These are 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. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is 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, 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 is 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. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond 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. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
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. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! 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, some rabbis 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.
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 teenagers 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, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. 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. 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. This spirit of 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 Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “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. 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, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
It’s been just over a week since Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Leelah grew up not far from where I live in Cincinnati. If you haven’t heard Leelah’s story, it’s a tragic one. Leelah was a trans teen who chose to kill herself because, as she wrote in her suicide note, “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.”
Leelah’s note was posted on tumblr shortly after she purposefully walked in front of a truck on a dark night, but tumblr has since removed the blog post. In that post, Leelah described feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body ever since she was four years old.
Leelah’s parents were not supportive of her gender identity, to say the least. For several months, they completely isolated Leelah by removing her from public school, taking away her computer and phone, and not letting her use social media. Leelah’s parents also took her to Christian therapists who she said told her she was selfish and wrong.
So, Leelah felt her best option was suicide. For Leelah, I am so sad. For every person who struggles for acceptance of their sexuality and/or gender identity, I am sad. For every person who feels life is not worth living, I am so sad and distraught.
That Leelah’s parents used religion (Christianity) to reject their child’s gender identity makes me angry. Clearly, there are many Christians who would accept Leelah for who she was. Certainly, there are some Jews who would argue acceptance of Leelah, and other Jews who would argue rejection.
My Judaism and my humanism bring me to a very simple conclusion: Leelah was a person. She was Leelah. And, my humanness moves me to compassion, to understanding, and to acceptance of others and their feelings.
I do not believe that religion should be used to marginalize and stigmatize. I want to be part of a religious community that is open to possibilities – and that empowers every person to be himself or herself.
Leelah ended her suicide note by asking us to fix society. Our actions cannot bring Leelah back, but hopefully they can make a difference in the lives of others.
Here are just a few small steps you can take to support others:
• Read PFLAG’s Guide to Being a Trans Ally
• If you’re involved in Jewish organizational life, talk to the leadership about how your organization can be most inclusive
• If you have children or work with children, open the door to important and honest conversations about sexuality and gender
• Know the signs of suicide and be ready when you see the sings to open up important conversations and make connections between people and resources available
In the words of Leelah Alcorn, “Fix society. Please.” Challenge accepted.
Today will be a difficult day for my family. And for me. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia.
I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him. And that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me and for my young children who never met their first cousin. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie, while deep in her own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan’s memory alive. She came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform mitzvot and acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. Stephanie and her husband Hylton have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.
I was thinking of this last night when I learned about an easy way to support the cause of Pancreatic Cancer research by purchasing Hanukkah candles on Amazon.com. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to buy a box of purple Hanukkah candles for $20 on Amazon and 100% of the money goes to Pancreatic Cancer research. With a couple of hours left in “Giving Tuesday” I quickly clicked the link and ordered candles in memory of my uncle, Jerry Gudes, who died of Pancreatic Cancer in 2009. After I ordered the candles, Amazon asked if I would like to post my purchase to Facebook and Twitter to let others know about this product (and charitable cause). When I posted to Facebook with appreciation to Rabbi Wolpe for the tip, I mentioned that Rabbi David Wolpe and his brother Rabbi Dan Wolpe lost their father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, to Pancreatic Cancer. This led Rabbi Dan Wolpe to also click the link and buy Hanukkah candles in his father’s memory. Talk about paying it forward!
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have created several initiatives to encourage people (young and old) to make the world a better place and pay it forward. The first thing that they created was the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan. This is a place where individuals or families can share their stories of how they were kind to others in honor of Rylan. Just this week, a friend shared that he paid the bridge toll of the car behind him in memory of Rylan and later heard that this act of paying it forward went on for many cars thereafter. One woman posted, “I brought our new neighbors muffins and welcomed them to our street. They were so grateful.” It’s also become a forum for leaving stories of ways that others have been witnessed being kind. “A woman leaving as I was driving up to a space gave me the rest of the minutes in her parking ticket!” posted a woman.
Stephanie and Hylton Gelb have also set up a new scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA) to financially assist families with conference or evaluation expenses. The Galactosemia Foundation organizes a conference every other year in various locations around the country and this scholarship fund will help families pay for conference registration and offset travel expenses. The goal is to help families become more educated and make lifelong connections with other families. The second goal of this memorial scholarship is to financially assist families to be evaluated by a medical professional specializing in Galactosemia because there are currently only a few specialists around the country who have experience in the treatment of Galactosemia.
Finally, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, together with our family and friends, have donated a Buddy Bench. The purpose of the Buddy Bench is simple. It is placed on an elementary school playground to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children. The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness. Stephanie chose to have the custom designed Buddy Bench placed on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is the same school that both she and my wife, Elissa, attended as children. What’s so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have seen many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench to let other children know they are lonely and need a friend, and also for children to include others in their activities at school recess. The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.
It’s remarkable how the tragedy of an infant’s death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It’s a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives — especially during the grieving process — but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan Gelb has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for us.
We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakes—it is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.
Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.
Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor —I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?
This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakes—how can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.
We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):
The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”
How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.
Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachia—is a way becoming close to God.
I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.
Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.