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Progressive Jews Organize | The Nation

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Progressive Jews Organize

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Parallel to the mushrooming of synagogues involved in interfaith organizing is a growing number of Jewish social justice groups involved in labor, housing, environmental and other issues. The groups' members include rabbis and synagogue members but also Jews not affiliated with congregations.

About the Author

Daniel May
Daniel May has been an organizer with ACORN, the IAF and the SEIU.
Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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The first of these groups, Chicago's Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, was started in the mid-1960s by Jewish community organizers and progressive rabbis. JCUA's first campaign fought against bank redlining and abusive lending practices in black neighborhoods that had previously been Jewish. It was a controversial beginning. Some of the lenders that benefited most from the practices were prominent Jews who successfully lobbied the Jewish Federation (the umbrella funding agency) to pull support for the JCUA, but the activists eventually prevailed. JCUA has persisted for more than thirty years, waging successful efforts to build and renovate affordable housing, start a worker center for day laborers and address police brutality.

Daniel Sokatch, director of the seven-year-old Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which has chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, describes his organization's mission as being "the progressive voice in the Jewish community and the Jewish voice in the progressive movement." PJA's first campaign involved working through the Jewish Commission Against Sweatshops to mobilize liberal Jews in Los Angeles to increase government enforcement of wage and safety laws, enact a local antisweatshop ordinance and confront Jews who ran some of the nation's largest clothing companies. PJA published a guide to sweatshop activism, "No Shvitz," that included a history of Jewish involvement in labor causes since the Triangle Fire tragedy of 1911.

PJA also mobilized Jewish support for the hotel workers union's organizing campaign. More than 100 rabbis signed letters encouraging Jewish groups not to host conferences at hotels that were resisting unionization. The rabbis at one synagogue told their congregation they would not officiate at any events held at boycotted hotels. Similar groups, all started in the past decade, now exist in Washington, Boston, New York, the Twin Cities and Philadelphia.

This activism exposes tensions that rarely surface when Jewish social action focuses on charity. For example, when PJA first confronted the sweatshop issue, a number of Jewish garment manufacturers threatened to withdraw as benefactors of temples and Jewish organizations if rabbis lent their names to the activist campaign. More recently, PJA drew fire from some Jewish community leaders for launching an ambitious Muslim-Jewish community-building project with the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Sometimes people in the same synagogue find themselves on opposite sides of an issue campaign. When Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), an IAF affiliate, threw its weight behind an organizing drive in the city's large meatpacking industry, Temple Israel's Rabbi Aryeh Azriel was approached by the owner of a major plant, a longtime congregant, who threatened to resign from the congregation if the synagogue did not pull out of OTOC. The board of the temple, which is the only Jewish institution among OTOC's thirty-four congregations, stood by the organizing effort. The plant owner remained a temple member. But the tensions have not evaporated.

"There are people who are nervous about how our involvement in OTOC is going to affect our fundraising around our new building," says Rabbi Azriel. "And I'm pleased that the leadership and board of the temple continues to support our membership in OTOC. We take ethics seriously, and the values of our tradition are not up for sale."

Organizing that brings together Catholics, evangelicals and Jews across lines of race and class can also surface political and cultural conflicts. Temple Israel's involvement with legalizing gay marriage in Massachusetts put it on the opposite side of the issue from several other congregations within GBIO. Temple Israel convened several conversations between Jewish gay and lesbian congregants and evangelical pastors and their congregants. "We didn't change their minds, but they did agree to stop gay-bashing in the press, which was a very powerful concession," explained Temple Israel's Fran Godine. "Still, it was hard going to the Statehouse and seeing people we worked with on healthcare protesting our actions on behalf of our gay and lesbian congregants."

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