Paths to compassionate action and service
Celebrating Professor Laurence Simon’s 40 years of world development
For anyone determined to make the world a better place, inspiration abounded during Tuesday’s symposium honoring Professor Laurence R. Simon, founder of the graduate program in Sustainable International Development, cofounder of American Jewish World Service and founder of GrainPro, Inc., a company whose technology has reduced spoilage of grain in developing countries.
The event, which took place in Rapaporte Treasure Hall, brought together leaders in the field of world development, former students, family and friends to mark Simon’s 40 years of dedication and service. Each shared stories of influence, support and mentorship, which not only launched their careers, but also sustained them.
Simon’s career has taken him from hands-on antipoverty work in Sri Lanka to the halls of power and influence. As Oxfam’s director for global policy analysis, he served as liaison to committees of the US Congress on issues of land reform, poverty and food security. In 1981 a research effort exposing US-financed land reform in El Salvador led to a New York Times investigation, which prompted Congressional hearings.
Friends and colleagues lauded Simon’s dedication over the decades, including many who thanked Simon for his selfless mentoring. One of those people was Larry Brilliant, an original board member of American Jewish World Services and a longtime friend of Simons’ who spoke to the audience via video.
Brilliant played an instrumental role in eradicating small pox in India with the World Health Organization and was the founding executive director of google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm that focuses on public health and development issues. Brilliant thanked Simon for opening his home, coaching his staff at google.org and walking him through the launching of the Seva Foundation, which works around the world to eliminate preventable and curable blindness.
The theme of tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase that means “repairing the world,” ran through the talks, beginning with Lisa Lynch, dean and Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at the Heller School.
“Larry really epitomized the scholar activist,” said Lynch. “He has been engaged in all parts of the world in terms of making a difference for the most vulnerable individuals and populations. His accomplishments in the field of international sustainable development are numerous.”
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president emeritus of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, praised Simon and those who have taken various concepts from Judaism along their path to work toward equality, humility and compassion.
“The promise and commitment of tikkun olam has been a cliché in modern Jewish theology, but I think it’s not fully and properly understood,” said Greenberg. “This message of not accepting the world as it is, not accepting the status quo, but that it can and must be transformed. We must see each person as infinitely valuable. Tikkun olam is not just social justice, but productivity, jobs, economic development and moral responsibility.”
Joan Dassin '69, executive director of the International Fellowships Program for the Ford Foundation, commended Simon and his colleagues for providing an intellectual framework, specialized knowledge and tools for social policy analysis.
“What has motivated my own journey, Larry has suggested, is the key element of compassion,” said Dassin. “It seems to be present in all cultures. It may be repressed or debased, but it always resurfaces.”
Rabbi Marc Gopin, (Ph.D. '93), director of the Center on World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, said that Simon played an important role in his own intellectual evolution, one that embraced universal values together with religiosity, the value of every single life and human dignity.
“It’s a very painful journey of empathy, but one that began many ways in Larry’s living room,” said Gopin. “It’s been an amazing journey of discovering an intelligent approach to compassion that truly changes the world.”
At the end of the symposium, Andreas Teuber, associate professor of philosophy, and Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, spoke of the importance of compassion and action, and that everyone must be mindful that success does not come all at once.
“It is the qualities of steadfastness that really matter,” said Messinger, who then quoted Louis Brandeis: “Most of the things worth doing in the world were declared impossible before they were done.”