Progressive Jews Organize
On at least one divisive issue, however--the Middle East--these Jewish activist groups have stayed on the sidelines. "The Jewish community can be passionate about Israel, but that isn't what our organization does," explains JFSJ's Greer. "We do domestic social justice."
The mainstream Jewish organizations--which include dozens of national groups--are dominated by uncritical support for Israel and the fight against anti-Semitism around the world. Many observers inside and outside the Jewish community believe that these groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, don't reflect grassroots Jewish opinion. But the Jewish establishment's focus on these issues can put them at odds with progressive Jewish activists in terms of defining priorities. "Some people fear that we're going to squander Jewish political capital on things that don't really matter," says Greer. "But this is still a small movement, so we're not much of a threat to the established organizations. We'll see what happens when we get larger."
One factor likely to accelerate the movement's growth is the agreement by four rabbinical schools--from the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist wings of Jewish religious life--to give students credit for taking a course on community organizing co-sponsored with JFSJ. Nearly fifty students have already completed the semester-long course. Some are now taking jobs with congregations, where they intend to implement their organizing ideas.
Esther Lederman is a fifth-year rabbinical student who recently completed an organizing course at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in New York. "I came to HUC inspired to work on social action. And every week I worked to get volunteers for our soup kitchen," she recalls. "Were we helping to reduce the number of poor in our city? Were we helping others get back on their own two feet? The answer was no. I felt frustrated and powerless."
Lederman is now interning with the IAF to learn how to address root causes, not just symptoms. "Because of organizing, I'm going to be a better rabbi, who will cultivate more leaders in our community," she says. "Imagine what it will look like when a new generation of rabbis is ready to challenge our congregations to act effectively for justice."
Rabbi David Saperstein, who has led the Reform movement's social action center for thirty years, is fond of showing visitors the desk in his Washington office--the one on which President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Like the civil rights movement, Saperstein argues, social justice work isn't mainly about policy maneuvering in Washington but grassroots organizing that links local activism and national politics.
"Change in this country is going to happen from the bottom up," says Saperstein. "And if Jews are going to be part of that change, we need to partner with those who have been organizing at the grassroots. Like Moses learned from Jethro, we need to learn from our non-Jewish brothers and sisters who have been at this for decades. Only together can we fulfill the promise of this nation."