Jewish Journal


September 13, 2007

Locals push to expand social action and justice efforts


Rabbi Jonathan Klein blows the shofar in support of demonstrators last October. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Rabbi Jonathan Klein blows the shofar in support of demonstrators last October. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Anne Factor never forgot the teenage memories of her grandmother struggling through the twilight of life in nursing homes, which treated their elderly charges more like widgets than dignified beings.

"I saw these places," said Factor, now 47 and active in the Social Justice Committee at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. "I smelled them. They smelled awful: rows of elderly people lined up in wheelchairs; my grandmother, this once-beautiful, glove-wearing, dresses-only woman, reduced to wearing diapers."

Those images compelled Factor to work for elder-care reform, and this summer an initiative, whose origins could be traced back to her synagogue, was drafted into two bills by Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-West Hollywood). AB 398 would mandate a state-run online database with information about the quality of care, and AB 399 would tighten a nursing home's complaint-response time.

Part homage to her grandmother and part hope that others will be spared her suffering, Factor's advocacy is motivated by her understanding of how Jews should live in a sick world.

"I'm not an overly religious person, but I am much more involved in it as a social mission, as who I am, and I think our religion does stress that," she said. "Tikkun olam are words that resonate with me as a person and as a Jewish person."

Helping others and bettering the community -- "healing the world," as tikkun olam translates from Hebrew -- are ancient themes in Judaism. This has most commonly been done through social action -- planned events like feeding the homeless, visiting the elderly and cleaning up a neighborhood. But in the past few years, there has been an explosion among American Jewry, particularly within the Reform movement, to do more than just treat a symptom.

Through social justice, they want to cure the illness.

"It's not either/or. I haven't seen anyone who has cut back on social services programs as a result of beginning to grapple more seriously with the causes of social problems. If we don't address the causes, we are forever going to be in the position of providing social services," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "Feeding people is one thing, but the highest form of charity is helping people help themselves."

Activists have discovered the latent political power of religious communities. If congregations coalesce around an issue, they create a voting bloc -- a constituent voice -- to be reckoned with. This was evidenced last year, when the Massachusetts Legislature passed a comprehensive health-care reform bill that had strong grass-roots support from people in the pews.

"People are trying to grow power to address the issues that are important to them," said Sister Maribeth Larkin, lead organizer at One-LA, a social advocacy foundation. "In a community as diverse as Los Angeles, you have to build relationships across faiths and across race and ethnicity in order to build enough power to get to the table and affect the conversation."

Los Angeles has been an epicenter for the social justice movement, and in November, an interfaith conference will assemble here to teach leaders and lay people how to add social justice to social action. Temple Isaiah is hosting "Interfaith Call to Justice: LA 2007" Nov. 11-12, which is open for registration at http://www.call-to-justice.org/.

Speakers like Saperstein, the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, chair of Christian ethics at USC, and L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Maria Elena Durazo will not focus on the specific battles the attending faithful should fight but on how they should address perceived injustices: how to lobby city hall, the state capitol or Congress; how to interest the media in a cause; and how to mobilize a congregation behind a social or political cause.

Already successful at social justice advocacy has been the L.A.-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). Founded in 1999, PJA has raised awareness about the treatment of garment workers downtown and hotel workers near Los Angeles International Airport.

More than 50 members participated last fall in a massive protest on Century Boulevard to support a "living wage" for hotel workers. Hundreds were arrested, including a handful from PJA. Sarah Leiber Church,one of those arrested, said Judaism had taught her "the importance of standing up for justice and the importance of being directly involved."

Daniel Sokatch, PJA's executive director, said this notion of fighting for justice and seeking to better the world helps people identify with Judaism when they otherwise might not.

"We don't feel threats of anti-Semitism in America, the Holocaust is receding with time, young people are radically disaffiliating from Israel and, finally, the continuity question: 50 percent of Jews are marrying non-Jews," Sokatch said. "Those four pillars, all things to be concerned about, are not enough to compel involvement. And they all ignore a central pillar of Jewish obligation. And that is tikkun olam."

Tikkun olam was not always the catch phrase among liberal Jews that it is today. It wasn't really until the early 1800s that some Jews began to believe that their purpose on Earth was to perfect God's creation by righting the wrong. That was when the Reform movement was forming in Germany, and the idea of the Messiah was being redefined.

"Messianism was not just about a man who would lead the Jews back to the Land of Israel. It was about a process that would allow for the betterment of all humanity," said David N. Myers, a UCLA professor of Jewish history.

These Jewish reformers focused not on the Talmud but the Tanakh, not on the particularism of Jewish tradition -- halacha --but on the prophets' universal message of healing the world.

"Traditional Jews felt that there were plenty of Jewish needs that had to be met, and there was an ongoing debate in Jewish life between universalism and particularism," said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "At the end of the day, I think people realized they needed both."

But, Sarna said, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement, even within Reform circles, away from social justice to issues uniquely important to Jews, particularly involvement with Israel and Jewish spirituality. However, pendulums do swing, and now the broad interest in social justice can quickly be gauged by the prevalence and variety of advocacy efforts. The major issues currently are: reducing the United States' dependence on foreign oil; lowering carbon emissions and stemming the tide of climate change; pushing for economic reform and better treatment of blue-collar workers; and stopping genocide in Darfur.

And when it comes to ethnic cleansing in the war-torn western Sudan, no Jewish organization has done more to heighten American awareness than Jewish World Watch. Founded by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, the legendary Conservative leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Jewish World Watch has developed various programs, like its solar cooker project, to increase safety in the remote villages often attacked by janjaweed militiamen.

That's the social action part of the organization's work. But by imploring Jews and non-Jews alike to "not stand idly by" as genocide occurs, Jewish World Watch is promoting social justice by advocating Americans take a continuing stand against evil.

The outcome may not be as immediately satisfying as sending supplies or humanitarian workers to Darfur. Social justice can be a long-fought slog. The desired outcome though, like it is for so many others who have joined the social justice movement, is to treat the root of the problem, in this case, to increase international pressure on the Sudanese government so that foreign help can be more than a Band-Aid.

"Jews want to feel that we are not duplicitous; that what we said about the church in the 1940s -- why didn't they speak out? -- we don't want that to happen to our children and grandchildren," Schulweis said. "You have to be proud, not only of what was said thousands of years ago, but be proud of what Jews are saying today. We can't act as if we are has-beens, used-to-bes. But we have to convince ourselves by our actions, by what we are doing now and today."

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