Social Justice and Jews – An Open Letter to Jonathan Weisman

Jewish Social Justice 2017 Network Assembly; photo via Facebook.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Abby Levine

You’re right. Not enough American Jews are engaged in activism and social justice at this critical point in our nation’s history. I agree with you – 2018 is desperately calling out for more people grounded in Jewish values consistently, passionately standing up for the America and the world we believe in and speaking out about anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry.

Many of us are already doing this work – and we are a lot more like you than you may think. You would fit right in.

Jane Eisner, editor of the Forward, mentions a few incredible Jewish women leading this work every day. They, and other inspiring leaders, are backed up by hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file community members, activists, teachers, thinkers, and doers.

I’m the Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable – a network of 57 Jewish organizations engaged in social justice work. These 57 organizations have a combined budget of $275 million dollars, have staff in 39 cities across the US, and are grounded in a long and deeply Jewish tradition of justice.

This is a Jewish tradition that says: Remember the stranger. Care for the widow and the orphan. Treat employees fairly. Heal the world. Pursue Justice. A tradition that teaches us not only how people ought to treat each other one-on-one, but also demands that we collectively imagine and work towards a vision of a truly just and fair society for all. We, the field of Jewish social justice, believe in and work for the systematic transformation of our communities, our cities, our states, our country, and the world.

That vision, for the world as it should be, combines with the responsibilities that are so integral to Judaism. It’s not only that the Exodus story of freedom and liberation is foundational to the Jewish people, but also that we are commanded to retell the story each year at the Pesach seder. The combination of vision and responsibility brings thousands of us American Jews to feel a calling to Jewish social justice. This is not a new phenomenon – we stand on the shoulders of generations of American Jews working for justice – taking one step forward and two steps back but seeing change happen across the arc of history.

So, why would you fit right in? How am I so sure? Because I’ve seen how meaningful this work is for the tens of thousands of activists involved in it.

Based on an extensive survey of Jewish social justice leaders, we found beautiful and inspiring illustrations of how a Jewish context for justice work makes an impact: Jewish tradition brings meaning and sustenance to individuals; it strengthens the field’s institutions as a whole; and American Jews’ understanding of what it means to be outsiders motivates support for marginalized communities.

Jewish Tradition Creates Meaning

Changing the world is hard – finding inspiration in Jewish tradition and history deepens and brings meaning to the work.

Sometimes, social change work feels like a slow grind – one tiny step at a time, making phone calls to recruit people to attend an event, stuffing envelopes, attending a committee meeting to plan another meeting. And even when there are exciting, peak experiences like participating in a service project, or learning through a group text study, or attending an advocacy day or rally, these moments are frankly fleeting against the backdrop of a thousand emails.

Knowing that our work toward social change and justice – fighting hate and bigotry, working across lines of difference, advocating for a systemic transformation of society – is part of the Jewish tradition, creates a layer of meaning onto those experiences that energizes us.

In the words of a few of our movement’s leaders:

I think a Jewish framework for social justice helps me stay inspired and motivated to do the work and to do it Jewishly. It can feel cold and empty when the meaning and inspiration is not there. And then it’s too easy for me to spend my time or focus on other things.

We’ve seen that college students are interest ed in going deep on specific topics and gaining wisdom from traditional and non-traditional Jewish sources. These students are flocking to the work because it’s – in their own words – “meaningful.” Integrating Jewish meaning and context allows them to connectto the work and the community in a deeper way.

Jewish Wisdom Strengthens Organizations

Secondly, Jewish tradition serves as a well of abundance to strengthen the field as a whole. Drawing upon Jewish values and history increases the quality of our organizations and our practices. It teaches us to create a culture of learning, which is necessary for strong organizations.

Jewish history reminds us that we have endless examples of prophets, organizers, teachers, healers and helpers – all of whom have roles to play in building a community of action. Jewish social justice organizations need a diversity of skilled people, working in community with each other, to accomplish shared goals. Not only do 57 organizations strive toward that diversity within their ranks, but also our field achieves that when we collaborate with each other on programs, events and collective fundraising.

As a few of our survey respondents said:

Jewish thought is a multi-thousand-year-old tradition that has survived and will likely outlive any of our institutions. So, to give our institutions the best lasting power to continue fighting for a better world year after year it would be best to build them on the enduring foundation of Jewish wisdom.

It feels important to build on the wisdom and work that’s already been done before us, to see ourselves in a line of ancestors stretching far back, and to add to their work instead of thinking that we can/should create it all from scratch.

Jewish Experiences of Being Outsiders

Lastly, and at a most instinctive level, in all our diversity as Jews, we share overlapping memories from our own lives and that of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors, of being outsiders or the “Other.” This helps us relate to and support marginalized communities – sometimes but certainly not always. It’s baked into our lived collective experiences, as well as the commandment repeated 36 times in the Torah: you shall neither wrong the stranger, nor oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. We as a field don’t always operate from this understanding, but it serves as a fundamental pillar of the Jewish social justice field.

This is why 70% of American Jews oppose a ban on visas to Muslims wanting to enter the US, as measured by the recently released poll from Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. Or, in the words of one of our respondents:

I’m motivated to do justice work because I identify as a Jew, and within that identity, as an (often) marginalized minority. This is a large part of what motivates me, the same way any other identity group with its own unique challenges and strengths may feel a similar call to action.

These three themes are just the tip of the iceberg. If these themes resonate with you, come find us – there are at least 57 starting points. If you have questions about how and why we do this work, ask us. I assure you, we contain multitudes of opinions about our work, the work of broader Jewish communities and its institutions, and the world at large. We are filled with organizations and people that bake challah to end hunger, advocate for reproductive justice and everything in between. Come on in, it’s a fun and important place to be.

Abby Levine is the Director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network that makes social justice a core expression of Jewish life, while advancing social justice issues in the broader society.