Pursuing Social Justice at the White House

Originally posted on the Global Circle blog.

“The average citizen totally underestimates their ability to impact policy and decision making here in Washington.” – Jon Carson, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement

There I was, sitting with 82 members of the American Jewish Community representing 21 Jewish organizations as part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable being briefed by White House officials on the President’s social justice agenda. Why would they take the time? What power do we have? Who are we to be in the room? We are committed American citizens driven by our Jewish values to call for change. We have the power to make that change a reality, the power to make our voices heard and to advance social justice here in America and in the world.

Our briefing opened with a welcome from Alan Van Capelle, Chief Executive Officer of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. “This is a decision point for our community right now,” he said in his welcome. “We [the Jewish community] have always stood on the side of Avraham and said “Hinenu, Here we Are.” What do we want to be moving forward? What change do we want to see and how do we get there?”

In the 24 hours since I walked out of the White House Conference Center, this question has been running through my mind. For all my life, I’ve learned this message of civic responsibility and studied the basic premises on which our democracy stands. Yet hearing these words yesterday from the White House had a different power. We, members of the Jewish community, must take our commitment to social justice seriously enough that we are willing to stand up and share our thoughts – there are those in power who want to listen and to act on what we say. I was in the room with an advisor to the President on rural affairs, as he took notes when we pushed for food justice, promising to check out this inforgraphic released last week by AJWS and Oxfam America and to share it with the President. We are impacting the conversation here in America about the Farm Bill (hopefully to be renamed the Food Bill!), and our voices were heard.

Heading into Passover, I can’t help but reflect on this privilege granted to me as a member of AJWS’s  Global Circle, and of the freedoms we have here in America that are not universal. I rededicate myself this holiday to bringing freedom and justice to those in our communities; Jewish and non-Jewish; local, national and global and encourage you to do the same. Hinenu, We are Here and embracing our freedom to make change. “Let Freedom Ring,” I’ll be saying this Passover. I hope you will be, too.

Aileen Goldstein is the Chair of the Department of Jewish History and Israel Engagement at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. She is an alum of AJWS’s Volunteer Corps and is currently a member of the Global Circle Steering Committee in Washington, DC.