Countering Fear in the Public Square

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

Los Angeles – Dec. 23, 2010 – This video that has tens of thousands of hits on YouTube can be characterized in many ways. It’s a reflection of America now. It’s a Jewish educational tool. It’s a call to action.

In fact, it’s all of these. Here, the ages-old Jewish call for social consciousness is partnered with 21st century technology and social media to take a direct shot at a culture increasingly and vociferously trading in the currency of division, hate and fear.

Al Tirah, Hebrew for Fear Not, and a common phrase and theme in Jewish teachings, is the name of a new movement jumpstarted by Jewish Funds for Justice and IKAR, the renowned Los Angeles-based Jewish spiritual community. It’s also the title of a virally distributed video aiming to counter what organizers describe as a public discourse in need of severe mending.

“We are striking at the heart of the problem with public discourse today,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR. “The culture of fear contradicts core Jewish values. We are working to transform a sense of despair into a call to action.”

The catalyst came late last summer, when Rabbi Brous was at the local Jewish Community Center that houses IKAR and a disturbance broke outside. Peering out the window, she took in a mini-hate rally, where participants spewed out vitriol against gays, Jews and other assorted minorities.

The scene, she said, alarming at the least, was a microcosm of what is possible and increasingly acceptable in modern America.

It is a fear-based landscape populated by high-volume cable programming, incendiary talk radio, nascent movements and take-no-prisoners politics. Fueling the fear are such divisive issues as the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, the gay marriage proposition in California, immigration reform, and the damaging recession, among others.

So she took to her computer to compose a lengthy Rosh Hashanah sermon, A Spiritual State of the Union, for delivery a few weeks later to her typically well-engaged congregation.

“It feels as if our country is entering a state of moral emergency,” she said in her sermon. “This time the crisis appears not in the form of sit-ins and race riots, but rather in a climate of toxic and impassioned divisiveness that threatens to tear apart the fabric of the country … This year has really been defined by a growing venomous anger in America, which combined with a culture of fear, has produced a dangerous and ugly new standard in public discourse.”

It must be countered, she continued, with a “culture of empathy,” a very Jewish concept grounded in teachings as well as a Jewish history framed by “a legacy of suffering and liberation.”

Her words ricocheted around the Internet. Among those taking note was Mik Moore, Chief Strategy Officer at Jewish Funds for Justice, who spearheaded the wildly successful Great Schlep video that featured comedian Sarah Silverman during the 2008 presidential campaign.

A fierce believer in the powerful combination of video and social media to raise awareness and move people to action, Moore partnered with IKAR and Rabbi Brous to transform her sermon into a new media form before the midterm elections in November.

“We’ve seen a dominating and demoralizing distortion of American discourse this year,” Moore said. “Rabbi Brous’s sermon addressed it in a powerful way. We believed it could be the basis of something captivating and engaging, that would motivate and compel people to take action.”

The three-minute viral video features Rabbi Brous against a moving background of animation, torn-from-the-news images and Jewish text, all positioned to spur viewers to take note, and more importantly, to move to inject balance into the public square.

“This is our inheritance,” Rabbi Brous exhorts in the video. “We must not cower from it.”

Originally designed to make a statement and to motivate community in advance of the midterm elections, the video is leaving a larger and more permanent footprint.

Earlier this year, IKAR received a three-year grant from The Covenant Foundation to support the Minyan Tzedek project, which seeks to translate a commitment to Jewish learning, social responsibility and healing into real action on the ground. IKAR members have used the video not only to raise spirits and sense of purpose around the project, but also as a reference for discussion and Jewish study.

IKAR officials suggested that the organization, known for its commitment to community activism, is well positioned to apply the strategy to other issues, such as hunger and the needs of the developing world.

“We are focused on how to serve community on the ground here, but also on how to make an impact nationally,” said Melissa Balaban, IKAR executive director. “We are always thinking about how to do this in a smart and thoughtful way. Al Tirah is a great example.”

And at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in early November, Moore met with youth active in PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values who were inspired by the video. They want to leverage it in other settings and also create original videos with the same motivating objective for digital distribution and community engagement.

Still, the video and the latest technology can only go so far, officials acknowledged.

“The politics and culture of fear hasn’t gone away since we put this out and we didn’t expect it to,” Moore said. “There is an enormous amount of work to be done. But hopefully we have given people a new way to think about this so change can happen.”