Setting the Agenda

The Fair Trade Campaign; courtesy JSAF

Setting the Agenda
: lessons from jewish social action forum
by David Brown


Three years ago, the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF – initially the Jewish Make Poverty History Coalition) organized as a forum for professionals in the UK with a general interest or specific agenda in social justice. The Forum’s developments – including increased professional leadership, moving from mainly linking Jews with wider campaigns to cultivating a distinct Jewish social action campaign agenda, and establishing itself within the mainstream communal landscape – have allowed for increased impact and a greater sense of direction, yet have posed their own challenges. Does maintaining sufficient consensus limit JSAF’s role in more assertive campaigning? With increased professionalization, how does JSAF mobilize lay and wider support? Here are lessons learned for communal organizing for social change:

Create a Communal Force

JSAF’s first approach was to link up with wider social action campaigns. JSAF built a relationship with the Fairtrade Foundation, culminating in the production of the Jewish Guide to Fairtrade, 41 synagogues signing up to be Fairtrade, and a social enterprise selling Fairtrade kippot, with over £6000 worth of sales to date.

While also employing this approach, the most recent, largest campaign of JSAF, the Big Green Jewish Website & Big Green Jewish Campaign – launched in the build-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference – shifted from reliance on climate change as a ‘hot topic’. Instead, we set the agenda for our own broader campaign tackling these issues within a Jewish community context – our current focus on food encompasses packaging, food miles, and sensible fish and meat consumption. We focus on getting synagogues and community buildings to engage with edible gardens, reduce reliance on disposables for kashrut, and increase Jewish organizations’ use of Vegware.

Whereas previously professionals were the main participants, rabbis from across the denominations work together on this agenda. In addition, it has been supported by senior members of government – Ed Miliband, then secretary of state for energy and climate change, was guest speaker at an Age of Stupid screening, and his successor Chris Huhne endorsed our edible garden project for schools.

Capitalize on Trends of the New Generation

A factor drawing communal leaders and service providers to JSAF is a perception that our work engages a younger demographic they are not reaching. While JSAF member organizations involve a range of ages, the demographic most commonly impacted through our work is in fact younger people who connect with the universal dimension of Judaism we seek to foster.

A recent International Broadcasting Trust study, Global Generation: How young people in the UK connect with the wider world, found that world issues are increasingly a concern for young people. The challenge will be translating that concern into action.

Nevertheless, the Jewish social action community should be confident about motivating members of this new global generation. The report found some common factors among young people active, including encouragement from religious institutions, coming from international families, or experience of social injustice. Jewish educational approaches tend to be experiential and underpinned by a sense of dugma ishit (leading by example).

Many Jews have direct or indirect experience of injustice, and many of our narratives and customs link our experience with a wider push for justice, such as placing a chanukiah in the window as a sign of hope for oppressed people everywhere. Jewish social action should have a fertile ground of young people for whom connecting with injustice is obvious.

Link and Share Globally

JSAF has been keen to develop relationships with partners in Europe, America, and Israel. Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president, was the keynote speaker at the Darfur rally. The Jewish Guide to Fairtrade was adapted to a Hebrew resource by the Israeli organization Bema’aglei Tzedek. Member organization Tzedek has worked with AJWS, Jeneration and JCC have participated in Paideia and ROI conferences, and Mitzvah Day – now in its fifth year – mobilized 20,000 volunteers worldwide. JSAF is the European partner working on SIACH (p. 22-23) and hopes this network will enable this emerging sharing to build into concrete partnership.

Don’t Get Distracted by the Elephant in the Room

One challenge facing JSAF is Israel. While it may be expected that many committed to Jewish values of justice would be sympathetic to addressing the many inequalities in Israeli society, JSAF took the pragmatic view that, to establish ourselves with mainstream organizations and enable the widest spectrum of religious denominations to feel comfortable on the forum, Israel should be left out of the equation. Nevertheless, some insist this approach may not be possible long-term.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, leader in the UK Masorti Movement, responded to last year’s uproar among UK Jewry regarding some community leaders’ remarks on Israel’s approach to the peace process. His November 25, 2010 comments in The Jewish Chronicle also challenged JSAF’s handling of Israel: “Justice and compassion are the heart of Jewish ethics… We do not have the liberty of debating on one front only… We cannot avoid the issues.”

Activate Jewishly

By engaging people with Judaism’s near six-millennial struggle to grapple with life’s biggest questions, we not only shape a message on slavery or wasteful destruction. We also imbue those we touch with a profound spiritual and material purpose – not with forced dogma – but with a framework to support their journey of activism.

Many questions remain. How do we engage activists with Judaism because it provides a framework of values pushing us to pursue justice rather than because we want unaffiliated Jewish activists to be more literate and maybe become more affiliated? How do we articulate a distinct Jewish social agenda while participating in a broader global movement addressing injustice?

We continue to grapple with such questions as we work to cement Jewish social action as a current community endeavour and eternal tenet of Jewish identification.

David Brown is the Jewish Social Action Forum coordinator.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.