Conviction, Compassion and Outrage

New York’s Activist History That Changed City and Nation


By Erica Brody

Published May 21, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

The signatures engraved on a silver platter given to Wald — displayed in the exhibit near a list of German-Jewish philanthropists and potential donors — are a who’s who of the movement. Many of those activists went on to shape child care, housing and labor laws during the New Deal.

The exhibit also honors an immigrant named Rose Schneiderman, the first woman to sit on the national board of a union. (She is perhaps best known for saying, “The woman worker needs bread, but she needs roses too.”) And there is Clara Lemlich, the 23-year-old Jewish organizer whose 1909 speech set loose the Uprising of the 20,000, an 11-week strike of women garment workers that was the largest strike of women to date.

There are many ways to define activism, and “Activist New York” takes a broad approach. “Activism does not just take the form of public protests and noisy demonstrations, but can be expressed in art, behind-the-scenes organizing, direct action, political lobbying, publishing, education, fundraising and a variety of good works,” the exhibit’s introduction reads. Or, as chief curator Sarah Henry, the museum’s deputy director, put it, it’s “whatever ordinary people are doing to make the city better.”

Of course, not everyone agrees on what “better” looks like. The exhibit is explicit about how New Yorkers have come down on both sides of most issues, including abolition, suffrage and civil rights. There’s also a section on conservative activism that highlights Commentary, the magazine that became synonymous with Jewish neoconservatism. “Activism,” Henry stressed, “doesn’t belong to any particular point of the spectrum.”

Beyond trying to be fair, “Activist New York” connects the dots to real-life, real-time New York City activism. On one of the gallery’s four main walls, recent photographs of activists in action are projected, and visitors can send in their own photographs. When I visited, there were already photos of May Day marches, along with pictures of Occupy demonstrations, a New York Taxi Workers Alliance banner on Great Jones Street, a presentation at Demos and bike advocates at Prospect Park. There are interactive “Meet the Activists” kiosks where visitors can engage with groups focusing on contemporary issues, like workers’ rights and immigration, and visitors can also nominate organizations to be added to the “Meet the Activists” lineup.

Today, there’s a sense of growing collaboration and cohesion among New York’s Jewish activists that includes synagogue-based organizing and increasingly connected networks, both online and in person. Take a look at the long lineup of organizations co-sponsoring Inside the Activists’ Studio with Pursue: Action for a Just World — a May 20 event featuring presentations, workshops, networking and a showcase of opportunities for action — and you’ll see a who’s who of Jewish social justice organizations.

On May 7, the last group on that list, Uri L’Tzedek, the New York-based Orthodox social justice organization, celebrated a successful two-year campaign against Flaum, a Brooklyn-based kosher company that finally accepted a $577,000 settlement to pay workers for wage theft and other labor violations. It’s a great 2012 case study not just in ethical consumerism, but also in how collaborative organizing, perseverance and creative partnerships can lead to activist wins, better hummus and a little bit more justice in the city.

Our American narrative is one of opportunity, open shores and the American Dream, but our history has been shaped and reshaped by citizens and activists who chased their ideals from the ghetto to the halls of power, transforming a city and setting precedents for a nation. “Activist New York” does something exciting: It shines a spotlight on these everyday New Yorkers while reminding us that our activism is already a part of living history. Right now.

Erica Brody is a native New Yorker and Brooklyn-based freelance writer, editor and strategist. Follow her on Twitter @ebrody.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.