Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, MA. He lives in Maynard with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell
I’ve been teaching and working in synagogues since the early 1990s. My memories of that early work are of pleasant and warm communities, if a little insular. By the end of the 20th century, Jews had “made it.” And so the American synagogue had become a place of safety and community — but also isolation.
The concerns of the outside world rarely penetrated the walls of the suburban shuls where I taught religious school and advised youth groups. Sure, we ran the occasional food drive and collected coats in the winter, but — outside of the regular appeal to “support Israel” — there wasn’t much advocacy to speak of. After all, by the 1990s, the fight for Soviet Jewry had been won, Jewish otherness seemed to be fading into our collective memory, and the country was enjoying a time of relative prosperity and peace.
But while American shuls slept, something of great consequence was happening in the American body politic. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was mainstreaming the most extreme elements of political conservatism. Assistance to the poor was slashed, business was deregulated, and the “Taking Back Our Streets Act,” including the construction of dozens of new prisons, was ushered into law.
Fast forward to today, and we see where this movement has led us. Mass incarceration is now a fact of life for millions of people of color. A surrender has been declared in the War on Poverty. Immigrants have become walking suspects. And the racist dog whistles are now sirens, as the voices once on the fringe now command the bully pulpit.
How many synagogues, even ten years ago, would have identified these as Jewish concerns?
But as the decade ends, much of that has changed. “Social action” committees now increasingly discuss “social justice.” Synagogues routinely organize to end mass incarceration, protest the torment of immigrant families, and combat hate and racism. Much of these changes, of course, came from outside the synagogue world. The merger of Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance led to the creation of Bend the Arc, which mobilized thousands of Jews who were tired of waiting for their synagogues to get with the program. In New York, meanwhile, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice explicitly drew the connection between Jewish identity and the struggle for fairness and decency.
But, in the last decade, change has come to Jewish religious spaces as well — even the synagogue. Shuls like IKAR in Los Angeles and Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn, led by Rabbis Sharon Brous and Ellen Lippmann, respectively, once outliers in talking about Jewish social justice, began to be seen as leaders in this work. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who had created a “Just Congregations” advocacy program in 2006, was elevated to a senior position in the Reform Movement, and Jewish leaders of color like April Baskin inspired synagogues to look at racism as it manifests both in and outside of Jewish community. Rabbis for Human Rights North America, under the leadership of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, was transformed into T’ruah, a network of 2000 North American rabbis who speak and teach on justice. Community organization like the JCRC in Boston, in an effort to help synagogues create “high-impact social justice work from a Jewish perspective,” hired staff like Rachie Lewis, Director of Synagogue Organizing. Legacy aid organizations like American Jewish World Service and Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, began adding advocacy to their already considerable assistance work.
Thus, today, arrests at demonstrations (considered unseemly when I was first arrested at an Iraq War protest in 2003) are now seen by many as a marker of rabbinic accomplishment.
In short, justice work is coming to be seen not as an aberration, but as a key part of the work of Jewish community. Joining a synagogue has become a political act.
This should not surprise us. The Torah, with its foundational of story of the liberation of enslaved workers, bound by common condition and ethnicity, has always been political. “Remember Egypt,” it reminds us. “Don’t ever set up a society like that.” Our texts have always called out for justice. But after a decade of ever-increasing extremism, cruelty to the vulnerable, and nationalist hate, synagogues are finally becoming places to act on that call.
But justice activism is not the only way that joining a synagogue has emerged as a political act. As I mentioned at the outset, synagogues at the turn of this century were sometimes sleepy, but usually felt safe and secure. Even the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 felt far away from American Jews.
That has all changed in the past decade. In 2012, I was serving as a synagogue Director of Congregational Learning when I heard about the killings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, France. In addition to three schoolchildren, the gunman killed a rabbi who was stationed at the doorway of the school, doing his job of greeting his students — a task that was part of my job as well. This shooting was followed by others — an attack by a neo-Nazi at a JCC and retirement home in Kansas City in 2014, the Hypercacher supermarket shooting in Paris in 2015, and then, of course, the killings at two synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, and the murder at a Jersey City kosher grocery.
It is dreadfully fitting, perhaps, that the decade conclude with violent attacks on Jews during Chanukah, a holiday that asks us to consider our role in maintaining our Jewish identity. The story of the Maccabees, complicated heroes at best, is one of resistance to state oppression and religious persecution.
As then, so now, merely being in a Jewish space is a political statement. Walking into a synagogue sends the message: I am here. I will not be intimidated. I refuse to be invisible or silent. I will connect with my community in a public space, regardless of the risk it entails.
The fact that being in a synagogue is also, potentially, a spiritual act, does not detract from its political dimension. An act can serve more than one purpose in one’s life. In a time when partisan ugliness has rendered “politics” a dirty word, we are reminded that political acts are spiritual acts. Meditating on our values, speaking from the soul, organizing for our personal and communal needs — all of these are deeply human, and powerfully spiritual behaviors.
Both politics and religion hold out the promise of redemption. Though human efforts to bring about a better world are bound to fall short, we keep at it. This takes communion, spirit, faith. Our world has turned out to be scarier than we thought.
But, perhaps, our fear this past decade has catalyzed us to find the deepest possibilities inherent in our Jewish traditions. What a blessing it would be to look back in 2030 on a decade in which those possibilities are realized.