the world. And hopefully one new African song to play on guitar.
Jonathan Sclarsic is pursuing a mid-career master’s of public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he is a Zuckerman Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership. Prior to attending the Kennedy School, he served as an assistant attorney general and director of the division of open government in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.