Culture, Justice, Politics

Open thread: How anti-establishment is our movement?

Jo Ellen Kaiser, editor in chief of Zeek Magazine, covered the burgeoning Jewish social justice sector for Sojourner’s Magazine, a liberal Christian mag. Over the next few weeks, we’ll host open threads on elements of the article on how we see ourselves, our movement, our thinkers, and our values. Our last open thread covered whether we owe Heschel, Waskow and Lerner our existence.
This week, let’s consider our Jewish social justice movement as related to the establishment. Jo Ellen claims that our organizations are decidedly anti-establishment and uses Hazon as an example (emphases mine):

So, in 1999, a group of young people founded Hazon (“vision”), creating a Cross-USA bike ride to raise awareness of environmental issues in the Jewish community. […] Hazon is becoming an “institution” on its own, with paid staff and programs. Yet it is a new kind of institution for the Jewish world, as it has neither a clear niche within organized Judaism nor a primary goal to become a national organization that will challenge and change the Jewish world. Hazon’s leaders are essentially uninterested in the organized Jewish world. That is something very new for American Judaism.

Were American Jewish World Service, Avodah, Jewish Funds for Justice, New Israel Fund and Hazon founded by young people? Do these and the wider pantheon of such organizations lack a niche in the organized scene? But much more significantly, are they uninterested in the organized Jewish world? Essentially, are we a young person’s movement and are we giving the communal world the cold shoulder?

8 thoughts on “Open thread: How anti-establishment is our movement?

  1. Sooner or later, all these inspired young people will have kids to feed. At that point they and their organizations will be co-opted by the Federation system with the one community “medium” we all understand – money. The people who run the system now, in their 50s, were big “anti-establishment” types in their 20s as well. They were never going to sell out to “the man”. Now they are the man. What makes this generation any different? And why is it wrong to enter the Jewish community mainstream?
    All these inter-community power relationship quibbles… I’m surprised there’s still time left over for actual activism. Sometimes it seems the promotion of that activism, and it’s “positioning” takes precedence over the organizational objectives themselves.

  2. i’m not sure what has happened in the past will determine what will happen in the future. why could it not be that when these inspired young people have families they will not by co-opted by the Federation, but will rather themselves co-opt the Federation? The difference between the baby-boomer anti-establishmentism and today’s are vast and not so comparable. plus, the Federation only absorbed all of those people because of economics. Our economic reality today is WORLDS apart from what it was. It’s not that it’s wrong to enter the mainstream, it’s that the mainstream does not fulfill people’s spiritual, communal and social needs.

  3. I don’t know, for every Hazon that’s trying to get Jews to change the world outside of the Jewish Establishment, there’s an Uri L’Tzedek trying to bring the Jewish Establishment along for the ride. Keshet is explicitly trying to make the entire Jewish community a better place for GLBT Jews, not just create separate safe space for GLBT Jews. When Rabbi Jill Jacobs (definitely of “our generation” and “our movement”) wrote her tshuva on workers’ rights, it was aimed squarely at our own Jewish institutions.

  4. I always agree with Jo Ellen’s point, but never her data points, it seems.
    Our organizations were hardly founded by young people, no matter how popular they might be in the eyes of younger Jews (and relative to other Jewish institutions).
    I worked for Hazon a few years ago. Hazon was founded by a British former fund manager in his 40s, with two middle-aged colleagues as his founding board. Avodah was founded by Rabbi David Rosenn, also in his 40s. Progressive Jewish Alliance has one of the youngest founders, Daniel Sokatch, who was in his early 30s. New Israel Fund was founded by people in their 50s.
    Point it, the Jewish justice orgs were not founded by young people. Furthermore, the bulk of their budgets are not fundraised from Jews in their 20s and 30s. Any gander at their donor lists shows recognizable Jewish philanthropists.
    I also take huge issue with Jo Ellen’s perception of Hazon’s disinterest in institutional life. As a former employee, I can attest that is farthest from the case. If a flagship program of Hazon is a Jewish day school curriculum in a half-dozen schools, how is that disinterest in the mainstream? I could give a dozen more examples in this vein. In short, Hazon is a terrible example of disinterest, but it’s also not true for the larger movement.
    Back to the bigger picture:
    Jo Ellen would have been better to read through the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s extensive report “Visioning Social Justice” which presents more fully the conflicts between the emergent Jewish justice orgs and the established orgs. (Read it, it’s fascinating.)
    The “young person” magnet that Jo Ellen rightly raises is simply the organized Jewish community’s inability to attract young Jews, whereas the Jewish social justice community is full of them. From page 53:

    The mainstream Jewish organizations — federations, United Jewish Communities, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee, for example — have also seen
    evidence of this disaffection. Their donor and volunteer ranks are aging and shrinking. For a long time, the leadership linked the decline to the fact that young Jews are marrying and having children much later. They hypothesized that once Jews started marrying and having families, they would “come home” to mainstream Jewish venues.
    That homecoming is not happening as anticipated. As a result, leaders of these institutions have acknowledged that the downward trend in mainstream affiliation by Generations X, Y, and Millennials may represent a more permanent shift in identity formation. However, these same studies also have hypothesized that some percentage of young Jews will find their own “way to Jewishness.” The cultural landscape appears to support this hypothesis, with a diverse array of new Jewish social entrepreneurs, cultural innovators, founders of new spiritual communities, and leaders of Jewish social justice organizations. This “new way” into Judaism is evidenced as well by the burgeoning interest of young people in Jewish service programs.

    Interest, participation, eagerness by young people, yes. But founding? No. Disinterest in working with the mainstream? No.
    I mean, personally have no loyalty to the preexisting “established” orgs but I wouldn’t complain if one of them hired me and let me change things up. At the end of the day, I’m interested in aiming the Jewish community less towards parochial self-centered projects and using our resources to benefit both us and others. I’m fine doing that in new institutions or old.

  5. Just to set the record straight, Daniel Sokatch did not found the PJA. It was founded by folks in their fifties and sixties who then hired Daniel after the first year of the organization. What is true is that Sokatch made PJA what it is and brought many young folks aboard-on the board, on staff, and as members.

  6. As a young Jewish man in his mid 20’s, I’d like to just share my experience. During High School I began to find it difficult to relate to other Jews in the established community, as I am an agnostic environmentalist with some pretty progressive views. But that was me; almost every Jew I knew felt uncomfortable or disregarded by the established Jewish community. In college, I tried Hillel and hated it, feeling just as alienated. They didn’t understand, or want to understand, my interests because I wasn’t in a leadership position on the Hillel board. So I moved away from the Jewish community, no longer sure what Judaism meant to me.
    Thanks to groups like Hazon, Sviva Israel, Teva, JCAN, and several more, I have rediscovered my Judaism. If the mainstream Jewish community shared my interests and passions, I would be a part of it. But it doesn’t, and doesn’t really try. I’m working right now to incorporate Jewish-Environmental education into Jewish ed. in cities around the US and Israel, and am meeting very limited success. So many Jews, like me, are uncomfortable with the established community, and if it weren’t for groups like Hazon, we would likely be lost for good.

  7. In addition, Nigel Savage, the exec at Hazon, is an outspoken advocate of the Federation system and wrote an email to all of his constituents at the beginning of the war in Lebanon asking them to support UJA-Federation.

  8. Thanks to groups like Hazon, Sviva Israel, Teva, JCAN, and several more, I have rediscovered my Judaism.
    Jonathan, can you explain what you mean by this? How have Hazon and Teva helped you rediscover your Judaism?

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