These seem to be exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. As Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend The Arc, recently wrote, “People of faith have an important role to play bolstering and amplifying this resurgent racial justice movement.” American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for ending gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah has coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and also has been a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, through its Tav HaYosher ethical seal for restaurants and other impressive accomplishments, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There now appears to be a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights Movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. From a Jewish perspective, reducing gun fatalities through the incorporation of smart-gun technology would seem to be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (“pikuah nefesh”) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even the legal restrictions at issue on Shabbat. Conversely, in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 63, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation. But what did my colleague’s committee tell her? No way—this was far too political an issue for them. They wouldn’t even open the topic for discussion at their social justice committee meeting.
So why don’t shuls do social justice? One argument I often hear is that synagogues never have been involved in social justice, only social action. It is true that Jewish communities in the Diaspora, prior to the modern era, did focus primarily on providing for communal Jewish needs. But the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently the effort to intervene in the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles that extended far beyond this narrower scope of engagement. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline in social justice activism at the synagogue level. First, the emergence of the effective and narrowly tailored Jewish social justice organizations discussed above has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those outside our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. Want to offer solidarity to protestors in Ferguson? Tweet your support to Bend The Arc. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of entry.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. I personally recall a former congregant complaining to me about a sermon he thought was too liberal when I was addressing food scarcity from a biblical perspective! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, a frequent response I get from rabbis is that they avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages of self-improvement or creative literary understandings of the Torah portion.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, if we are to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. After all, from an efficiency perspective, if we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. Social action can help us connect personally with people from different backgrounds, enabling us to form relationships and remove blinders to the reality of those living with the scourge of poverty. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. Though it may be true that prophetic messages were limited to the Israelites during the period of the monarchy, the spirit of a societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Judean and Israelite kings.
This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. I also am thrilled at the multivalent opportunities Jewish social justice organizations provide to Jews and non-Jews alike to better our world. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, frustrating yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones, that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.
Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.
And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.
Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.
The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.
In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.
In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.
Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.
If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.
On Sunday I helped organize a rally at our JCC in support of the three teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er, who were kidnapped last week in Gush Etzion. As part of our advertising, we used the Twitter hashtag “#bringbackourboys” that was developed to bring world attention to this horrific kidnapping. During the rally, one of our speakers made reference to this hashtag and its famous predecessor, “#bringbackourgirls,” created in reference to the nearly 300 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria in April 2014 by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
And then I looked around the room. Perhaps I had been too nervous before then—nervous about what I was going to say; nervous about whether enough people would show up to fill the chairs—to notice that there was no one in the audience under the age of 50. No one. Not a soul.
The #bringbackourgirls campaign captured the attention and enthusiasm of Americans young and old, religious and secular, politically active and indifferent. It captivated world attention with its moral resonance and clear message. But where were the young Jews in the crowd yesterday? Why did the kidnapping of students their own age not resonate enough to take 30 minutes out of their Sunday evening?
I’m sure there are communities that have held vigils where teenagers and young adults have shown up. Particularly in more frum communities, where studying in yeshivot in Israel as teenagers is more common, the connection to the kidnapped boys (especially to the American, Naftali) might prompt a better young turnout. But I imagine that the experience in my community was more, rather than less, common. And it is not just at this event. Look around you at Yom Hazikaron or Yom Hashoah gatherings and see who is with you: the elderly, those who went to Zionist summer camps generations ago, and a handful of Israeli expats. In another generation or two, will we even commemorate these days in America?
The diagnosis for this inattention is far easier, I fear, than the treatment. Younger generations lack the experiential connection to the Holocaust and to Israel’s wars for existential survival. They/we don’t have relatives who survived the Shoah and probably never have heard a survivor speak. They didn’t stay up at night, on pins and needles, afraid that Israel might be wiped out in 1948, 1967, or 1973. Without these experiences, we lack a visceral connection to Israelis as a people. What happens in Israel is a news item, something to note, perhaps, and then go on with our days here.
So how do we build a deeper, emotional connection to Israel and its people? I’d love to hear your ideas.
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