‘The Roundtable’ Is Offered A Seat

Social Justice Groups To Have Strong Presence at G.A.

By Jo Ellen Green Kaiser

Published August 04, 2010, issue of August 13, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

You have to get used to acronyms quickly in the world of Jewish social justice (and it helps if you like the letter “j”.) There’s the venerable JCUA in Chicago, PJA on the West Coast, the surprisingly well-organized JCA in Minnesota and a very active JCRC in Boston. National organizations include JCPA, JOI, JFSJ and AJWS. And that’s just the start of a much longer list.

Collaborating: Simon Greer, the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice.
Jewish Funds for Justice
Collaborating: Simon Greer, the president and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice.

Two years ago, under the aegis of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, 18 of these organizations joined together in a Jewish Social Justice Roundtable designed, according to Elissa Barrett, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, to “harness the energy and advance the potential of the already growing Jewish social justice movement in the United States.” The impact of that collaboration is just beginning to be seen.

This November, the General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America will include a full afternoon of service organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and the new service-based organization Repair the World, featuring workshops and programs hosted by many of the Roundtable organizations.

“Roundtable members were looking to have a greater presence at the G.A.,” said Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World. “Jerry Silverman [president of the JFNA] made the wonderful decision that he wanted to designate a significant amount of the G.A.’s time to service activities, so we partnered with them and engaged a number of organizations, including, but not limited to, the Roundtable.”

Another Roundtable member, Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Boston, believes that the Roundtable helped make this service-learning opportunity possible. “Generally,” she said, justice organizations “are not part of the G.A. Now a whole bunch of us are going, and we’ll have a role at the G.A. at the service day. Everyone used their relationships to help make that come about. That’s what’s wonderful about having a network of people in conversation with each other.”

The Roundtable was a direct result of the Visioning Justice conference held by the NCF in 2008. “We believed we were at a pivotal moment — that we had an opportunity to bring the [social justice] field as a whole to a new level of visibility and impact,” said Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, NCF’s program director of Jewish life and values. Knowing that the justice organizations had tried and failed to create a formal partnership in the past, NCF commissioned consultant Shifra Bronznick to facilitate a series of gatherings to test different models for a partnership.

The model they settled on was a roundtable composed of two key staff members from Jewish organizations committed to Jewish justice, guided by a group of six. After choosing the six conveners, Rosenn said, NCF “stepped back. That was so hard, but it felt like a critical move; success depended on the field [rather than the funder] owning the Roundtable.”

I asked one of the original conveners, Ruth Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service, whether the roundtable has made progress in creating the kind of shared vision necessary for a Jewish social justice movement. Even over the phone, I could tell she was shaking her head. “You don’t sit down and say, we’re going to build a movement,” she said. “It’s a work in progress. There is strength in collaboration, but also new challenges….The process itself is a sign of progress.”

Other participants agreed. Rosenberg pointed out that “within an ecosystem of organizations that have overlapping but distinct missions, and with a concept as challenging as social justice, it’s unrealistic to expect that a platform and a distinct set of activities will emerge quickly. In my view, one of the most important things that has come out of the Roundtable is the forging of social capital, the ability to pick up the phone and speak to people I now know personally.”

That said, Roundtable members point to initiatives they feel have been helped by the collaboration. Simon Greer, President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, offered several examples of collaboration, from good will to new projects. “When the earthquake struck in Haiti,” he told me, “JFSJ sent our e-mail list a link to the AJWS website. It’s not every day that we are going to tell our donors about another place to give. I’d like to think we would have done it without the Roundtable, but it’s hard to maintain that big picture without the Roundtable connection.”

Working Together: Ruth Messinger, an early organizer.
Working Together: Ruth Messinger, an early organizer.

Next spring, JFSJ is partnering with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on a service-learning trip to the Gulf Coast for 10 b’nai mitzvah classes. “We had piloted this on our own,” Greer said, “but we realized that if we collaborated with the RAC, we could create something bigger and more scalable than we’d be able to do on our own.”

Several Roundtable members, including Greer, Kaufman, and Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, mentioned that they are looking forward to working together this fall on voter engagement. Rosenthal, whose organization is based in Minneapolis, pointed out that “one of the good outcomes [of the Roundtable] is that a small community can work together with these much bigger groups to plan what something more national could look like.”

What is the ultimate goal of the Roundtable? Greer suggests there are three: “There’s an internal result, like sharing curricula for staff training; there’s an external result in the Jewish community, to grow the social justice sector so that it is big enough and strong enough and self-aware enough to engage with the Jewish community, and beyond the Jewish community, we hope to re-establish a broader role for Jews in creating change in America.”

Rosenn mentions a fourth goal “In Jewish tradition,” she told me, “the table is now our altar. We no longer have an altar, we have a festive meal. This is why people put salt on their challah. A Jewish social justice roundtable is a community of Jewish leaders gathering for a holy purpose, gathering for a more just world.”

Contact Jo Ellen Green Kaiser at feedback@forward.com

Organizations represented on the roundtable are:

American Jewish World Service (AJWS)

AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps

B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) / Panim


Jewish Community Action (JCA)

Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties

Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC)

Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA)

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA)

Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ)

Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI)

Jewish World Watch (JWW)

MAZON: A Jewish Response To Hunger

New Israel Fund

Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA)

The Rabbinical Assembly (RA)

Repair the World (RTW)

Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) / Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) / Just Congregations

Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.