Are Social Movements History?

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
December 1, 2012
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In reflecting on the essays and conversations featured in this month’s print edition of Sh’ma on the subject of Social Movements, I ask myself whether it even possible to be a member of a social movement while ensconced in the post-modern world. Post-modernism requires that we admit that most everything is subjective. It holds that reality is a construction of one individual trying to come to an understanding of his or her experiences; reality is nothing more, nothing less than a single person’s interpretation of what the world means to him or her.

How, then, to organize a mass movement? What slogans can be utilized to sum up an array of complicated and interconnected issues contributing to the social ill being protested? What might unify us: solitary individuals, each tuned into our own music on our own portable devises, texting or surfing the internet or talking on “smart” phones in our isolated portals of transportation?

What might it take for us to turn off, to unplug, to reconnect to those around us and to really open up to one another, face-to-face? What might we discover about the many frustrations, sorrows, and struggles that connect us?

My guess is each and every social movement has begun by people discovering – in one way or another – that their lives and experiences are actually part of a larger web of experiences and systems larger than themselves. It’s neighbors comparing stories rather than building taller and taller hedges to separate one home from the next; it’s co-workers chatting casually in the lunch room rather than each one consumed in his or her own email inbox; it’s individuals (old and young) asking one another about their cares and concerns and waiting long enough to really listen to the answer. “How are you?” should be the beginning of a conversation, not an empty greeting expecting no reply.

Without these (now radical) revisions to our society, I’m afraid social movements will quietly fade into history.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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