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Transforming through Communal Action

The posts on The New Spirituality blog are responses to Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s lead essay in his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (Jewish Lights). In that essay, which was posted on this site on May 5, 2016, Schwarz argues that any organization that hopes to speak to the next generation of American Jews needs to advance one or more of four key value propositions. They are: Chochma, engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage; Kedusha, helping people live lives of sacred purpose; Tzedek, inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world; and Kehillah, creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission.

From the four propositions Schwarz lays out in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, the work of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) aligns with the areas of Social Justice/Tzedek, Community/Kehillah, and Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedushah.

JFREJ provides a powerful vehicle for Jews to pursue racial and economic justice by advancing systemic changes that result in concrete improvements in people’s everyday lives. In partnership with our neighbors, we build power by building a robust base of members; developing and supporting leaders; forming and supporting coalitions, and waging strategic campaigns to win systemic change.

It would be impossible, however, to do the kind of transformative organizing that this work requires without investing in deep community building and embodying sacred purpose. And it is this development of a strong and connected beloved community, with justice at its core, that is behind our organization’s growth (this year alone we are well on our way to double our membership from 900 to 1800 members).

At the root of this community is the belief that change is possible and that collectively, we can be powerful agents of that change. Jewish tradition teaches us “great is study for it leads to action.” We put a priority on learning that changes us, demands something from us and leads to impact. As we organize in multiple spheres to transform systems of economic and racial injustice, we simultaneously transform the consciousness of the people who participate in organizations and movements, as well as the organizers themselves.

This transformation does not happen without deep attention to tradition. We recognize the impact that assimilation into white culture and upward mobility has taken on many Jewish communities. Indeed, assimilation and systematic erasure have caused many of us to lose connections to the Jewish cultures across the diaspora in which our families and communities are rooted. This, in turn, has weakened our community’s ability to effectively work for justice alongside our allies. We know that every successful social movement has been advanced through embodied critical thought and culture shift that comes from exploring resistance through the lens of all of our traditions.

Thus it is required that we engage and invest in our Jewish traditions, diasporic languages, cultural traditions and text, not simply for the sake of Jewish continuity, but to draw on our people’s wisdom on the path to a more just world. We use our texts and traditions to bring us into new ways of relating to one another and to allow us to be in dialogue with the past, present, and future. We are committed to teaching each other and studying and creating with our allies for the sake of our collective survival.

In what ways does your work advance an area of Jewish life or practice that is outside of the four propositions?

Our work also advances areas of Jewish life not articulated in the four propositions: centering and supporting the leadership development of Jews most marginalized in our communities, building deep and lasting relationships with non-Jewish communities, supporting the celebration of vibrant secular Jewish culture, and counteracting internalized oppression.

We strive to create a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-class, multi-generational Jewish community. We do this by centering the leadership and voices of marginalized Jews, while also working together to leverage the race and class privilege that some of our members have. We believe that all of us are needed in this work, and that we all have a role to play. The essential need for multiplicity of voices is a central Jewish concept. We are committed to creating supportive and transparent pathways to strengthen and build the skills of our members, developing individual and collective leadership through our work. We provide clear leadership structures and roles to ensure intentional and accountable distribution of power, enabling broad participation and making way for a diversity of voices and the emergence of new leaders.

We believe that a movement with the power to end injustice will be led by those most directly targeted by it: people of color, and poor and working-class, immigrant, and other oppressed communities. Thus, we work to support the leadership of these constituencies within and outside the Jewish community. We maintain deep and lasting partnerships with Jewish and allied organizations with whom we share common cause. We build enduring trust and relationships of solidarity across identity lines, enabling us to bring a unique and critical Jewish voice to movements for justice. We seek to be accountable to all those directly impacted by systems of oppression, while working to effectively build and accountably deploy our power as a diverse Jewish community.

We also support the vibrant expansion of secular Jewish culture, through artmaking and joyful celebration. We value the expertise and leadership that artists and cultural workers bring to organizing, and we enable their participation in all of our programs.

To embody a truly vibrant and growing Jewish community, we believe we must understand and transform the internalized oppression that undermines our connections to each other and to ourselves. Given that oppression is internalized on a collective level, so must our understanding and transformation of it be supported on a collective level. Together, we must confront the ways many Jews have internalized both “oppressed” and “oppressor” ideas and behaviors. For the sake of our own liberation and the liberation of all people, we hold a commitment to unlearning the lessons and patterns that stem from anti-Semitism and Christian hegemony.

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