Around the Nation, a Rebirth of Jewish Social Justice

By Amy B. Dean and Simon Greer

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
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Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most pre-eminent rabbis and theologians of the 20th century, was a Jewish leader who insisted that our faith be linked to the struggle for social justice in America.

In the Fight: Abraham Joshua Heschel (center left) joins with
Martin Luther King in 1968, at one of many joint appearances.
Getty Images
In the Fight: Abraham Joshua Heschel (center left) joins with Martin Luther King in 1968, at one of many joint appearances.

He lived this conviction by actively supporting causes such as the Civil Rights Movement and serving as an adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “In the realm of the spirit,” he said, “only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity.… Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.”

This statement identifies one of the central tasks of modern Judaism — the need to ground religious practice in a legacy of Torah study, observance and ritual, and to perpetuate tradition by adapting to contemporary times.

As activists and nonprofit leaders, our experiences have made us believe that Heschel’s challenge is just as relevant to the pursuit of social justice as it is to our spiritual practice.

We both cut our teeth in the labor movement, organizing low-wage workers on opposite coasts of the United States during the 1990s. It was not chance that drew us to this work. Like many Jews, we took great pride in the accomplishments of our grandparents’ generation, made up of immigrants like Heschel who came to this country and helped build some of the foundational institutions of contemporary civic life: synagogues, schools, hospitals and trade unions. We were raised in homes where Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were Jewish heroes, true pioneers.

But today’s pioneers cannot simply replicate the actions of these individuals or the institutions of previous times. For Schneiderman and Lemlich, major catalysts for change after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Jews were largely poor, immigrant workers often exploited by a much smaller number of Jewish businessmen. For Goodman and Schwerner, civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi, Jews were strivers, increasingly middle class but with an acute sense of a minority’s vulnerability. In contrast, we grew up in greater prosperity, with the willingness and ability to exercise significant power in the public and private sectors.

Poverty and struggle, opportunity and stability, privilege and responsibility: This multigenerational journey doesn’t reflect the experience of all Jews in the United States, but it resonates with many.

Today, America’s Jews have influence that is without precedent in the long history of our people. The question we must answer is, “How should we now use what power we have?” Some of our leaders deny that we have power, pretending despite all evidence to the contrary that we are weak and threatened. Others want us to horde our power, using it only to strengthen our community in the narrowest sense.

But Jewish pioneers have taken a different approach. They recognize that our greatest contributions come not when we are isolated from the world but when we are in a dynamic relationship with it. The injustices Schneiderman and Schwerner fought against remain with us, despite significant progress they helped to achieve. If our values are to thrive in future generations, veneration of the past alone is insufficient. We must reinvigorate our ties to the cause of workers’ rights and economic opportunity; we must reaffirm our commitment to end discrimination, bigotry and violence. But we must fashion them into more than a mere echo of tradition.

Fortunately, a wide-ranging Jewish social justice movement has emerged, made up of groups that are, however imperfectly, seeking to be pioneers. This movement is gaining momentum at a regional level throughout the country, attracting young Jews as well as older and nonaffiliated ones, and successfully bringing Jewish voices to the public debate about how to create a more compassionate America.

From our positions of leadership at Jewish Funds for Justice (Dean is board co-chair and Greer is president and CEO), we have been privileged to see the growth of allied groups across the country. Branches of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles and San Francisco have campaigned against sweatshops and stood in solidarity with low-wage workers trying to have a say in their jobs. In New York, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice served as a key leader of a coalition working to secure a law protecting the rights of domestic nannies and housekeepers — historic legislation that passed last fall.

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago and Jewish Community Action in St. Paul led a drive to help immigrant employees improve working conditions at the nation’s largest kosher meat supplier. And in Boston, the Jewish Community Relations Council has grown into one of the highest-profile nonprofit organizations in the city by campaigning to expand access to health care and organizing volunteers to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In each case, the groups involved have worked to use the power and resources available to the Jewish community to advance key social justice issues. In doing so, they have drawn in young people who had not previously been involved or who had not yet found an outlet for expressing their Jewish values in an effective and engaged way. And they have shown great strategic vision in using cutting-edge organizing and communications strategies.

These groups do not replace the labors of established organizations, such as the Jewish Labor Committee, that enable the Jewish community and the trade union movement to work together on important issues of shared interest and concern. But these pioneers represent a dynamic and growing front in the effort to answer Heschel’s call by synthesizing the best of the past with a desire to make Jewish social justice traditions new.

Their campaigns are part of a renaissance in American Jewish life. Against the ever-present risk of spiritual plagiarism, an investment in social justice is allowing participants to engage their faith with a wealth of integrity.

Amy B. Dean is co-author of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.” She serves as board co-chair for Jewish Funds for Justice. Contact her at www.amybdean.com

Simon Greer serves as President and CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice.


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