Fight Like a Mensch: Integrated Social Change

By Rabbi David Jaffe, Rabbi Rachel Timoner
and Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D.

What was the program at the J Street National Conference, held in April, that was so pressing that every seat was taken, the floor was filled to overflow and the doors had to be barred to additional participants? To the surprise of the organizers, it was a session titled “Fight Like a Mensch” that promised strategies for maintaining our humanity and decency in the heat of political battles – in this instance, working for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, but apt for any number of issues facing Jews in this turbulent, disrupted 21st century.

We three rabbis from different denominations – Rabbi David Jaffe, Rabbi Rachel Timoner and Rabbi Deborah Waxman – combined Jewish wisdom with concrete practices both ancient and contemporary to create a session promoting Jewish spiritual resilience. We all work in different locations in and beyond the Jewish community. David, the founder of the Inside-Out Wisdom and Action Project, teaches about the intersection of activism with musar and other spiritual practices around the country, drawing from his National Jewish Book Award-winning Changing the World from the Inside Out. Rachel is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, where she focuses on the intersection of social justice and spiritual life, is the author of Breath of Life, and recently co-led (with Rabbis Sheila Weinberg and Myriam Klotz) Tending the Fire, a retreat for social justice activists seeking to sustaining their work through spiritual practice. Deborah is the president of Reconstructing Judaism, where one of her passions is promoting resilience through a Jewish lens, including through her podcast Hashivenu: Jewish Spiritual Resilience and through Reset: Jewish Practices for Activists, a pilot project jointly funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Lippmann Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.

We came together at J Street out of our shared commitment to finding a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is just and sustainable for both Israelis and Palestinians. And we came together out of a three-fold conviction. First, we see that in order to sustain this or any other kind of justice-oriented work, which is hard, heart-breaking, full of setbacks and sometimes venom, and requires taking the longest view, activists must commit to physical AND spiritual self-care. Second, to get the best, most sustainable outcomes, the way we do this work must be holistic and grounded in love, dignity and a sense of deep connection. And finally, we are equally sure that Judaism, our rich and diverse inheritance, offers many pathways toward such grounding and spiritual self-care and renewal. This is true because throughout Jewish history, the Jewish people as a whole has faced insurmountable challenges, adversity and heartbreak and nonetheless survived and even flourished. Contained within Judaism are myriad spiritual technologies designed to promote and sustain resilience and deep connection in the face of individual and communal suffering.

Participants at the J Street Conference, like many social change activists, need to channel their passion and anger about injustice in healthy, nurturing ways while deflecting attacks. They need to maintain resilience and enthusiasm for their issue while resolution or success seems very far away. We wanted to introduce a handful of these technologies to the participants gathered at J Street to sustain them and ground their activism in spiritual wisdom. The three practices included:

Gratitude: Deborah taught that the ancient Jewish emphasis on saying blessings anticipated modern psychological findings about how cultivating gratitude leads to greater well-being, and shared how her own gratitude practices ground her when she is feeling despair and fatigue. She then worked with the whole group on parsing and embracing the morning blessing modeh ani, expressing gratitude for waking up every day.

Sustaining Relationship: David shared his own experience struggling to maintain a relationship with a Palestinian partner during the height of the second intifada. He then taught a mystical Mussar practice that calls on people in conflict to maintain connection with both allies and adversaries, drawing inspiration for this type of relationship from kabbalistic models of the continuous divine flow of love to all creation.

Embodied Resilience: Rachel described the experience of facing a particularly angry and critical congregant who is offended by her leadership on Israel. She asked people to recall similar experiences in their work and led them in the mindfulness practice of watching the sensations of emotions in the body. She then taught a chesed/lovingkindness meditation to comfort the distress we feel when anger and hatred are turned toward us.

We thought about 30 – 50 people would show up, and we were in a room that could accommodate about 60 people. What do we make of the fact that more than 100 people crowded into the room and others were turned away? That they participated with full hearts, offering beautiful translations of the morning blessing on the spot, sang it in a new melody in beautiful voice, opened themselves up to these penetrating teachings, and made themselves vulnerable in sharing their insights?

We see that people want ways to fight and organize powerfully that are full of integrity and accountability – a counter-cultural impulse in the current moment that we very much want to encourage. We understand clearly that people are seeking wisdom and practice to accompany their activism and that even the most secular Jews can be sustained by religious Jewish teachings if they are presented in accessible ways.

A field of Jewish spiritual practice and social justice is emerging. The success of this workshop at a conference that was otherwise focused on political advocacy is a promising sign of openness towards this type of integration. We are excited to continue to develop and refine this work, individually and in partnership, in as many settings as we can find. We invite you to join us by contacting any of us to share your wisdom and stories and learn more about this growing field of integrated social change.

Rabbi David Jaffe seeks to integrate spiritual wisdom, social justice, reconciliation and deep personal growth. He is the author of “Changing the World from the Inside Out,” which received the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner is a renowned rabbi, author and activist. She currently serves as Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., is president of Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement.