Reflections on the Field of Jewish Social Justice: Ten Years of Training Rabbis for Activism

We are here to serve life, to love expansively, to celebrate our connections — the “voices of all that exist” praise Havayah, the life force.

Rabbi Mordecai Liebling’s June 18, 2020 discussion of this essay

We are in the midst of the greatest flowering of Jewish action for social justice in America since the immigrant generation of the early 20th century. Progressive Jewish organizations and Jewishly identified activists are addressing the whole range of justice issues. There is a burgeoning interest in how Jewish teachings and practice can support and grow the movement. While there is unprecedented cooperation among groups, there remain serious tensions and blind spots. Positions on Israel/Palestine continue to divide us; struggles within the community around patriarchy and sexual harassment, racism, transphobia and classism are ongoing; and ecological destruction remains largely unaddressed. The field is too big now for a brief article to capture it all; here are some thoughts with apologies for all those pieces I’ve left out.

We are, also, in the most troubling situation that most of us have ever faced. Democracy is under serious threat in the United States and around world. The United States has the greatest level of wealth inequality in history. Right-wing groups are on the rise. The ecological crisis is threatening the very future of life on the planet. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which includes 13 Nobel laureates on its board, announced in January 2020 that we are closer to Doomsday than at any time since they’ve began calculating in 1947.[fn]Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Jan. 23, 2020 [/fn] The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated all of these trends. We need a powerful, effective Jewish social-justice movement.


The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (JSJRT) which began with 14 organizations exploring the possibility of working together in 2008 now has 64 members and partners. Many of them did not exist in 2008. This high level of cooperation was in large part made possible by the Selah Leadership Program initiated in 2006 by Jewish Funds for Justice (now Bend the Arc) and still ongoing. It built relationships and trust among the people who would be leading these organizations while giving them a set of skills for having difficult conversations and focusing on outcomes without ignoring process. All of these groups together have created a field.

While many individual American Jews were deeply involved in the activism of the last third of the 20th century, far fewer participated as identified Jews or as part of a Jewish organization. That has changed. Among millennials and younger Jews, working for justice has become an important way of identifying Jewishly. The plethora of Jewish justice organizations is staffed by millennials and run by Gen-Xers. In addition, we have the recent emergence of Jews of Color as leaders in some organizations.

Ten years ago, in January 2010, I founded the Social Justice Organizing Program to train rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. For the first few months, I conducted extensive interviews with a wide swath of practitioners in the field to find out what they thought rabbis needed to know. Their clear message was that we should train organizers and not prophets, while making sure that they own deeply within themselves their own commitment to justice and how it’s related to their Judaism. They had to know for themselves and to be able to communicate to the people they work with that working for justice is an authentic Jewish position and mission.

This was born out in a recent study of the field by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The report’s summary began:

During our exploration, we heard from many of you that, in order for the U.S. Jewish community to more directly lend our collective power to the birthing of a multiethnic democratic society in America, NCF — in addition to our funding for the Jewish justice movement ecology — should explore long-term capacity building investments in the internal and spiritual capacity of Jewish leaders engaged in pursuing justice.

We heard a clear, collective hunger to steep movement work in the Jewish tradition’s rich lineage of sacred text, prophetic teachings, ritual, and song.

This is a marked change from most of 20th-century Jewish activism.


A number of significant developments have taken place within the Jewish progressive community in the last 10 years. Many have occurred in response to outside events, such as the uprising in Ferguson, Miss.; the white-nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va.; the election of Donald Trump as president; and the #MeToo movement.

Mirroring the wider progressive movement, there is now a much greater awareness of racism and white privilege, and of the oppression of non-binary, trans and gender queer people. This is challenging power dynamics and boundaries within the Jewish community, as well as society as a whole. The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (JSJRT) had made providing tools for challenging racism within its member organizations a top priority. In the last two years, Tzedek Lab has emerged and defined itself

… as a multi-racial network of Jewish political education trainers, organizers, and spiritual leaders who build collective competency to better politicize, transform, and inspire the Jewish community into collective action against racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy.

There is a dual focus, challenging oppressive practices both within the Jewish community and the wider society.

For many, the de-centering of the white Ashkenazic experience requires a broadening of the understanding of what it means to be Jewish — letting go of deeply held assumptions. It means accepting that all Jews in America don’t have the same cultural referents. Personally, as the son of Holocaust survivors, it has been hard for me to be seen as part of the “powerful white Ashkenazic community” that has created normative Jewish behavior that excludes others. Growing up, I felt outside of the normative Jewish community. Most children of survivors in the 1960s and ’70s felt different. We are all learning about relative privilege and how being oppressed in one sphere doesn’t excuse you from learning how you are privileged in others.

This lesson is similar to what white-presenting Jews are learning about white privilege. As the discussions in the broader culture about white privilege are swirling about, the progressive Jewish community has been struggling with how to incorporate the realities of antisemitism into that equation. We are coming to understand that white-presenting Jews have relative privilege that can and will be revoked under certain historical conditions.

Antisemitism has been made real by the murders in synagogues and kosher meat markets in the past two years. Groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice are developing a sophisticated analysis of the role of antisemitism in maintaining oppressive systems and dividing progressive movements. While the mainstream community is trying to equate left and right antisemitism, the progressive community is showing that the real dangers lie in white nationalism and working to create coalitions with other groups fighting white supremacy. Bend the Arc has made this a priority.

An important truth of the feminist movement that “the personal is political” is manifesting in several ways in todays’ progressive circles. Cherie Brown has been teaching since the mid-1970s about “internalized oppression” that manifests as internalized antisemitism, but recently it has gained new currency. In progressive circles, people are having conversations and doing exercises about such Jewish patterns as feeling not Jewish enough, the tendency to urgency and the fear of annihilation — and how these expressions of internalized antisemitism are not productive. Such conversations are related to the work being done in progressive circles about internalized racism and internalized homophobia. While some of these conversations risk falling into rabbit holes, on the whole, they are producing greater self-awareness.

Patriarchy and sexism are being called out in the Jewish world by a variety of groups. More than 500 Jewish women leaders wrote a public letter and have a Facebook page calling on a variety of reforms including (but not limited to) wage parity, hiring for senior positions, ending male-only panels at conferences and an end to sexual harassment. A sign of changing understanding is this added note, “By ‘women,’ we refer to cisgender women, trans women, and anyone who identifies with the term ‘woman’.” The ability to embrace the fluidity of gender largely falls along generational lines. This leads to both tension and growth.

In the early 2000s, elements of the Jewish progressive community began involvement with Congregation Based Community Organizing (CBCO). The form of organizing originally developed by Saul Alinsky in the 1960s using congregations as the basis of organizing in cities around immediate issues in people’s lives. At the beginning of this century, there were likely less than 20 synagogues involved as compared to thousands of churches. Jewish Funds for Justice launched a campaign to radically increase Jewish involvement. The Reform movement became involved, and today, there are well over 100 synagogues involved in national CBCO groups like Industrial Areas Foundation and Faith in Action (formerly PICO). It is probably the form of social action that has the broadest representation of Jews with differing religious and political beliefs. JOIN for Justice: Jewish Organizing Institute and Network trains organizers and has had a significant influence on raising the skill level of organizing in the Jewish community.

Here is a very simplified description of some of the forms of organizing. CBCO is a form of organizing called structural organizing and is based on building organizations as distinct from building a movement. It is rooted in the practice of creating relationships through one-on-one conversations, constantly nurturing new leadership and engaging in campaigns that directly affect people’s lives. It has traditionally eschewed ideological analyses, larger frameworks and national campaigns. In the larger world of organizing, this has come under criticism from people who favor momentum organizing which is focused more on creating a movement through large visible events, big picture thinking and non-violent direct action. In the Jewish world, groups like IfNotNow, which opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Never Again Action, which supports immigrant rights, are trained in momentum organizing. Note that these are largely millennial organizations. There are discussions taking place about how to create hybrid models that include both structural and momentum organizing, and this is a source of creativity in the organizing world.

One outcome of deeper involvement with CBCO is greater comfort with the idea that progressive groups need to have political power to make real changes. For many years, progressives have been uncomfortable with the idea of power, seeing it only as oppressive. In order to make real changes, power is necessary. We are learning about power with others as opposed to power over others, and this will take more conversations.

One important aspect of this conversation is the role of civil disobedience. As our political and environmental situation grows more dire, we need stronger measures to counter that. More Jewish groups have been engaging in it and doing it as a sacred act. There are more people wearing tallitot while getting arrested than ever before. We can harken (?) back to Shifrah and Puah in the Exodus story, the midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders. We need to expand our training, going deeper into the philosophy and practice of civil disobedience while greatly increasing the number of people involved.

Service learning is another form that has exploded in the last 15 years. Avodah, Repair the World and JOIN all have year-long programs where fellows divide their time between learning Jewish teachings about justice and working with a variety of organizations. They are training a cadre of Jewish social-justice activists. We are developing a deeper bench.

The most divisive issue in the Jewish progressive world is how to address the continuing Israeli oppression of Palestinians. There is a split between Zionists and anti-Zionists, with some non-Zionists thrown into the mix. The fastest-growing Jewish group on the left for the last 10 years is likely Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which supports Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. For the previous 10 years, the fastest-growing group was likely J Street, a progressive Zionist organization that supports a two-state solution. This is somewhat indicative of a generational split over positions on Israel. BDS has been declared treif (not kosher) by the Jewish establishment, which is even attempting to have people advocating for it legally sanctioned as a form of antisemitism. The progressive Zionists feel caught in the middle and try to walk a line between the two, which generally pleases neither side.

The large majority of progressive Jewish groups have chosen to focus only on domestic issues and work very hard to avoid even any mention of Israel/Palestine. They are afraid of being marginalized and/or losing financial support. These are well-founded fears. In the 1980s, when New Jewish Agenda was active, it had a multi-issue platform, but the only thing the Jewish community focused on was its advocacy of a two-state solution. It was marginalized and came under heavy criticism, similar to JVP today. Since then, other organizations have made the calculus that to be effective domestically, they needed to avoid confronting the oppression of Palestinians. Frequently, the staff in those organizations feel frustrated by not being able to speak about it. Others criticize them for being progressive on everything except Israel.

Similarly, when the 100-plus-page Black Lives Matter platform was released in 2016, the established Jewish community focused on one sentence about Israel/Palestine and ignored all of the other issues raised. This caused tension both within the Jewish community and with other progressive groups in the country. Many non-Jewish progressives don’t understand the deep divisions in our community about Israel/Palestine. The fear of speaking about Israeli oppression is a millstone around the neck of the Jewish progressive community.

Interestingly, one of the very few organizations that addresses domestic issues and talks about a two-state solution is T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. It has gotten as many as 2,000 rabbis to sign on to petitions protesting housing demolitions in Israel. Founded in 2002, its legitimacy derives from its constituency and a good part of its funding is by rabbis. Thus, it doesn’t worry nearly as much as others about condemnation from the wider Jewish community.

The area of greatest unity between the progressive and mainstream communities has been the issues surrounding immigration, deportation and asylum. This has led to some bridges being built. HIAS, more of a Jewish legacy organization, has revived itself and become an advocacy organization, in addition to providing services to immigrants.

Sadly, the greatest failure of the Jewish progressive community has been the lack of activism around ecological devastation, the definitive issue of our time. There was an attempt in the early 2010s to bring together, under the rubric of the Green Hevre, all of the Jewish environmental organizations (most of them are devoted to education). We were unable to agree on political action. One reason is that groups whose funding is tied to Federations and mainstream sources are constrained because the establishment officially promotes U.S. energy independence from Mideast oil, in line with Israel’s wishes. As an example, those groups could not support a ban on fracking. The only Jewish organization consistently fighting for the Earth against the “Carbon Pharaohs” has been the Shalom Center under Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and it has been underfunded and understaffed. In the spring of 2020 under Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, a new Jewish environmental organization, Dayenu, was launched with the hope that it will galvanize the community.

It is crucial to keep in mind that the threat to the biosphere transcends climate change. All of the systems of Gaia — the oceans, the soil, the air, the forests, biodiversity — are failing. The Earth is approaching death by organ failure. We are in the midst of the greatest extinction of life in 66 million years, known now as the Anthropocene extinction, caused by human actions. That means more forms of life are being destroyed than created. This has a spiritual effect on all of us. Death is winning out over life.

Central to Jewish justice work are our beliefs that we are all created in the image of God and that all beings are connected to each other. God is One: the Oneness of all Creation. When we act on the assumption that we are separate from one another or from nature, that leads to the oppression of people and the Earth. The dire threat to all life can lead to a revolutionary impulse to change everything. Is this the crisis that gives us the opportunity to make the fundamental changes to patriarchal, hierarchical power relationships that can bring about greater justice and peace?

The ecological emergency, combined with the threat to democracy in the United States and the rise of white nationalists, leads to despair among many activists. Some burn out. To counter that, there is a new emphasis on resiliency. For example, Rabbi Deborah Waxman’s Podcast Hashivenu focuses on Jewish teachings and practice around resiliency. Jewish activists are rediscovering the spiritual teachings of Judaism and even beginning to develop a Jewish theology of liberation to strengthen themselves in this time of struggle. Related to this is a commitment to learn how trauma affects us, realizing that many people have experienced some form of trauma, and that activist groups must learn how to be sensitive to that and provide appropriate supports. It must be said that mindfulness meditation and Musar (Jewish ethical practice) are having a very significant impact in progressive circles. Activists are finding inner strength and are committing to treat each other with love and respect. This is of great benefit to the Jewish progressive world.

There is a corollary set of teachings core to our work for justice: teachings about love. Love God and love your neighbor. We are here to serve life, to love expansively, to celebrate our connections, the “voices of all that exist” praise Havayah — the life force. This is the basis, the means and the end for all of the work we do for justice. It brings joy to our lives and sustains us.

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