Culture, Identity, Justice, Politics

"Pursue" the kind of Jewish community you know to be right

I am antagonistic towards the Jewish establishment. Reiterating my evaluation of their leadership in my prior post, they offer no compelling vision beyond raising money to feed a bloated infrastructure dedicated to fighting yesterday’s battles.
Which is why attending tonight’s benefit for Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps was so important for refreshing my faith in Jewry. Tonight several hundred Jews of all ages honored not just a special leader, their founder Rabbi David Rosenn, but a burgeoning community that is fun, deep, and committed to values I powerfully share. Rosenn has moved on after 13 years to become COO for the New Israel Fund, and the bittersweet appreciation for and from him was tear jerking.
In his remarks, Rosenn touched on the strains of thought at war in the American Jewish psyche: It is an interesting time in our community, he said, where old institutions are giving way; what will emerge in their place is uncertain. People don’t just wind up with good values, they are taught them, and not just in the classroom — they learn when their community lives out those values. Ultimately, justice is not only important for the continuity of Judaism but for democratic societies as a whole.
Noting the passion present, I could only echo the sentiments of Avodah alum Cara Herbitter upon introducing Rosenn, “I wish the establishment would adopt the values of Avodah.”
I spent plenty time lampooning and harpooning the organized Jewish community. I lambast because I care. I care that Jews and Judaism stand for something, that we represent something to the world other than our own existence. I hunger for leaders who see the same visions for a Jewish role in creating right relationships globally. If that room is any indication of where the Jewish community is headed, then we are redeemed of all our predecessors’ selfish failures.
In the room I saw Jewish continuity of a wholly healthier paradigm. Attendees discussed the obvious lesson of a pillar of the social justice world taking his credibility to a begging frontier: social justice in Israel. And in the territories. Same-sex couples lauded their acceptance here. A speaker of intermarried background made us all laugh by integrating Irish influence into her Yiddish vocabulary. The values here were far more than just direct service or structural justice.
Pursue - Action for a just worldThe event took the occasion to announce the launch of Pursue, the renamed AJWS-Avodah Partnership, taglined “Action for a just world.” Already the central address for Jewish change-makers in New York City, San Francisco and DC, the community it represents also holds keys to a leadership with a modern vision. Interim director Ilanit Gerblich Kalir concluded this evening by saying, “We work for the day when every Jew can turn to another and ask, ‘Where did you do your service?'” In order for that day to come, we must first have a day when Jewish leaders can role model the answer. This is a start. We need more, the world needs more. But this is a beautiful start.

38 thoughts on “"Pursue" the kind of Jewish community you know to be right

  1. The whole “social justice” movement feels so ephemeral to me. It features relentless linguistic innovation to describe very little substance. My friend was an AmeriCorps Service Fellow for a year. One day he went to paint someone’s house. Another day he helped sign up people to vote. A third day he spent playing video games at the homeless shelter. He said it was just a lot of hanging around, making it look like you were doing something. The entire year was spent like that, not doing much of anything, but earning a great deal of commendation for it.
    Why can’t people paint their own homes? Take this Avodah service. They hook you up with a community organization. What does volunteering for the Ethiopian community center in Chicago have to do with improving the world? I mean, honestly, what work will a volunteer perform that paid staff won’t perform? Clean the toilets? Play with the kids while their parents are at work? What does that accomplish for the community, or for the world?
    What does justice have to do with low income housing? If people can’t afford their housing costs, they should go somewhere where they can afford them.
    I just don’t get it, the whole thing. Anything with “volunteer” or “service” just seems like a waste of time and money designed to make everyone involved feel good.
    If my Rabbi called me up and was like, “Avigdor, can you perform some tikkun olam by volunteering to build the children’s new playground?” Or, “Avigdor, we have a new Russian couple, do some social justice and translate for them.” Or, “Avigdor, drive Rosa home because her legs are swollen.” “Sure, Rabbi, but can you sign my volunteer service form?” EWW. PUKE. It just doesn’t work like that in real communities, where people are genuine with each other instead of trying to earn brownie points on some scale of social justice. The fact that there exists “social justice cred” is sick. The more hype social justice gets, the more perverted and conceited the concept becomes.
    Anyway, I’m sure many of you find volunteering and social justice to be magnificent endeavors and get all tingly just thinking about it. I just really don’t get it.

    1. Anonymouse-
      You’re arguing with a straw man. You’re talking about direct service, and the only reference to direct service in the post is the part where it says “The values here were far more than just direct service.” “Social justice” is not just a synonym for “volunteering” or “service” (and yes, social justice work can be done by paid staff too, and your contributions would be appreciated to help finance this).

  2. I thought everyone already knew me. Certainly Jonathan1 does. What’s the difference between social justice and direct service, BZ?
    What’s the

  3. a-mouse,
    i think you’re looking at it as if people come from a selfish perspective, that they are looking to gain something from the whole ordeal. Volunteering to help paint someone’s house, to use your example, has the possibility to build the very community you are lauding. I don’t know what you refer to when you say “social justice cred”. People want to help others because they think it is right to help others and organizations like Avodah or AmeriCorps provide opportunity to help others. Many help others to help themselves, but that is a product of competitive society that bases merit on degrees and accredited certifications, which is why ridiculous forms exist for any type of bureaucracy. I’m really not sure what the point of your rant is about. I can’t imagine that you’re saying that people shouldn’t help one another, so what, it’s the term social justice you don’t like? I think you’re looking too much into this… social, as in community; justice, as it equity, fairness and moral rightness. You’re opposed to communities that represent equity, fairness and moral rightness? People “volunteer” and “service” because help is needed. Haven’t you ever needed to rely on friends or family for assistance–physical, financial, spiritual? Don’t you want to believe that if you were in a reality where for whatever reason you couldn’t paint your house there are nice souls who are willing to give of themselves for your benefit?
    maybe you should try going to your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter and see how you can help out, I guarantee you they need the help. Maybe meeting some people who volunteer their time for the benefit of others may change your perspective on the endeavor and may change your perspective on alot of things.
    I’m not sure who you think asks for forms to be signed, but the only time I’ve ever seen a volunteer have a form signed was by court order because they are ordered to volunteer as a part of their community service.
    I would assume that people who join AmeriCorps to hang out and pretend to work do it for their resume. But to chalk up the natural human/social desire to help others in need(which you may apparently lack…?) to “getting all tingly,” well, kind of feels like you’re just talking about things you don’t know much about.

  4. direct service is a form of social justice, but social justice cannot be categorized exclusively as direct service.

  5. You got me, Justin. I’m not even human. Challenge to ideology repulsed. Well done. Marvelous reading and comprehension skills, to boot.

  6. I’m not trying to be a dick, I’m trying to understand what it is that you’re trying to say, since I presume, like I said, you can’t be saying that you’re against helping people. so, what’s the deal?

  7. “Social justice” is a state of right relationships between all — right relationships between employer/employee, landlord/tenant, mother/father, rich/poor, queer/straight, religious/secular, between races. It is the same state as the Messianic ideal.
    Hastening that Messianic day requires two kinds of service:
    “Direct service” is the front-line work of helping individuals in a specific community with their daily, short-term needs. Like the soup kitchen, teaching literacy, building homes.
    “Structural justice” is the work of fixing broken governmental, societal, and community institutions to end poverty and other ailments. It involves political solutions, such as changing unjust laws and strengthening social safety nets.
    Avodah places its fellows in community organizing groups that address both, allowing them to connect with the people who need help personally as well as understand how the cause is structural, not the fault of the weak. As the Talmud teaches, the highest form of tzedakah is giving so that the recipient need never give again. A year of service ingraines values, lends experience, and births inspiration that are far more lasting than tropes from Torah about loving the stranger.
    If there is to be a Messianic time, then it won’t arrive by all Jews lighting Shabbes candles. It will arrive because Jews participated in the world fixing itself.

  8. No, no, you’re right, Justin. I’m not human. It’s hard to talk to animals like me, but I know that you really tried your best to understand where I’m coming from. Go social justice!

  9. @KFJ18
    Don’t forget tefillin and tzitzis! Wrapping some leather straps or sporting fringes from your clothing ain’t gonna fix the world either, right? Giving charity, feeding the hungry – those are good, logical things, but the rest of it serves no purpose, so we’ll pass.
    What does G-d know about repairing the world anyway. I think it’s safe to say we have a better handle on things than He does. He better start praying to us if he wants a piece of the action.

  10. Well, according to the Talmud he does pray to us, at least that’s the implication of the passage about which texts God keeps in the divine set of tefilin.
    Anyway, mouse, I don’t think you’ll find anyone here arguing that those are bad things. Rather, you’ll find that social justice is simply our emphasis when we talk about repairing the world. It’s just like those who choose to focus their world repairing activities on harassing me to wrap tefilin with them on the streets of Manhattan.

  11. Anonymouse, I’m a deeply spiritual and religious person. I pray, wear my tzitzit daily, and wrap my tfellin. Nobody here has advocated leaving behind religion or God, although you seem to feel the two are mutually exclusive. Which is a shame, because I hold them intricately linked. Though I find it unlikely that salvation will fall from the sky. It is us who frees divine sparks in kindly acts, not God. The burden is on us.

  12. Right, I’ve been reading you for a while, KFJ, so I know that you wear tzitzis and wrap tefillin. This is why, your notions of the messianic times notwithstanding – we’ll see when we get there – I’m curious in the thought process that led you to juxtapose lighting Shabbos candles with not bringing on moshiach. Has someone been advocating lighting Shabbos candles as the gateway to bringing on the World to Come? Is is something specific to shabbos candles, or a can you say the same of tefillin, tzitzis, etc.
    I’m not sure what you think I feel is mutually exclusive. Frankly, judging from what you wrote, I don’t think you have a good grasp of what my thoughts on faith are.

  13. DAWM, I understand. I don’t divide mitzvot into categories. The same bocherim wrapping passing Jews on the street in Manhattan are also giving tzedakah, visiting the sick, escorting the dead, bringing joy to a chazon and kallah and tutoring their younger brother in algebra. I don’t see tefillin as “religious”, but charity “secular” or “practical”. I see yiddishkeit as holistic.
    My concern is the certainty in KFJ’s comment that lighting shabbos candles WON’T bring moshiach, but helping to paint someone’s house will. How does he know the reward for a mitzvah or its effect?
    Learning to love others, not when it’s convenient or when it makes us feel good, but without preconditions, when it goes against our very nature, is now a meaningless “trope”? Really?
    Judging from KFJ’s past writings, he probably didn’t mean it that way, or maybe he did, but that’s what he wrote. Sometimes he rethinks his position, reconsiders or rephrases his remarks, and sometimes he doesn’t.
    Think of it in the way you describe your criticism of Israel. I critique because I care, deeply, not because I hate.

  14. Has someone been advocating lighting Shabbos candles as the gateway to bringing on the World to Come?
    Yes. Many someones.

  15. Anonymouse-
    Count me among people who don’t understand your critique of volunteering and such. If you were criticizing the infrastructure, like it seemed like you were doing at first with your Americorps example, I would understand more, even agree in some cases (though not all). But doing things like cleaning in a shelter or playing with kids there DO help. Money tends to be tight in these organizations, and the more volunteers who do cleaning, the fewer paid employees they need to do that work. As for your dismissal of “playing video games at a homeless shelter,” daycare is expensive. A homeless mother may appreciate volunteer childcare when she goes out for job interviews or takes classes to get back on her feet. My USY chapter took yearly trips to a homeless shelter in Chicago, and so many mothers thanked us when they came back to pick up their kids. And it was exciting for the children as well, to have a special activity in a bad situation.
    “If people can’t afford their housing costs, they should go somewhere where they can afford them.”
    This statement in particular stood out to me. What if they can’t afford housing in their city, period? Particularly in very expensive cities, this is a big problem. I know that here in Seattle there is a huge waiting list for rent-controlled housing. Gentrification and the housing bust have made it even more difficult to find reasonably-priced housing.
    Also, the only people I know with volunteer forms are those who are, say, bar mitzvah age or in high school. It may be more difficult to get those age groups to volunteer on their own, so they’re pushed to do it through schools and youth groups. Hopefully, these children will realize the value of social action/justice and prioritize it as they become older.
    “Learning to love others, not when it’s convenient or when it makes us feel good, but without preconditions, when it goes against our very nature, is now a meaningless ‘trope’? Really?”
    I feel like these year-long volunteer programs specifically encourage people to realize that social justice isn’t just for when it’s easy or convenient. My roommate did Americorps for a year, and she was certainly not always up for her hour+ commute at 5 am and working in cold, muddy conditions. But she did it anyways, because she thought the work was important.
    But I don’t think that doing good things had to always feel bad or be inconvenient. Sometimes we do feel good and tingly when helping others. And that’s totally OK. Prayer isn’t always what I want to do in the morning, but sometimes it is. Those times aren’t any less valid than the mornings when I don’t want to pray.

  16. KFJ: Nice succinct summary
    Anonymouse: I’m not sure what you’re saying you’re against here. Maybe if we dropped both the terms “Saocial Justice” which is vague and “Tikkun Olam” which has no ties to Jewish tradition, and replaced them with “Gmilut Chasadim” which is the traditional way of saying direct action/service. But there’s also a strain of Jewish thought that asks us to intervene in larger structures to make the world a more just place (One tiny example among many, the talmud’s commentary on Vayikra 19:17…Talmud Shabbat 54b).

  17. I want to take exception with the notion that “Tikkun Olam” has no ties to Jewish tradition. Tikkun Olam is a kabbalist term that appears in the kitvei ha’ari, that the Reform movement appropriated it to mean social justice, that’s another bag of worms, but to say that the words Tikkun Olam have no ties to the mesorah, well, that’s wrong. They got it from somewhere. And I would go one step further, Shabbos 54b doesn’t just ask us to intervene, it OBLIGATES us to intervene (just as we are obligated to wear tefillin or light shabbos candles, anonymouse)

  18. Thanks for the feedback everyone. There are two points I tried to make above. The first was that I don’t understand the “social justice” movement. The second was a response to KFJ making a value judgment about lighting shabbos candles, which I thought was an odd thing to do.
    I’m reminded of a conversation we had once about independent minyanim. I couldn’t understand why people were so excited about them. I wasn’t saying it’s a bad thing, G-d forbid; I just didn’t understand the enthusiasm. There is so much innovative language involved, that it’s hard to tell what people are actually trying to accomplish. I mean, it’s still about getting a minyan together to daven right? Wrong? I go to a shul to daven, or I do so at home, or at school, or at work, or on the street, by myself or with other Jews who are present and want to daven also. I’ve never felt it necessary to structure my davening into the framework of a movement. It’s just an alien concept to me. Why would someone do that?
    I don’t remember who it was, BZ perhaps, or dlevy, who explained to me that I’m coming at it from a completely different conceptual framework, and that to people from the Reform and Conservative (and maybe Orthodox) movements, or from no movement at all, coming together to daven in this loosely centralized way is a big deal. Let me give you an example of how weird this is for me.
    Everyone knows birkas hamazon, grace after meals? So, it’s preferable that three guys are present so that you can say the zimmun (invitation). If only two guys ate, you can actually drag a third guy into it, even if he didn’t eat, force him to wash and everything, just in order to say the zimmun. So, imagine starting an Independent Zimmun Movement, where people coordinate their lunch breaks so that there is at least 3 guys eating at any one spot, and this way they will be able to say zimmun together.
    That sounds crazy to me. Saying zimmun is good, but I wouldn’t start a movement over it. If there’s three guys there, you do it, if not, you go on with your life. It’s the same thing with independent minyanim, and the same thing with the social justice movement.
    For G-d’s sake, give tzedakah, help people out. Just realize this can all be done outside the Social Justice Movement(TM). In some communities, people help each other without a board of directors and a marketing plan. It just feels so weird to see it framed and institutionalized as a movement, instead of a normal thing to do, because that’s what Jews and people in general should do. This isn’t a structural critique about effectiveness and waste, although from what I’ve seen, there’s plenty to critique there. This isn’t a point about the necessity of social justice, as some of you have defined it, but the movement which carries its banner.
    The closest I can get to understanding why a movement exists is what KFJ said – using the platform of social justice to create a base of political power that can impose, by government decree, the values of the movement.
    At the point where social justice/tikkun olam becomes a platform for political mobilization, and not individual initiative, I get very suspicious. I mean, we can all agree the era of building more government subsidized low rent housing – aka “The Projects” – is over, and good riddance, right? To answer Shoshie, if someone can’t afford housing in Seattle, they should move to a city where housing is affordable for them. Similarly, if they can’t find work, they shouldn’t spend years living on handouts in Detroit, but move to a place where there is employment. Government led social engineering has none too bright a record, though for some, the dream of top down organization ushering in utopia never dies.
    As an aside, check out The Tragedy of American Compassion.

    1. Anonymouse writes:
      So, imagine starting an Independent Zimmun Movement, where people coordinate their lunch breaks so that there is at least 3 guys eating at any one spot, and this way they will be able to say zimmun together.
      No one started an “Independent Minyan Movement”. The “movement” characterization comes from people who are outside this phenomenon and trying to put it into a box they understand.

    2. To answer Shoshie, if someone can’t afford housing in Seattle, they should move to a city where housing is affordable for them.
      And if someone can’t afford bread…

  19. response to the first comment…
    Former Avodahnik here. First of all, though it is a volunteer program we are paid for our work and are considered staff members of our organizations. We don’t do work that other staff members won’t perform, but work that they don’t have time to perform. If you’ve ever worked for a non-profit organization–particularly one that provides direct service–you know how overworked most staff members are, and how gladly they welcome additional assistance.
    I learned a ton of useful skills at my Avodah placement and it helped me determine the trajectory of my career path. I remember actually working my tuchas off NOT pretending like I was doing a lot of work. I also grew in my Jewish practice and met awesome folks that continue to play an important part in my life. I can’t say enough good things about Avodah and was super bummed I couldn’t make it to NYC last night for the benefit.
    Kol Hakavod to David for all his hard work, and to Cara and other Avodah alums for their participation in last night’s event.

  20. BZ, would you call social justice a movement?
    I honestly don’t know how anyone can starve in America, unless they get lost while hiking. There are so many overlapping programs, private, public… individuals themselves are so generous.
    I think a better question is why someone can’t afford bread. When you don’t have a few bucks to buy yourself food, you’ve got bigger problems than finding your next meal (which, in the absolute worst case, takes flagging down the nearest squad car).
    On that subject, check this out.

    1. I honestly don’t know how anyone can starve in America, unless they get lost while hiking. There are so many overlapping programs, private, public…
      If it were up to you, these programs wouldn’t exist!
      I think a better question is why someone can’t afford bread.
      Just to be clear, this is what I was referring to…

  21. If it were up to you, these programs wouldn’t exist!
    Where did I say that? I said I don’t trust the government to run social programs. Forget the cake. My friend runs a convenience store in the ghetto that takes WIC and food stamps. People drive up in their Escalades with shiny rims and cash in their tickets on junk food. You can call that social justice if it makes you feel better. I won’t.

  22. That’s why food stamps are a stupid idea, better spend the money on actual welfare payments instead of turning people into wards of the government.

  23. So we should close down a program designed to address hunger that forces people to actually buy food and give they money in a welfare payment they can spend on a new flat screen tv instead? Maybe welfare works differently in Israel, but here in the US that would encourage even more outrageous abuse. Check ou the book I referenced earlier, The tragedy of American Compassion.

  24. I’m so sick of the stereotype of freeloading welfare people. First of all, their numbers are dwarfed by people who actually need welfare. I’m not willing to support policy changes that would cause millions of people to die from hunger to stop a few freeloaders. I’ll happily go out and spend all of my savings now on flat screen TVs, and throw them all in the river, if it means no one in this country will have to beg for food anymore.
    And second of all, I think everyone should be able to buy a flat screen TV too, not just food. More power to them!

    1. All the rich people who got tax cuts (aka welfare) during the Bush administration weren’t audited to make sure they weren’t spending their tax cuts on flat-screen TVs themselves.

  25. Desh,
    Why wait? Let’s make sure not a single child starves tonight. Go spend all your money on flat screen TV’s now and throw them in the river. I want to see the receipts. Otherwise you condemned an innocent child to die from hunger.
    tax cuts (aka welfare)
    I think I know the dictionary that you’re using, BZ. I saw it back in the Soviet Union when I was young. There were special book stores for socialist ideology. No one ever went in.

  26. Welfare isn’t about compassion. It’s about empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty today, enabling them to contribute to the economy better tomorrow. Poor people are expensive to society in ways that dwarf the absuses of welfare about a million to one. Think prostitution, crystal meth, free ER visits, all manners of avoidable deaths, abandoned children. Welfare – real welfare – would solve all of that relatively cheaply.

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