Jewish celebrations are not merely about throwing a party but rather can be transformational events that express our core values. For this reason, Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox Social Justice Movement, has launched Just Simchas to educate, inspire, and empower others to include more social justice into their lifecycle celebrations. Whether one is celebrating the birth of a child, a wedding, or a bar or bat mitzvah, one can now learn how to add more meaning and impact with a “Just Simcha.”
When making decisions about the caterer, the food, the venue, the gifts, the invitations, and the apparel among many other decisions, one should inquire about social justice enhancements. One’s celebration should attempt to honor the dignity of workers, the sentience of animals, the impact on the environment, the problem of slave labor, and the power of giving.
Just Simchas offers a welcome response to the astounding consumerism that dominates American culture in the holiday season (the months of November and December), almost exclusively for holiday gifts. Consumerism has exploded in the U.S. at all times in the year and in all communities but most especially during holidays. The amount of money spent, and pressure put on consumers to spend, is enormous. During the 2012 holiday season, the following predictions have been made:
• Americans will spend about $586 billion during the holiday period in 2012, an increase of 4 percent since last year.
• In 2011, holiday sales represented 19.5 percent of total sales, and in some retail areas it ranged as high as 40 percent of total annual sales.
• On the positive side, it is predicted that retailers will hire about 600,000 workers for the season.
• On the negative side, many retail workers are subject to extreme pressure to work long hours during the holiday season (for example, Macy’s will remain open for 48 consecutive hours during the days leading up to December 24). Despite the long hours, about 1.5 million retail workers remain at or slightly above the poverty level.
• The average American is expected to spend $854 for gifts this holiday season, an increase of 32 percent over last year. Many Americans will go into debt as a result.
As these statistics show, consumerism can overtake the original meaning of holidays that used to represent a cessation of work and a chance for families to gather together. Today, many workers must leave their family and face verbal and even physical harm from customers and management. Many of these problems persist throughout the year, and they cross religious lines, including into our own community. However, we have a chance to reverse this trend. We can purchase items, but why not purchase Fair Trade gelt or greeting cards that support social justice causes? Why not use our Hanukkah observance for tzedakah? Why not use a gift as an occasion to teach justice values and raise awareness? Why not expand social justice awareness and impact into our weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, and other joyous occasions?
In addition, we can spread the goodness by sharing these ideas with others. With Just Simchas as a resource, we can use our life cycle celebrations as stimuli for our own growth and the growth of simcha attendees. We can also make sure that our simcha not only avoids harm but also serves as a model for leading and giving.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"