The sycamore tree in the parking lot, from Sick-Amour. Photos courtesy of Joel Tauber’s website

Tikkun Olam: Improving the World Through Creativity

An interview with Joel Tauber inspires change.

On Jan. 29, I competed in the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) Hackathon at Yeshiva University. The objective of the Hackathon is to create an engineering project in just a few hours. This year’s theme was environmental conservation. My team, from HANC High School, built an alarm that would alert someone if they tried to exit a room without turning off the lights, and a website which would log how many times this occurred. The entire event was an incredible experience, especially because we took home a trophy as semifinalists. I saw so many fascinating and impressive projects, and it was inspiring to see so many teenagers thinking about ways we could improve the way we treat our world. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world – both environmentally and socially – is an important Jewish value. 

To artist, filmmaker and art/film professor Joel Tauber, it is the foundation of not only his life, but his career as well. Tauber was originally inspired by the concept of Tikkun Olam during his education at Maimonides School in Boston. He went to Yale with the intention of becoming a doctor, but ended up discovering a love for art, filmmaking and ethics. He decided that he wanted to change the world and contribute to society by creating art and film projects that would spark conversation about ethical issues. “I love our country, I love our culture, but we’re also a very individualistic culture and a very materialistic culture,” he said in a phone interview. “Sometimes I’m concerned that the idea of our communal responsibilities to each other, to the land, to other species, is not as dominant an idea in our minds as I would like it to be.”

One of Joel Tauber’s projects, which is both a thirty-minute documentary and an art installation, is called Sick-Amour. The subject is a sycamore tree in the center of the Rose Bowl Stadium parking lot in Pasadena, California, which was suffering from lack of water, getting hit by cars and having its roots paved over with asphalt, among other issues. Tauber became attached to this tree because nobody else noticed its suffering, so he tried to use this tree to make a statement about our responsibilities to the natural world in general. Tauber built a metal fence to protect the tree and lobbied the Rose Bowl Stadium and Pasadena to remove some of the asphalt and surround the tree with mulch. The tree got healthier and was able to reproduce, and Tauber found homes for 200 of the tree’s “babies.” The documentary also shows his wedding under the tree, claiming that the tree taught him how to love. 

Tauber’s current project is called Border-Ball. Each day for 40 days, he walked a 7-mile route along a Southern California stretch of the US-Mexico border, connecting the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, the wall, and the Otay Mesa Detention Center. He wore a baseball uniform and asked people he met along the border to play catch with him and tell him their stories. Tauber chose baseball as a way of reaching out to people because he sees it as a metaphor for the ideals of the United States. “There’s racism in baseball and in the United States,” he said, “but there’s also open-heartedness…this dream of this big green field where we can all live and play together. I wanted to take that openness where people can play ball together, or live in this country together, from all walks of life, whatever color your skin is, no matter what your religion is, no matter what part of the world you’re from, and to bring that idea down to the border, where it seems many of us have become more closed.”

Border-Ball, Joel Tauber in front of the border wall.

He had a reason for choosing 40 days as the length of the project as well: he wanted a pilgrimage which would allude to Biblical narratives such as the 40 days Moshe spent on Har Sinai and the 40 years the Jewish people wandered in the desert. “I wanted to bring the ethics that come coupled with those Biblical stories down to the border to help raise the question: are we acting ethically? Are we acting according to the principles, ideals, and beliefs that are so important to so many people?” he explained. Border-Ball will be presented as an art exhibition with videos in Los Angeles, at ArtCenter DTLA, between June 2 and Aug. 21. It will also be shown as a movie sometime soon after that.

Having recently finished this pilgrimage, Joel Tauber wanted to share the inspiration he received from the experience. It was by no means an easy endeavor. The walk was long, and the air was polluted. More difficult than the physical challenge was the psychological one. Tauber heard many traumatic stories about people being treated in racist ways or denied citizenship, about family members being locked up in detention centers and separated from each other, all through beginning conversation with the toss of a baseball. He found himself thinking about the Holocaust: all the Jews who were called dirty and thrown into concentration camps and killed, his grandfather’s brother who died in a slave labor camp and his grandparents who were Holocaust survivors. However, there was also happiness and hope in the experience. Even though he was hearing these stories about people being treated in racist ways, often by people in uniform, he got to be wearing another kind of American uniform – a red, white, and blue baseball uniform – and represent a more openhearted vision of the United States. 

Another amazing aspect of the journey was the sense of community he found even at the border. He played catch with all of these different people as equals. He talked to one family who was afraid they might get deported and already had a sibling locked up in the detention center, and yet they still offered him assistance, saying he looked tired, asking if he needed a drink of water. “That generosity of spirit was beautiful to see, because they were embodying the ideals that the United States was built on,” he said. “They didn’t have the papers, but it struck me that they were embodying what our country wants to be.” Tauber was moved by the thanks and appreciation he received. Some people ignored him or thought he was weird, but that was fine. “Weirdness is something I applaud,” he said. “If convention and normalcy are saying it’s okay to put people in detention centers, then I’m not interested in that kind of normalcy. I’m interested in trying to challenge conventional thinking.”

Tauber said that the messages of Sick-Amour and Border-Ball are actually very similar: although we often ignore the suffering around us, we are all connected, and it is our responsibility to create change. We can reduce plastic, Styrofoam and fossil fuel use; we can tell people that racist language is not acceptable. We can lobby and protest and write to politicians, but first we need to realize that the responsibility belongs to all of us. Tauber concluded with the remark, “If there’s pain to a tree or someone in a detention center, it impacts all of us, and I know that we’re capable of being so much better. I look forward to seeing how we fix our problems together.”


Rena Max is a senior at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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