A Social Action Month: Heshvan

Imagine doing good the other 11 months.

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Beware: Don’t believe everything you read. Most quotations and references to named individuals and organizations are fabricated.

As thousands of Buddhist monks continue to take to the streets of Rangoon in protest over ongoing military oppression and human rights violations in Burma, Jews around the world are gearing up to observe Heshvan, the 29 days designated Jewish Social Action Month.

"We certainly hope those monks can hold out until Heshvan starts so we can lend a hand," said J., chair of a major Jewish federation outside Asheville, North Carolina.

Like J., Jews all over America are looking forward to the beginning of Heshvan, when they can leave behind their studied apathy and explode in a burst of social justice activism for nearly 30 full days.

In 2006, Kol Dor, one of the founding sponsors of Social Action month announced that "[t]he first priority is…having Jewish Social Action Month marked on all Jewish calendars." After a year of extensive negotiations and an international call-in campaign to its Kansas City corporate headquarters, Hallmark has agreed to label Heshvan as Jewish Social Action Month on all Jewish calendars. Having checked off that significant achievement, Kol Dor is setting its sights on even greater game this year.

Around the Country

In Los Angeles, rabbis have called on their congregants to store their SUVs on blocks and put their Priuses on the pavement for a month of righteous driving.

In Chicago, synagogues are opening their doors to the homeless and providing free meals and shelter throughout the month. "If only they’d scheduled Jewish Social Action Month for Tevet," said L., the director of a local Jewish social service agency, "October is a reasonably pleasant month here in Chicago, but it gets really cold in December and January. These people are going to be freezing living on the streets then."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled by the Social Action month phenomenon. K., a 12-year-old from Silver Spring, Maryland, whose Bat Mitzvah will take place during Hanukkah, a few short weeks after Jewish Social Action month comes to an end, is particularly upset.

"It's such a disappointment that her Torah portion came up in Kislev instead of Heshvan," said K.'s mother. "Ten percent of what we're spending would have meant so much to the poor," she said, referring to the practice of donating 10% of the cost of the celebration of b'nai mitzvah in Heshvan.

Disappointed at being deprived of this opportunity for righteousness by the vagaries of b’nai mitzvah scheduling, K.'s family felt it had no choice but to allocate that $3,500 instead for an Irish step dancing performance at the party.

"If only Jewish Social Action Month lasted all year long, think of what we could accomplish!" K.'s mother said, wistfully.

But Seriously

Okay--enough with the funny business. It's not so hard to mock something like Jewish Social Action Month. The idea that that we, as Jews, could sequester our pursuit of justice into a 30-day-long spasm of activism and then move on to some other flavor-of-the-month is a bit silly. It would be similarly hard to advance a serious case for designating a tefillah (prayer) month or a Torah week.

Yet there is a function to this foolishness.

As we emerge from a month of High Holiday celebration, we are reminded of Judaism's revolutionary way of navigating time. On the one hand, we revisit the same holidays every year--we hear the shofar blast, re-confront our limitations and failings through teshuvah (repentance), commemorate the annual harvest season, and rewind the Sefer Torah to begin telling our people's story again. Through these rituals, we live inside an ever-repeating, cyclical time.

Judaism is not, however, a religion of endless repetition and stasis--we left behind that fatalistic and stagnant notion of time when we rejected Egypt with its infinitely repeating flooding of the Nile and its omnipotent god-king Pharaoh. The fall hagim (holidays) also embody a deep commitment to progress. Rosh Hashanah reminds us not just that the cycle of life repeats, but that time is always moving forward--5768 years and counting since creation. The booths of Sukkot are not only the harvest huts of our farmer forebears; they also represent the dwellings that sheltered our ancestors during their 40-year journey from oppression to liberation, a journey whose work for us remains ongoing.

This juxtaposition of cyclical time and linear, teleological time creates something of a spiral. We perform the same rituals and read the same texts each year. But each year, we bring new ideas and new perspectives to those same texts, and they engage us differently.  Each year we are different, hopefully better, people, allowing us to circle back in ways that feel forward-moving, even though we may find ourselves confronting the same challenges. And each year, we can use our revisiting of the messages and values central to these holidays to more tightly integrate their practices, like teshuvah, into our identities year round.

So how can we use Jewish Social Action Month to inspire us and invigorate within us a commitment to social justice that will carry us through the entire year?

Choosing One Thing

While Jewish Social Action Month may be far too limited a charge, taking on all of the injustices in the world is broad to the point of overwhelming. So this year, during Heshvan, choose one thing, one injustice about which you feel passionate, and commit to working that issue for the next 12 months.

And the truth is, it almost doesn't matter what you choose. If your children are moved by the suffering of animals, make animal rights your family's year-long project. If you're outraged by the situation in Darfur, focus on that until next Hesvhan. If the status of immigrants in your community or the national debate on immigration policy speaks to you, dig in on that.

Once you’ve chosen your issue, learn about it. Read blogs and newspapers and sign up for RSS feeds that expand your understanding of the problem. Find organizations whose work on that issue you respect and donate tzedakah to them regularly. If the issue is local, attend community organizing meetings to build support for your position and to build relationships with fellow activists. If the issue is national, find out if there is relevant legislation in Congress and meet with your Senators and Representative to explain your position and ask for their support.

Harry Chapin, the folk singer and hunger activist, once said that "involvement with [justice] issues means you're involved with the good people… Commitment, in and of itself, irrespective of whether you win or not, is something that truly makes your life worthwhile."

Decide to make a difference on that one thing so that next year during Heshvan, you'll have tangible results on which to reflect and a reinvigorated sense of the role that justice plays in a meaningful and integral Judaism.

Paraphrasing Maimonides

In Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1), we learn that we are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the mitzvah of pursuing justice (in the Hebrew, tzedakah, which can also be interpreted as charity or acts of righteousness) than any other positive mitzvah, because the pursuit of justice is the sign of the righteous person, the seed of Abraham our ancestor, as it is said, "For I know him that he will command his children to pursue justice" (Genesis 18:19).

Accordingly, the pursuit of justice is far more than just one of the mitzvot; it is the sine qua non of membership in the Jewish people and the very act that binds us to our founding ancestor Abraham. In pursuing justice during Heshvan, and throughout the year, we reconnect ourselves to the very essence of what makes us Jewish.

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Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.