During orientation week of AVODAH, all of us corps members shared our “Jewish and Social Justice Journeys.” These were three-minute “presentations” accompanied with a drawing of a river to show our journey. Many people had two rivers that got wider or smaller when commitments grew or shrank and sometimes the rivers overlapped. For many folks, the rivers didn’t come together until the present. I traced my rivers back to values from my parents, which must have been undoubtedly Jewish. Still, my two most salient identifies felt separate. As AVODAH corps members, many of us, myself included, hoped this year would be the chance to bridge two of our most salient identities.
But four months in and I wasn’t feeling like my rivers were any more meaningfully connected. I’d learned a lot about Judaism and a lot about social justice; my Jewish identity had deepened from the slow trickle that it had been in college. However, this radical combination of my identities hadn’t occurred and I was forced to reexamine my expectations. It had been silly to think these two things would come together, because that’s just not the kind of justice leader or Jew that I am.
Still, I do find value in the bridging; People who embed deep purpose in their activism are people who have the fortitude for life-long activism.
Having turned this question around in my mind for the past six months, I still have a challenging time articulating the intersection. On the first day, we were asked, “What’s Jewish About Social Justice?” Some find the connection through biblical study. Others say it is because the foundational narrative of Judaism is the exodus from slavery to freedom and thus Jews must ensure the freedom of all peoples. Some people look to the Jewish history of persecution and the relative privilege of many Jews today and see an obligation.
During January, our educational theme was “methods of social change.” During a session we discussed the spectrum of service and advocacy of organizations that challenge existing power dynamics and organization and methods that accept existing power dynamics. A few weeks later, Rabbi Sid Schwartz came to facilitate a conversation about Judaism and advocacy work. He showed that the service/advocacy discussion is one that exists in Judaism as well with tzedek and chesed.
He went on to give a talk about the connections between Judaism from historical and religious perspectives that made fireworks go off in my brain. He drew from biblical texts to say that that purpose of Jewish life is Tzedek and Kedusha, to pursue holiness and justice in the world. He spoke about Jewish obligation and our histories and present. In typing it out, I don’t know if it was necessarily new, but perhaps the way he painted the picture, or maybe I was just open to it at that time.
I can’t say why his talk resonated, but since I’ve started intentionally (3 points for an AVODAH buzzword) looking to make Jewish-Social Justice connections I’ve begun to find some. My rivers still feel separate, but some days something will stick. Maybe I’ll read a bit on Jewish leftist history, or start thinking of the modern connections to the Passover Seder. Recently, I’ve been writing short essays connecting Jewish biblical stories to Yachad’s present day work. Sometimes, it’s something altogether random and somehow Jewish, but when the light strikes right and for a moment I can grab on to that connection between Judaism and social justice, a bridge between my two rivers is created and for a few peaceful moments, I feel shalom, I feel whole.