How Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones ended up talking ‘tikkun olam’ with Jewish teens in DC


(JTA) — Sam Rosen and Noah Segal were sitting with their friends on the steps of the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Monday when they spotted one of America’s most talked-about politicians.

Justin Jones, a Democratic lawmaker in Tennessee whom Republicans kicked out of the state’s legislature in retaliation for a gun-violence protest, was walking by in his signature white suit.

“I remember me and my friend looking at him and being like, ‘Is that him? Is that really one of the Tennessee Three?’” Rosen recalled on Wednesday from his home in Dallas. “To me, he’s kind of the face of upholding democracy right now, so it was very cool to see that.”

Jones waved at their group, this year’s crop of Bronfman Fellows, a prestigious leadership program that aims to empower Jewish teens. That initiated an encounter steeped in Jewish lingo that went viral after a liberal news outlet in Tennessee shared a video on social media.

“Can I shake your hand?” Segal, a high school senior from Ardsley, New York, asked Jones. Several of the other teens introduced themselves, too, and one explained that they were all Jewish teens from across North America.

“This is a Jewish program?” Jones asked after giving a brief pep talk about getting more young people involved in politics, drawing an affirmative response.

“Tikkun olam,” Jones ventured, seemingly testing whether he had correctly named the Hebrew term meaning “repair the world” that has come to signify social justice in progressive circles.

“Yes,” the teens replied in unison, many of their faces lighting up with excitement. “We just talked about that!” Rosen said, with apparent delight. After chatting with the group for a few more minutes, Jones said he had to head off for a White House meeting with President Joe Biden — but he took the time first to pose for a picture with the group.

For many of the people who saw and shared the video, produced and posted Tuesday by the Tennessee Holler news site, the exchange offered an example of cross-cultural solidarity at a time of polarization. The video has been seen well over 2 million times on Twitter and more on other platforms.

“It seems like it resonated because it was a genuine, uplifting moment that showed how impactful it can be to have young leaders showing other young people the way forward — and because it crossed lines. Racial lines. Religious lines. Geographic lines. It shows how essential it is to come together,” Justin Kanew, Tennessee Holler’s founder and editor, told JTA. (The site was the first to report that a Tennessee school board had banned the Holocaust novel “Maus” last year.)

Kanew added: “Also: Justin Jones is the real deal. Sincere, and inspirational. So that helps.”

Jones burst onto the national scene last month when he and another Tennessee lawmaker were ejected from the state legislature after staging a protest over the Republican-led body’s inaction after a school shooting in Nashville. Both men are Black; a third lawmaker who protested is a white woman and she was not ejected. The racial disparity in the lawmakers’ treatment drew widespread criticism, even after local elected officials in Nashville and Memphis reversed the ejections.

The saga has made Jones into a folk hero among progressives, as well as an inspiration to those who want to see young adults — he is 27 – play an active role in shaping the country.

“Thank you for being a role model for the young,” Dan Libenson, the head of a Jewish education philanthropy who teaches in the Bronfman program, tells Jones in the video.

Libenson told JTA that it had taken the group a moment to realize that the man in the white suit was in fact Jones, as the group had been sequestered at a Jewish retreat center in Maryland and had not heard about Jones’ visit, or about the backlash from some conservatives against it.

“As you can see from the video, as soon as it registered, we all rushed down to greet him,” Libenson told JTA in an email. “It’s clear that Gen Z has been traumatized by the mass shootings that seem to happen every day, and I think many of the fellows see Justin Jones as a hero for not taking no for an answer with regard to the safety of young people like them.”

Said Segal, “The whole seminar theme was vision and the future, so it was random and funky and cool to see someone who is right there making a change.” About Jones’ invocation of tikkun olam, he said, “I was impressed with him before that and impressed with him after that.”

The Bronfman Fellows program is not partisan, and participants hold a wide range of political views, according to Becky Voorwinde, the group’s CEO. But she noted that applicants for the fellowship must write about a contemporary issue that matters to them, and many choose gun violence. “It cuts across political viewpoints,” she said. “They grew up after Sandy Hook. This is their reality.”

Asked whether the issue was one he thought a lot about, Rosen answered, “How can it not be?”

He went on, “It’s not like it’s one awful shooting a year. It’s every day. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before it’s me. It’s not something that controls my entire life, but it’s always in the back of my mind.”

What the Bronfman Youth Fellows’ group photo with Tennessee Rep. Justin Jones looked like from the vantage point of where they’d been sitting before they spotted the prominent lawmaker. (Courtesy of Becky Voorwinde)

Segal said that he, too, viewed the threat of gun violence, alongside climate change, as one of the widest problems facing young people. In fact, he said, for part of a final project in the fellowship, he’d facilitated a discussion about what it means to fight antisemitism for a generation surrounded by mass shootings.

The Washington trip was a closing activity for the cohort of Bronfman Fellows, who first spent five weeks together last summer before getting together throughout the year virtually and in person. Before running into Jones, the group had been meeting with four Jewish White House staffers; afterward, they broke into small teams to meet with past fellows working in a wide array of jobs in the area.

The day before the viral encounter, the group visited a haredi Orthodox yeshiva in Baltimore. There, too, tikkun olam came up in discussion — but the head of the yeshiva seemed to dismiss it as a meaningful framework for Jewish life compared to the commandments of traditional Jewish law.

Rosen, who belongs to a Reform synagogue in Dallas and is headed to Brandeis University in the fall, pushed back.

“I said, ‘Rabbi, this is an obligation that we all uphold in our community. It’s a core value of Judaism and who I am,’” he recounted. “To me, that’s why it was so cool that Justin Jones said that.”

The entire encounter with Jones, Rosen said, felt authentic and empowering. And that feeling, Kanew said, could be contagious.

“Everything we need to save this country from descending into a dark place was right there in that exchange,” Kanew said. “And the beauty of it is everything that moment represents will inevitably come to fruition if people stay engaged and keep fighting for it. So it’s an incredibly hopeful moment, and hope is what people are looking for right now.”