Taking on Social Justice

By: Abby Bellows
This article was inspired by a workshop Abby offered at the 2009 NHC Summer Institute.

Many of our communities value tikkun olam (repairing the world), syphilis either reflected in actions taken by the community as a whole or in the professional and volunteer choices made by individual members.

Are there reasons to take on social justice work as a whole community?

Yes! There is a need for communities like ours (mainly of highly educated, purchase white voters) to be vocal in fighting poverty and other social dilemmas; we can experience a sense of fulfilment from helping and working alongside others; it can build relationships and unity within our own community; and some of us are excited to engage in something other than our jobs. Social justice is part of our Jewish tradition and it’s a great way to foster a positive image of Jews in our cities and counties, medicine where many of the oppressive landlords, employers, and officials happen to be Jews.

So what is social justice work?

It addresses the root causes of issues faced by “us” and “them,” developing relationships and leadership in the process.

What are the challenges of doing social justice work with your minyan or havurah and how do we deal with them?

  1. Some people don’t feel that they have relevant skills, or are intimidated by the scale of the problems. This evokes Ruth Messinger’s quote, “We cannot retreat into the convenience of being overwhelmed.” We can always start somewhere.
  2. There are diverse political perspectives within some communities. So when bankers and social workers can come together on good davening (praying), why cause rifts by divisive conversation? One response to this is to find and talk about the points we can all agree on (public education perhaps, or responses to homelessness).
  3. Some communities engage a lot of people who do this kind of work by day and aren’t looking to do more on the weekends and at night. They want their prayer community to be just that. This can be handled by identifying other people in the community who might be interested or who could engage through different modes than they do by day.

However another response to these challenges involves a paradigm shift. Instead of “doing” social justice, how can we integrate it into everything our community does?

An old model for thinking about social justice might have looked like this:

  1. a few people “do” social justice;
  2. they plan an event to “do” social justice (such as a food drive at Yom Kippur);
  3. they fulfil their obligation to “do” social justice;
  4. they have helped “others”.

Instead, a model for social justice could look like this:

  1. everyone is involved (those who set the dues structure use a sliding scale proportional to people’s incomes; those who organize the Kiddush (light meal after prayers) use re-usable dishes; divrei Torah (words of Torah) often connect to socially relevant issues, etc.;
  2. social justice is all of the time;
  3. social justice is continual;
  4. we are helping ourselves as well as helping others (this could look like working on issues that concern our lives – such as affordable rent, student loans, and healthcare – and also impact on our broader community). Motivate people through their personal narratives. Ask your havurah or minyan community what they struggle with and are excited about improving in our lives.

Some examples of social justice in minyans or havurahs:

  • Fabrangen (in Washington, DC) has short term events, builds longitudinal relationships, goes to protests, and has a sliding scale for membership dues.
  • Tikkun Leil Shabbat (in Washington DC) is an outgrowth of Jews United for Justice, and came with a stronger mission for combining social justice and Jewish prayer space. Every time they meet, they have a speaker from a local non-profit give the d’var tikkun (a talk on a social justice issue), which includes information about the organization and direct ways to take action. In addition, they focus on their environmental footprint by washing dishes instead of using disposables.
  • Kol Zimrah (in New York City) is working on greening their community by using reusable dishes and asking members to “BYOdishes”. They are considering giving a portion of their fundraising money to tzedakah (charity). But they also recognize that for most members, this is primarily a davening community, and members go elsewhere for social justice.
  • Hadar (in New York City) has anxiety about higher rents in shomer Shabbos (keeping the commandments of Shabbat, including being able to walk to davening) neighborhoods. They have channeled their anxiety into working on housing issues, through direct service (volunteering in a homeless shelter and building with Habitat for Humanity) as well as through advocating for legislation that will regulate rent.

Abby Bellows has attended numerous NHC Summer Institutes, and was co-chair in 2008.


1 Erica Raphael { 01.20.10 at 7:39 pm }

I don’t think it is particularly helpful to characterize projects that are mainly externally focused and in which only some people participate as an “old” model. While it is exciting and challenging to consider how the Jewish values that lead to social justice work can infuse all aspects of a havurah or minyan, some groups will have different primary goals and may still choose to sponsor one or more social justice projects in which some or all members may choose to participate.

A good example of this type of project is Fabrangen’s Project Hope, an assistance program for formerly homeless families. The project, which began many years ago, continues to work with one of the families and has done much to transform the lives of some of its members. A mix of mentoring, financial support, and other support has made this a signature effort of Fabrangen that could be a model for other minyanim or havurot that want to sponsor this type of effort.

2 Resources for your community | Jewschool { 01.31.10 at 7:42 pm }

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