At the Core of Jewish Citizenship: Jewish Social Change and Service

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November 4, 2004
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Jennie Rosenn

In the process of looking forward, we also look back. In the 1990s the Jewish community began to ask an important question: If we don’t have to defend Israel or triumph over antisemitism, what are we about?

The two pillars of sacred survival identity seemed to be fading in strength and urgency.

Israel appeared poised to enter into peace agreements with many of her neighbors, and we began to anticipate the freeing up of the tremendous resources that had been protecting a vulnerable Israel. At the same time, antisemitism in the U. S. was at a historic low and as the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed, many people were drifting away from a strong identification with the Jewish community. We realized that we needed to stand for something. We needed a positive assertion of what it meant to be Jewish — for this time and in our own country. It was no longer enough to look back to the Holocaust or halfway around the world to a country we love, as a substitute identity for American Jews.

Quite painfully, in the last several years, antisemitism and Israel-in-peril have both reemerged in distressing and urgent ways, and the community has largely shifted back to its comfortable mode of responding to these crises. The question of what the Jewish community is going to look like in the next era depends on whether we continue — even amidst crisis — to ask ourselves: Who are we and for what do we stand? Can we keep these questions alive and if so, how do we answer them substantively?

When American Jews ask: Who are we and for what do we stand? one of the clear and compelling responses that resonates meaningfully is: Jewish service and social change.

Relieving human suffering, promoting human dignity, and standing up for justice are essential responses to the question of what it means to be Jew — to the question of why it is important for Jews to survive and what we will devote our energies to beyond our survival. While surely none of these activities exclusively belongs to the Jewish people, there are distinctive Jewish approaches to doing this work.

In a growing number of ways, Jewish communities are working to create a just world and are explicitly connecting this work to Jewish values and teachings. Like the old truism, “show us, don’t tell us,” this work sends a message that it isn’t just what Jews say we stand for, it’s what we really do.

In recognition of the failure of   social action committees to engage significant numbers of congregants in meaningful social change work, synagogues across the country are launching a new model — faith-based community organizing. Through a dynamic process of training, reflection, one-on-one conversations, and house meetings, congregants are identifying issues of concern and engaging in effective campaigns — in partnership with other communities of faith. Health care, immigrant rights, and affordable housing are but a few issues synagogues have tackled through faith-based community organizing this past year. In addition to engaging Jews in meaningful social justice work, this method is proving remarkably effective in revitalizing congregational life through building relationships, empowering congregational leaders to become active in the public arena, and making Jewish social justice teachings, texts, and rituals relevant today.

Faith-based community organizing is a powerful model that more congregations will be turning to in the coming years and a movement that merits the Jewish community’s attention and resources. For obvious demographic reasons, however, congregations are generally not the most effective place to engage young adults. Recently, a host of programs has emerged that engage young Jews in service and activism and incorporate multiple elements that are integral to engaging this generation.

They tend to be religiously pluralistic rather than denominationally based; encourage people to wrestle with life’s fundamental questions rather than provide pat answers; offer Jewish learning that is organic and grows out of experience; create opportunities to better understand the complexities of the world while making real differences; enable participants to be part of a meaningful Jewish community while also allowing them to be part of a larger, not exclusively Jewish, world; provide opportunities for direct service while also highlighting root causes; and challenge people intellectually, spiritually, and personally. Furthermore, this work, in the language of Dr. Robert Putnam, successfully builds both bonding and bridging social capital. Through these experiences, participants form friendships, find partners, and even create Shabbat communities while simultaneously connecting with people across cultural, racial, and class lines — often for the first time.

Ten years ago there were only a handful of programs that engaged young Jews in service and social justice work and provided a Jewish lens through which to understand this work. Today there are dozens of such programs — with opportunities to work for week, a summer, a year, in the United States, Israel, and many other countries, during high school, college, after graduation, or between jobs. Here are a few examples:

The Progressive Jewish Alliance in L. A. is an intergenerational organization committed to social change. Among its many successful programs is a cadre of Jews trained as mediators who facilitate reconciliation between nonviolent juvenile offenders and their victims. The intensive training for this restorative justice project is explicitly grounded in concepts of teshuvah.

Tzedek Hillel is a national movement engaging thousands of Jewish college students each year to work in partnership with community organizations on issues of homelessness, hunger, economic justice, and education. Jewish students also participate in scores of “Alternative Spring Break” trips that transform students’ understandings of the world, the value of Jewish community, and the possibility of making change as Jewish global citizens.

American Jewish World Service, which runs some of the most successful “Alternative Breaks,” also sends Jewish college students to spend a summer in the developing world to do meaningful service, learn about grassroots development, and wrestle with what it means to do this work as Jews.

AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps offers Jews in their twenties opportunities to work for a year on poverty issues in NYC and DC. Participants live together in a Jewish community, engage Jewish teachings connected to their work, and receive training in skills like community organizing and conflict resolution.

While many people participate with one program, it is also becoming increasingly common for young people to follow a chain of involvement reminiscent of a network of camps or youth groups. A student may be involved in Tzedek Hillel on campus, go on “Alternative Spring Break” and then seek out AJWS’s summer program. Or do AVODAH right out of college, move to a city, and become involved in a local Jewish social justice group like the Progressive Jewish Alliance. In fact, the Jewish Coalition for Service was recently created to support and promote over 46 such initiatives, create a pipeline for involvement, and cultivate alumni networks.

Alumni of these programs routinely speak about how these experiences have influenced their choice of careers, their engagement of social issues, their philanthropy, the communities they seek out, and the way they understand their Jewish identity.

The Mormon community sends their youth to do a year of service before college — usually missionary work around the world — before college. In many Orthodox communities it is common after high school to spend a year in Israel studying in a yeshiva. It is time to build a new communal norm — that a cornerstone of Jewish citizenship and identity is a term of Jewish service: a week, a summer, or a year. We look toward a time when most young Jewish adults are part of some network of alumni of Jewish service and social justice programs, when there is a clearly articulated sense of what we as Jews stand for , when fewer people are stumped by the question why be Jewish, and when two people meet and discover they are both Jewish, they immediately ask, “Oh where did you do your term of service?!”

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Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus, is Director of Jewish Life and Values and Contemplative Practice Programs at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Prior to this position, she served as Associate Jewish Chaplain at Hillel of Columbia University and Barnard College. She lives in New York City with her husband David and son Benjamin.

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