This piece was originally published in eJewish Philanthropy. AJWS President Ruth Messinger and Executive Vice President Robert Bank signed onto the letter below, along with 48 other Jewish social justice leaders. AJWS is joining the #JewishPurpose conversation on social media throughout Chanukah.
Since the release of the Pew study in 2013, there has been much hand-wringing in the Jewish community, with some calling this, again, a time of crisis. There is fear of increasing rates of assimilation and growing disaffiliation from traditional institutions. This was especially apparent in the recent statement, Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action, signed by many respected colleagues.
We do not accept this doom and gloom picture of a dying Jewish community, and we think the analysis and recommendations in the document are too limited. As leaders of Jewish social justice initiatives, we see instead an incredibly exciting moment in Jewish life, in which Jews of all generations are experimenting with new modes of practice, diving into learning, creating new Jewish cultural expressions, and drawing on Jewish wisdom and our Jewish traditions to inspire engagement with the world. Rather than mourning the changes in modes of affiliation, we should celebrate this moment and determine how the many different parts of our community might respond expansively and creatively. We want more new voices at the table and more ideas for next steps to be shared.
Pew reports that 56% of Jews say that being Jewish means working for justice. We take this statistic as an opportunity for the organized Jewish community to take on new powerful work for justice, with the involvement or leadership of our groups and our partners. This statistic is also a challenge to many in our ranks who are not doing justice work, or not doing it Jewishly, to act for justice in ways that are connected to the richness of Jewish tradition.
Integrating Judaism with social justice is not a gimmick – it’s a true, authentic way of being Jewish that is both rooted in our texts and traditions, and in the American Jewish experience. Over time, thousands (perhaps millions?) of Jews have acted for justice out of their Jewish values, history, and tradition. It is exciting that in the past 30 years this has become more visible and an entire field is being built around an explicitly Jewish perspective on pursuing justice. That field and those who populate it deserve a central place at this table as we debate aspects of our future.
But there is more. We who are doing this work know that we don’t have all the answers. We know that it is a core principle of social justice that the answers to the most pressing collective challenges have to come from the grassroots, from those most affected by what is and those looking the hardest for what could be. We, as Jewish social justice leaders, know that even perfect solutions to collective challenges often fail if they don’t feel connected to the community affected by those challenges.
So, we are hoping this letter launches this conversation into a broader sphere. We want to know what you – Jews inside and outside of Jewish institutions – think. What is your dream for a dynamic, exciting Jewish community? What do you find in the 21st century Jewish community that speaks to your interests? Where does it let you down? What are you doing outside the Jewish community that you would like to see become part of what the community offers?
During Chanukah, join us for a communal conversation on social media using #jewishpurpose responding to these questions.
This is an invitation to all of you and to the broad circles of people we suspect you can help us engage. We want people who are engaged in Jewish life, people who are occasional participants, and people who watch from the sidelines. We want those who are social justice activists and those who are quiet sympathizers; those who bemoan the state of the world and haven’t figured out what to do about it; those who work in the community and those who don’t; and we definitely want and need people of every generation.
See you online!
Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
Abby Levine, Exective Director, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
Adam Berman, Executive Director, Urban Adamah
Alex Weissman, President, Reconstructionist Student Association
Aliza Levine, Organizer for UNITE HERE New England Joint Board
Amram Altzman, Keshet Leader, Co-founder of the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club at Ramaz High School, and Blogger for New Voices Magazine
Andy Levin, President, Lean and Green Michigan
April N. Baskin, Union for Reform Judaism
Chava Shervington, President, Jewish Multiracial Network
Cheryl Cook, Executive Director, Avodah
Daniel Sokatch, CEO, New Israel Fund
David Eisner, President & CEO, Repair the World
David Krantz, President of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism
Davida Ginsberg, Moishe Kavod House President
Debbie Goldstein, Carolina Jews for Justice
Dove Kent, Executive Director, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Emilia Diaimant, Executive Director, The Jeremiah Project
Esther-Ann Asch, Advocacy Committee Member at Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and Former Vice President of Jewish and Community Affairs at FEGS
Fair Trade Judaica
Habonim Dror North America
Idit Klein, Executive Director, Keshet
Jacob Feinspan, Executive Director, Jews United for Justice
Jenna Weinberg, Board Member, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
Jewish Labor Committee Western Region
Joy Sisisky, Executive Director, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York
Judy Levey, Executive Director, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Karla Van Praag, Executive Director, JOIN for Justice
Kathryn Macías – Moishe Kavod House leader
Lee Sherman, President & CEO, Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies
Leo Ferguson, Leadership Development and Communications Organizer, JFREJ
Nancy Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women
Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee
Rabbi Alana Alpert, Director, Detroit Jews for Justice
Rabbi Barbara Penzner, co-chair, New England Jewish Labor Committee
Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Board Chair, JCUA
Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, Program Director and Rabbi in Residence, Jews United for Justice
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Vice President for Community Engagement, HIAS
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, T’ruah
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Senior Vice President, Union for Reform Judaism
Rebecca Ennen, Jews United for Justice
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Rita Freedman, Acting Executive Director, Jewish Labor Committee
Robert Bank, Executive Vice President, American Jewish World Service
Ruth W. Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service
Sheila Decter, Executive Director, JALSA
Stosh Cotler, CEO, Bend the Arc
Tamar Ghidalia, Board Member, Jewish Community Action
Vic Rosenthal, Executive Director, Jewish Community Action
Yavilah McCoy, Bend the Arc Leader and CEO of VISIONS Inc.