Saving the World, One Jew at a Time


By Jill Jacobs

Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World
By Rabbi Avraham Weiss
Jewish Lights Publishing, 224 pages, $24.99.

Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Jewish Community
By Rabbi Marc Schneier
Jewish Lights Publishing, 240 pages, $18.99.

As a rabbi who has devoted her career to social and economic justice, I am often asked whether I work on “Jewish issues.” The question puzzles me: Are Jewish issues only those that concern primarily the Jewish community, such as the cost of day school, the survival of the State of Israel and housing for the Jewish elderly? Some say that we ought to understand Jewish issues more broadly to include funding for public schools, which serve Jewish and non-Jewish students; separation of church and state, or affordable housing for all senior citizens. Still others claim that Jewish issues include labor struggles, criminal justice and housing security, since Jewish law has much to say on all these areas. Why not take it further? Perhaps we also should define as Jewish issues the top priorities of the African-American, Latino, Muslim and other minority communities, in the hope that likewise they will prioritize our issues as theirs.

New editions of two books sharpen this debate. Rabbi Marc Schneier’s “Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Jewish Community” offers an idyllic vision of a past when Jews and African Americans marched, hand-in-hand, in pursuit of civil rights. In “Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World,” Rabbi Avraham Weiss argues that first and foremost, Jews should speak out about antisemitism and about threats to the Jewish community or to the State of Israel. Both books look to an inspirational past to create a blueprint for how Jewish communities should engage in activism today.

Schneier, president and founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, presents a concise history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, with an emphasis on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s relations with the Jewish community. He covers familiar ground: retelling the stories of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s participation in the civil rights march from Selma, Ala.; the murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, and Jewish institutional support for the movement. Yet, Schneier also digs up some lesser-known anecdotes, including the role of Jewish lawyers in the Brown v. Board of Education case and in providing counsel for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Toward the end of his narrative, Schneier addresses the unavoidable question of the collapse of the black-Jewish alliance, focusing on the rise of the Black Power movement and the growth of antisemitism within the African-American community.

“Shared Dreams” works best as inspiration for readers looking for a precedent for alliances between Jewish and other communities. Many others have written more extensively on the rise and fall of the black-Jewish alliance, and Schneier offers less analysis and substance than historians and sociologists have brought to this matter. While moved by the descriptions of Jewish involvement in civil rights, I found myself wishing for a closer look at the complexities of the Black-Jewish Alliance, the debates within the Jewish community about whether to enter into the movement, the extent to which the Jewish community benefited from the implementation of civil rights legislation and the complex reasons for the rise in antisemitism within the African-American community.

Whereas Schneier focuses on Jewish involvement in a broad-based coalition, Weiss looks inward, at Jewish activism around issues that primarily affect the Jewish community. Weiss, who serves as rabbi of the Bronx’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and as president and founder of Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, regales readers with tales of his own activism, while deriving from his adventures principles of “spiritual activism.” It is difficult not to be inspired and challenged by Weiss’s willingness to risk his reputation and, at times, his life in pursuit of what he believes to be right. In the course of his life, Weiss has faced down German government officials to protest the opening of a convent at Auschwitz. He also has called out the president of Argentina for failing to pursue the perpetrators who tragically bombed AMIA (the Jewish mutual aid association), and held prayer vigils outside the Iranian embassy to demand the release of hostages.

Through his own example, Weiss encourages readers to take action on unpopular issues, even when winning seems impossible. His distillation of a life of activism into six principles and five actions offers helpful guidance toward choosing and pursuing issues. Ultimately, though, spiritual activism is limited in three important ways: First, Weiss rarely looks beyond internal concerns to consider the impact that the Jewish community might have on building a more just world for everyone. This gap goes further than restricting “spiritual activism” to issues of primary interest to the Jewish community; it holds non-Jews responsible for antisemitism without demanding that the Jewish community pursue positive relationships with other communities. Most glaringly, in the course of a chapter on “Making Partners,” Weiss speaks of partnering with other members of the Jewish community and of “benefit[ing] from the support of Non-Jews,” but he never mentions the possibility that Jews might partner with other communities on issues other than antisemitism, Israel or the Holocaust. Similarly, Weiss devotes a section on fighting racism to — quite appropriately — condemning antisemitism among certain African-American leaders, but he stops short of demanding that Jewish communities hold themselves to similar anti-racist standards.

Second, in defining “spiritual activism” broadly as “all action that emerges from the spiritual, divine base,” Weiss misses an opportunity to consider how halakhic (legal) imperatives, historical commitments and self-interest might influence the Jewish community’s choice of issues and tactics.

Third, Weiss puts forward high-publicity activism — such as protests, sit-ins and public shaming — as the primary means of making change. While these modes of action are often necessary for attracting attention to issues and putting pressure on public figures, long-term change generally demands diverse efforts by strong coalitions. As Schneier reminds us, civil rights reform did not come about as a result of only marches and sit-ins. Rather, only a combination of public protest, legal advocacy, deliberate coalition building and strategic organizing could have brought about such a radical change in American society.

Schneier asks his readers to look outward, while Weiss demands a look inward. But the most effective approach to Jewish communal action will take the best of both visions. Building strong alliances with other religious, ethnic and racial communities on broad-based issues not only creates a better world for Jews and non-Jews alike, but also increases the chances that other communities will support the Jewish community in the face of antisemitism. Fighting for Jewish self-interests reminds us not to give up our own identities and our needs in an altruistic desire to assist others. A spiritual activism built on strengthening our own community while pursuing a greater vision of greater equality will bring us closer to the perfected world of which both Schneier and Weiss dream.

Jill Jacobs is rabbi-in-residence of Jewish Funds for Justice and author of “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition,” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009).

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