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Reasserting Social Justice as a Core Value Can Be a Magnet for Disaffected Jews, Says Rabbi Schwartz

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2006

Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, founder of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, believes that reasserting social justice as a core value can act as a magnet for disenchanted Jews.  
“My hope is that in the next 10-20 years, we can capture those other Jews” who have abandoned their religious roots, says Schwartz, author of the new book Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (Jewish Lights Publishing).  
Rabbi Schwartz told Washington Jewish Week (Nov. 2, 2006) that, “If the Jewish community can reassert social justice as one of the core missions of Jewish life and make its public programs and profile correspond to that priority, we will capture tens of thousands of Jews who have no connection to the Jewish community.”  
Shelley Noskowitz, chair of the Washington, D.C.-based Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), agrees that social justice work can draw Jews back to their community, “At JUFJ, people are able to live out their values and beliefs by fighting for social justice where they live and doing it Jewishly,” she says.  
So many Jews do social action in non-Jewish settings, Rabbi Schwartz believes, due to “a reticence today for the organized Jewish community to be out front on certain progressive issues because there is no longer a consensus of opinion around those issues.”  
For example, the organized Jewish community often has not taken a stand on living wage campaigns because higher wages might strain the budgets of Jewish communal institutions.  
“This decline in the emphasis on social action in the organized Jewish community has happened despite an enormous increase in social action taking place under the auspices of new and younger Jewish social justice organizations in recent years,” Schwartz argues.  
His book profiles that new energy, listing dozens of such efforts. The rabbi says he wrote the book as the first “core text” to make the case for social justice as a key component in Jewish identity. He also sees it as a call to action. “The future of the Jewish community can be made more vibrant if Jews understand how important this is,” he says.  
He sees a “retrenchment” in the commitment of the official Jewish community beginning in the 1980s, as it “began to confront its own fears about assimilation and intermarriage.”  
But the pullback on commitment by the organized community did nothing to lessen individual Jews’ ardor for social justice — “Jews are hardwired for tzedek (justice),” Schwartz says. “Therefore, the Jewish impulse for social action had to find other outlets.”  
In Schwartz’s view, the Jewish community’s “single-minded focus on continuity has relegated certain issues of social justice to the sidelines, and, ironically, it has had the net effect of making the Jewish community less attractive to many marginal and alienated Jews.”  
This is especially true for young people, he believes. “Inheriting the legacy of the biblical prophets will have far more impact on making Judaism interesting to a generation of Jews to whom Jewish affiliation is a voluntary choice,” the rabbis says.  
He notes that for his parents’ generation, being part of the Jewish community wasn’t a choice, but the youngsters in his programs “think they don’t need the Jewish community to navigate their lives in America. We need to make the Jewish package more attractive to those kids.”  
Pamela Nadell, professor of Jewish Studies at American University, traces the origins of the American Jewish community’s passion for tikkum olam — repairing the world — to Reform Judaism in the second half of the 19th century, as its rabbinical conferences became “deeply invested” in social justice.  
Jews were involved in social justice in the last century, she says, noting, for example, that half of the volunteers who went south in the freedom summers of the 1960s to register black people to vote were Jews.  
But, says Nadell, that was “civic engagement.” Today’s social activism is “direct service,” for instance, working in a homeless shelter or helping to rebuild a house in the Habitat for Humanity program. “That kind of social action — synagogue or school-based grassroots action — is relatively new and is a reflection of what is going on in American life,” she says.  
Rabbi Schwartz recognizes that social action is only one channel and that others, such as learning and religious observance, must also be pursued. “The more channels, the more Jews you will capture,” he says.

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