I was first exposed to the idea of social justice through Jewish institutions. Youth group, synagogue, hebrew school, were all instrumental in me finding my own way towards a career in social justice through public health. I’m proud of my faith and whether I’m more observant or less, I know it’s always a foundation I can come back to. However, a recent experience has led me to think critically about the way Jewish teachings of social justice are implemented and how they can be done better. In my experience, these implementation issues boil down to the following interlinked problems:

  • A failure to separate our collective past as a persecuted, marginalized group from our current reality in the US as a largely privileged group.
  • A failure to sufficiently emphasize allyship and intersectionality in discussions of social justice.

WHAT IS THIS SOCIAL JUSTICE YOU SPEAK OF? 

For myself and many like me, it starts with the Jewish idea/commandment of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. The idea behind it is that the world has been shattered into pieces and it’s our job to take the pieces and put them back together. A broken world can mean many different things — war, climate change, public health issues, anti-LGBT discrimination and violence, and racism are all ways in which the world is broken. There is a Jewish legal imperative to fix it.

Moreover, there already exists a framework within Judaism to question the status quo. There’s an old saying that goes “whenever you have two Jews in a room, you have at least three opinions.” Take a look at the Talmud and you’ll see that it’s true: for every small paragraph of legal text, you have six Rabbis arguing in the margins about what it means. This framework not only allows people to argue with what they’ve been taught, but also to propose new ways of doing things.

EVEN THE BEST LAID PLANS…

With all of this wonderful foundation in Judaism as a champion of social action, you can imagine my surprise when my colleagues told me about  their very negative experience with a Jewish social justice program. The previous summer, when they decided to bring together a group of Jewish teens from a national youth group with our summer youth employees (all local youth of color) for a week of workshops together. The visiting group was rude, disrespectful, and entitled. They refused to engage with our group’s earnest attempts at socializing and even accused our youth of stealing. It was a mess.

When I heard the story, I was embarrassed, but I also knew that the group was set up for failure. After all, they were teens on a prestigious summer program. They were told that they would be matched up with non-profits to do community service. The youth group staff weren’t versed in issues of privilege and social change; they were camp counselors. No one talked to them about working with “underprivileged youth” as peers, not as community service projects. No one talked to them about unpacking their conscious or subconscious biases beforehand. While I would love for these considerations to be obvious, they aren’t. You have to learn them.

I know this to be true because I wasn’t so different from those Jewish youth group teens growing up. That would have been me 10 years ago. We talked about doing good and helping others, but looking back, I can see even if the intentions were good, the messaging was all wrong. We had been taught our whole lives to help people, that we were commanded to change the world. We never learned the complexities of creating change. We never heard the nuanced voices of the Jews who actually spent time advocating during the Civil Rights Movement, such as that of Lew, a Freedom Summer activist: 

Right now we don’t know what it is to be a Negro and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. It’s the old case of having to prove ourselves…intellectually, I think many of us whites can understand the Negroes’ resentment, but emotionally we want to be ‘accepted’ at face value.” — Lew, a Freedom Summer Activist, 1964

By holding up Jewish activists as social justice heroes (as badass as they were) without authentically portraying their experiences, we miss an important opportunity to teach about allyship.

Heather Tobis Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississipi, 1964. Copyright Wallace Roberts.

Heather Tobis Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississipi, 1964. Copyright Wallace Roberts.

We are not a marginalized group in the United States. By and large, we have a lot of privilege; mostly white, generally better educated, and generally higher income than the average American. We can use our history as an oppressed people to inform our activism, but we must remember that we are generally not an oppressed people anymore. My children will never meet a Holocaust survivor. Most likely, they will never meet a person who had to hide their Jewish faith for fear of persecution. As American Jews, we can no longer claim to intimately understand those experiences. When we get involved in social justice, the struggles we act on are not our own.

As such, we can’t couch social action in terms of going to “help the less fortunate” or the “underprivileged.” People don’t want to be “saved,” they want allies. Sometimes that means being an ally with your wallet, sometimes it means talking to your friends, and sometimes it means working in the trenches. This doesn’t just apply to racial justice; whether you’re talking about food security, poverty action, homelessness, or reproductive health, understanding allyship is always essential.

Let’s be real here. We, who lived in shtetls and ghettos for much of our history (whether by choice, chance, or force) should be the first to recognize that we don’t want outsiders jumping in and governing our affairs. We’ve governed ourselves long enough to know that we need allies, not saviors.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

Tikkun olam doesn’t mean single-handedly putting the world back together; it means working with others to do it. That tenet of our faith has resulted in some amazing work; activists, major philanthropic contributions, and whole nonprofit organizations. But at its heart, the best activism inspired by the Jewish faith has been allyship. Jews allied themselves to the Civil Rights Movement. Jews allied themselves with immigrants and refugees. They didn’t take on the fight by themselves. They didn’t decide it was their job to save the poor minorities. They asked how they could contribute and then told their friends, neighbors, and grandmothers about it.

Luckily, there are some educators making some great headway in this regard. For example, the Jewish Women’s Archive has a fantastic curriculum called Living the Legacy, which focuses on Jewish experiences and involvement in social justice. The curriculum specifically addresses issues of power, privilege, and responsibility, asking students to explore the role of privilege in their own lives. There are also some amazing local institutions around the country putting these principles into practice.

That is the Jewish education I want for my children; one in which they’re taught listen before they act, and do so with an understanding of their privileges and their responsibilities. In order for this to happen, the messaging needs to change. I want Jewish youth to stop being taught about charity and start working to lend their voices and actions to be allies. I want to universalize the culture  already created by some super awesome Jewish institutions such as Jews United for Justice and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. We have a great foundation that allows us to question our privilege and commands/implores us that we do something about it. Let’s use it.

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