The Avodah Blog

Catalysts for Change: The Importance of the Jewish Social Justice Movement

By: Abi Weber

Abi spoke about her experience as an AVODAH corps member at the Chicago Partners in Justice event that honored Rabbi Sam Gordon and Jackie Kaplan-Perkins as well as celebrated the accomplishments of alumna Hollen Reischer and Advisory Council Members Lauren and David Grossman. Her remarks follow below.

In Chicago, I, along with 13 other AVODAHniks share a home or bayit over the course of our year of service. Together, we learn to live in community, provide support to one another and experiment with creating our own traditions and customs within a Jewish context.

A few months ago, we convened a salon style type of event over at the bayit. We invited Jews from throughout the city: civil rights attorneys, labor organizers, social service workers and a wide range of community organizers and activists. The title for the night’s discussion was “Why a Jewish Social Justice Movement?”

We knew we had to be onto something, because that evening over 50 people crammed into our little home away from home, piling coats and boots everywhere and snuggling together on the few sofas and chairs that adorn our humble abode.

Not entirely unexpected, people that evening raised questions such as: Why should Jews have a Jewish social justice movement?  Why shouldn’t we just be a part of a global social justice movement?  Why not build an interfaith social justice movement? How Jewish of us – to answer a question with three more questions.

Quickly, however, we all acknowledged that doing both is in no way mutually exclusive. In other words, by organizing ourselves as Jews in no way precludes us from working along lines of race, class and faith.  And in fact this is exactly what most of us do.   But we still had not answered the question, “Why organize ourselves, as Jews, to work for social change?”

One of our guests said this: “Doing good in the world grows out of a sense of understanding one’s own identity.” I took this to mean that understanding my own identity as a Jew grounds me in my attempts to understand others in the world.

Here’s why both this question and answer were so salient for me. Two years ago, while still a college student, I spent four months in Cameroon, a developing country in central Africa. In Cameroon, I was to learn not just about the horrors of poverty, but also about the vibrancy of Cameroonian culture and community.

My time in Cameroon overlapped with Pesach and so a few of my Jewish colleagues and I created a makeshift Seder.  And we held it, no less, in the home of my Muslim host family. Explaining the story of Passover to my devout host brother as he washed his feet in preparation for the mosque was a unique experience indeed.  Ironically, it was the religious dedication of my host family that pushed me to connect more deeply with my own religious identity.

Shortly thereafter, I graduated college and needed to make a decision about whether or not to return to Cameroon for a full year or to spend my post college year with AVODAH.

I am proud to proclaim this evening, that spending this year living within a pluralistic Jewish community while fighting the causes and effects of poverty is among the best choices I have ever made.  I can say, without reservation, that I have grown significantly: as a Jew; as an agent for social change; and as a human being.

At my job at Inspiration Corporation, where I coordinate a communications tool for those who are homeless and living in poverty, I am consistently challenged to clarify my own values in order to be a “catalyst for self reliance.” And at home, I wrestle with the day-to-day challenges of living in community and resolving differences. Both of these themes are supported by the hours of AVODAH programs where my colleagues and I grapple with the meaning of Jewish texts in the context of our contemporary world.

I have learned in our sessions on community organizing that what I am doing in all three of these endeavors is “clarifying my own self-interest.” Self-interest in this context does not come from a place of selfishness, but instead means that fulfilling my own needs is crucial to being able to live peacefully among others. And it is with this sense of understanding my own self-interest that I can successfully be an important part of the growing movement for global social, economic and racial justice.

Each and every day I hear concerns about Jewish continuity. If you could only experience what I experience everyday in AVODAH, you would be able to affirm that the future of the Jewish community is alive and well and vibrant; and that young Jews, everyday, are working, as Jews, to be the catalyst for change that the world so desperately needs.

I’m reminded of something an Aboriginal activist in Queensland once said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

If we define ourselves with that liberation in mind, I have no doubt that Jewish community and values will continue from generation to generation:  l’dor vador.

Abi Weber is from from Lincoln, NE and attended Pomona College. As a Chicago corps member, she is a Community Voice Mail Coordinator at Inspiration Corporation, which helps people who are affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through the provision of social services, employment training and placement, and housing, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

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