I believe that when we look back in a few years we will see the year 2010 as the beginning of a renewed and expanded commitment among young Jews to work for social justice. I know there is a thirst and hunger among young people to be part of repairing the world, but too many young people leave college idealistic and hopeful only to be dragged down by cynicism and despair. As the leader of AVODAH, I have the opportunity to build and feed the idealism of this generation so that they can commit themselves to a lifetime of living Jewish values through actively working for social justice. My first task is often to restore their sense of hope.
Last winter I hosted a Shabbat potluck dinner for social justice activists in their twenties, living in Washington, DC. When our after-dinner discussion turned to careers, I was surprised that several of these justice advocates worried that they would have to choose between a family life and working for social change. What a tragic idea, that somehow living a full life was in conflict with living our values! In my work, I’ve found the opposite, that when you choose a life committed to changing the world, you absolutely need community to nourish and sustain and inspire you. And when you are inspired, you can survive the frustrations and the reality that the more important the change, the harder it is to achieve.
I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, a rust belt city, in economic decline, with a small Jewish population. I experienced the safety and warmth of growing up in an observant family, supported by a tight knit Jewish community and at the same time living in a world where being observant and Jewish made you a distinct minority. (Yes, kids in school really did ask to see my horns!) I grew up both with a sense of what it meant to be “different” from most people, and with the religious grounding in our responsibilities to fix the world we inherited and live in.
I received a scholarship to attend Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and there I experienced a different sense of being “different”: coming from a family with little money, I found myself surrounded by well-off, overwhelmingly Christian and mostly politically conservative students; there wasn’t a community, or common values, for me to connect to. I walked away from the school and the scholarship, which was shocking to my family at that time, but it was the right move for me.
Instead, I followed my passion, moving to Madison, Wisconsin to be with old friends from my Jewish Youth Group. I found a wonderful group house which turned out to be a fantastic community of idealistic and passionate young adults, all working to change the world. Needing to earn a living, I took a job as a clerical worker for the state of Wisconsin while I attended the University. Within days on my new job, it became clear to me how terribly many of the other clerical workers, mostly women, were being treated and I got involved in a campaign to form a union. It was exciting and energizing to see how these women changed and grew through standing up for each other and themselves. Both at home, in a house full of college age idealists and at work, with other clerical workers, I experienced how being surrounded by and engaged with people who believe in making change helps maintain and build the commitment needed to ride out the highs and lows of service and social change work.
After college, I took a position as Community Action Coordinator with AFSCME. At this large labor union I learned to meld my community and union organizing work together, as I experienced the overlap in those worlds. I experienced that if people are paid and treated decently at work, but go home to neighborhoods that are dangerous and unsafe, then their lives are thrown out of balance. And if every day they go to work and don’t make enough to live on, or worry they will be unfairly fired, then their home and family life are threatened. Working for a more just world calls for us to look at the totality of people’s lives and how our work helps liberate people from both material and spiritual wants.
We can create communities that allow us to do this in all different ways.During the Immigrant Worker Freedom ride, we created a community on a ten day bus trip. In 2003, I traveled the Deep South on the Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride, a campaign to help bring undocumented workers out of the shadows. Twenty buses stopped in 100 cities across the United States. Riding on my bus were undocumented workers, young Jewish activists and veterans of the civil rights movement. The bus ride was a pressure cooker, combining the fear of the Immigration Service raiding the bus with the undercurrent of historic tensions between African Americans and new immigrants, people from vastly different worlds came together through action and shared experience, As people grew to understand the terror that undocumented workers face of being deported, and separated from their children, as they heard the stories of women forced to have sex with their boss to keep their jobs, they came to see the plight of undocumented workers in the context of their own history. We created a rolling community on a bus that changed the people on the bus and every community we marched in because we were living, experiencing and confronting directly all the complexity of race, class, immigration and the risks both personal and political you need to take to win justice.
At Georgetown University Law School, I taught a course where we created that community by moving from the abstract course work of studying “Organizing for social Change “ to students taking action in support of human rights. When then Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was going to speak at Georgetown at the height of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, students from my class snuck a banner into the meeting with the quote from Ben Franklin , “Those who give up liberty in support of security deserve neither.” They stood up and turned their backs to Gonzales and silently held up the banner in support of human rights. It was scary for law students to silently confront the Attorney General of the United States but planning the event, struggling with the moral issues, led them to a creative but respectful protest that ended up generating press around the world. Studying, working and ultimately acting together helped shaped their view of the world and their role in it.
In my own neighborhood of Shepherd Park in Washington DC, my kids and family became part of a larger community when we chose to send our kids to our neighborhood public elementary school, which had an almost completely African American student body. Our world and our kids expanded and grew as a result. When we invited our kids school friends to their bar mitzvahs, their parents asked if they could participate as well, since they had never attended a bar mitzvah or been in a synagogue before. Life changing friendships were made because we stepped out of the security of one community and into another.
Every year, we bring all of these communities and people together when my family hosts a Yom Kippur Breakfast for 200 or so of our Jewish and non-Jewish friends. It is a time we reflect on what is going on in the world, ask ourselves what role we’ve played in challenging injustice, and recommit ourselves as a group to work for justice. I will never forget when we gathered after 9/11. Three of us led prayers, mine in Hebrew, a Christian friend in English, and a Muslim friend in Arabic. At a moment of such despair, it was incredibly powerful for our community, made up of people of different races and faiths, to join together on Yom Kippur to rededicate ourselves to rising above hate.
Faith and work, community and social change—the two go together. We learn to dream of a better world, and we gain the energy to make that better world possible, when we live in community, learning together, working together, praying together. That’s a message I’d like to send to all of the twenty-something activists I meet. You do not choose between family and social change work. Rather, it is a loving community—whether that be a group house, a nuclear family, or a close-knit network of friends—that enables us to sustain our commitment to a more just world.
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