Activism – The Sixth Leg of the Jewish Table

By Jake Campbell

“The Jews are no longer uniform,” Avraham Infeld proclaims, “We were never uniform about how to Jew, but we were always uniform, until the emancipation, about what it meant to be a Jew. That does not exist today. And I am bothered by the question, is it possible to be unified without being uniform?” As someone who has chosen to devote his professional life to Jewish continuity, community, and pluralism, this is a question that often bothers me too as it would bother everyone who has done the same be they a Hillel professional, a professional working for a Jewish Student Union, or any other kind of Jewish professional. Can we be unified as Jews without being uniform?

Infeld does produce a convincing answer. A strong and sturdy table of Jewish identity built on the foundation of five legs, and to Infeld the legs that make up this foundation are Memory, Family, Covenant, Israel and Hebrew. With wisdom, he declares “I have seen tables meant for five legs stand on four, I have seen them stand on three. On two, they topple over, on one they are not even a table.” However, he finishes the thought with his greatest wisdom, “If every Jew would find a way of internalising at least three out of those five legs in their lives, we won’t be uniform, but we will always be unified.”

More than any modern Jewish thinker, I have a great deal of respect for this man who has done as much in application as he has done in thinking. However, it is becoming clear that there is a sixth leg, and this has consequences for our ability to be unified without being uniform. This sixth leg is Activism. In 2001, 28 percent of the population aged 16 years or older reported volunteering for at least one nonprofit, (Sundeen, Raskoff & Garcia, 2007). 2015 data suggests that this has for the most part over a decade and a half remained consistent with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015) reporting 24.9 percent of the United States population volunteering for an organisation at least once. Dote et al (2006) further found that students volunteered at a rate of 2 percent higher than the national average and that the growth in student volunteering was double that of the general population. However, the American Jewish student population volunteers at a rate that surpasses the general population three-fold, volunteering at 78 percent, (Chertok et al, 2011). Additionally, according to Chertok et al’s Repair the World report “Volunteering and Values,” (2011), this is a phenomenon that travels across Jewish denomination and practice. Many might be cynical and suggest that this is something that young Jews do only to pad their resume or for some other self-interested reason, however, it was found by Chertok et al (2011) that this was the least significant reason. Indeed, this is not a trend that stops when Jewish students graduate. According to Connected to Give, a joint effort by foundations to measure religious giving trends, some 76 percent of American Jews gave to a cause in 2012, compared with 63 percent of non-Jewish Americans.

Jews volunteer, Jews donate, and Jews do so because we are Jewish. They might not volunteer or donate for Jewish causes, as suggested by both the Connected to Give and Repair the World reports, but they give of their time and money because this is a Jewish value, because it is a Jewish leg. I know this, yes because otherwise the statistics are unexplainable, but also as part of my career working with Jewish students in Australia and the States. Like Rabbi Heschel describing marching in Selma as “praying with my feet,” time and time again the Jewish students I work with have described to me that, whether for Jewish causes or others, they too pray with their feet. The way they do Jewish is through Tikkun Olam, through activism, through joining others or leading others in righting a wrong, protecting the weak, or fighting for their own rights. While it may be more obvious now than ever that activism is a foundation of many Jews’ Jewish identity, it should not be surprising. There is a strong tradition of Jews fighting for and leading causes including feminism, environmentalism, animal rights, as allies in the American Civil Rights Movement, fighting social inequality and more, and this tradition is embedded in Jewish thought itself. After all, perhaps the most famous Jewish phrase is that of Hillel the elder “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Hillel demands of us as Jews to fight for our rights, to fight for the rights of others, and to do it now, and for millennia Jews have listened.

However, what is the consequence then for our unification? Are we to demand that Jews identify with not three but four legs? Is that not asking too much? Yes, to be unified without being uniform we must identify with four legs, but this is not asking too much, not so long as we as Jewish leaders take the correct strategy. As stated above, the significant majority of Jews are activists. That activism may be achieved through philanthropy, or through volunteering, but it is activism nonetheless. Only 27% of this activism may be targeted towards Jewish causes, but that does not invalidate the other 68% as any less Jewish, and that is the key. We – Rabbis, Hillel Professionals, Jewish Student Union Professionals, lay leaders, lobbyists, and every other kind of leader of our community must encourage and rally those we lead to be involved and activate for the causes they care about. They will do so anyway. We must encourage our congregations, our students, and our communities to do so as something that is part of the Jewish experience no matter what cause they choose. If they wish to activate for feminism, let them do so, but encourage them to do so not only because they care about equality of the sexes, but because as Jews we should actively care. Infeld may not have figured that there may be a single expression of Jewish identity, and yes it may still be important to have other legs under your table to make it Jewish. However, a near unanimous majority of us are already activists. We already actively care. We might not care about Jewish causes, and we certainly might not care about the same causes, but we all care, and we all do so with our legs, with our hands, and with our back pockets. Let us be unified in this. Realise the Jewish community for what it is – a community of activists. There is not a Jewish organisation that will not benefit from this being the leg that keeps every Jewish table sturdy and balanced.

Jake Campbell is the Executive Director of a Jewish nonprofit in Australasia and a former Ezra Fellow.