By: Ilana Krakowski
I would say I’ve done a fair amount of social justice and environmental work through Jewish groups and organizations. In fact, I attribute a lot of my passion for this stuff to those very Jewish programs that gave me a strong starting point for seeing social change as holy work, as part of a legacy of a people seeking to treat others like we want to be treated. While this year I am participating in another Jewish social justice program called AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, I am starting to think differently about Jewish social justice, or apparently, what some are now calling “The Jewish Social Justice Movement” (I am including Jewish environmental groups as well). My question is, when it comes to addressing issues that affect more than just Jews (education, the environment, health care, abortion, etc.) what good does it do to go about our change work under a Jewish banner, or through a Jewish organization?
On the one hand, it does a lot of good. For those of us who have privilege and power in the places we live, labeling ourselves as Jewish can really work well when allying with other communities that may not have as much political or economic sway. It shows society that the Jews are a caring people, that we align ourselves with important values and seek to be active citizens building a healthy society for all. Having a Jewish organization to organize around also provides for systematic interfaith and cross-cultural relationship building with other religiously defined communities.
I certainly experience this effect by being part of AVODAH. The organization I work for through my fellowship, N Street Village, is a non-profit that services homeless and low-income women. My year-long position is filled by an AVODAH Corps member every year. Therefore, because many fellow staff and clients know I am part of a Jewish organization that sends its participants to work with all kinds of people on all kinds of justice issues, I am often told that AVODAH’s work reflects positively on the American Jewish community. At work I get the chance to talk about my Jewish experience in moments where it otherwise wouldn’t come up and others feel more inclined to share about their backgrounds and affiliations. This kind of politically active and passionate lifestyle is definitely the type of Judaism I want to help spread.
At the same time, I am confused by Jewish social justice. A few weeks ago, I helped lead a forum for different Jews doing social justice work in the DC area, hosted by AVODAH. I wanted to bring to this ad hoc community the very question of “Why a Jewish Social Justice Movement?” if at all. We invited all kinds of people—civil rights lawyers, community health educators, labor union organizers, rabbis, current and past AVODAH participants, and more. When it came down to really addressing what a Jewish Social Justice Movement might look like, I found that people could or did not want to answer this. Instead, discussion centered on why it is important for Jews to stay committed to our various issues and how our Jewish identities might impact our individual work. I did not see a need to define a cohesive Jewish movement. One participant commented that there isn’t a single Jewish Social Justice Movement, but perhaps several. Another suggested that having a Jewish Social Justice Movement in particular could even be elitist. I agree to some extent and think checking ourselves on this is a good thing!
Sometimes when trying to make change, like impact climate legislation for example, joining together as Jews may not be as effective or persuasive to government leaders as Jews participating in this campaign as lawyers, scientists, journalists, etc. through more secular outlets. This does not mean that we are not “out” Jews or that we aren’t representing our people in the public. Instead, it is putting our skills to use amidst many people who want to do the same. Creating a Jewish Social Justice Movement is limiting—it may internally help develop our community but it could also keep us in a bubble that is too safe, insular, and does not do enough to impact larger society.
I think that Jewish organizations pursuing justice are good for the American Jewish community and actually produce great results. Yet they need to keep asking themselves how effective they are being not just in trying to increase Jewish affiliation, but in securing the goals of justice projects themselves (if their mission includes addressing the needs of non-Jewish communities of course). Dividing ourselves amongst a sea of social justice outlets is important too. Ever more so I am convinced that creating a single, defined Jewish Social Justice Movement will take the focus away from every day Jewish life, from schools, community centers, and synagogues, which should all make social justice, tzedakah, and tikkun olam a central part of their missions. This is so that it is not just those Jews taking on these values and actions but all Jews who can relate to this work from where they are, in the Jewish and non-Jewish establishments they already frequent.
Jewish social justice programs like AVODAH are wonderful ways to connect Jews to their roots, to building a strong pluralistic Jewish community and to help young Jewish adults navigate the challenging yet rewarding experience of direct service and social change. I just hope Jewish social justice can grow to become an internal living value and not stay as only a particular movement within the Jewish community.
Ilana Krakowski, from Brooklyn, NY, attended Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary – List College. As an AVODAH DC Corps member, she is the Wellness Center Program Assistant at N Street Village, which helps women move from homelessness to independent living and deal with issues of substance abuse and mental illness through day and residential programs.