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The History of the Jewish Social Justice Field

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Hannah Weilbacher

on 28 October 2017

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Transcript of The History of the Jewish Social Justice Field

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)
The life and teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel have informed and inspired generations of social justice-minded Jews.

In the 1960s, he was a moral voice of the Jewish social justice world famously saying
"I felt my legs were praying"
after returning from a march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.
History of Jewish Social Justice in the U.S.
Many Jewish social justice groups were established in the 1980s. They focused on
political concerns and Jewish culture. They drew explicit connections between Judaism and justice. Between 1984 and 1986 alone, American Jewish World Service, Jewish Fund for Justice, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Tikkun Magazine were all founded.

"The 80s saw a communal shift away from Jewish leadership in the struggles for civil rights and economic equality, which led to a response by new organizations...
It was the beginning of the modern Jewish social justice movement.

- Nathan Cummings Foundation

Save Darfur Coalition
The Jewish Social Justice sector grew dramatically in the 1990s.
Groups of Jews came together to establish several new organizations, using community organizing, advocacy and more. Some Jews re-engaged after pausing their activism in the 1970s, while others were lifelong Jewish justice activists.

Efforts to connect organizations and build the overall sector began in the 1990s
, such as the Jewish Social Justice Network (1995) and Amos (1998). However, the field had not yet matured to the point where relationships were strong enough to overcome tensions and competition between groups.

In 2008, the Nathan Cummings Foundation released Visioning Justice, a report on the Jewish social justice field that recommended creating a Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. As a result of that
an authentic desire to build something bigger, Jewish social justice organizations participated in a three-year effort to build relationships and lay the groundwork for a successful network.

Since then, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable has catalyzed countless collaborations and learning opportunities across the Jewish social justice field.
"We should avoid hatred, rancor, and retaliation.
Well worth heeding are those ancient Jewish words:
'Thou shalt take no revenge. Thou shalt bear no
grudge. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy

Though the judges and the executive rendered a verdict which broke our hearts, we must remember that they did the right as they understood the right. Our own conception of the right was, of course, far different from theirs. Still, we should not hate…"
Civil rights activists and organizations in the 1970s began to emphasize religion, race, gender, and ethnicity as a primary basis for membership and alliances. As a result, groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) which initially had many white Jewish members questioned whether to allow white members at all.

Black nationalism and the black power movement also grew in the 1970's. There were critiques of those movements from many corners, and Jewish activists and organizations were particularly concerned about Anti-Semitism.
Tensions between Jewish and African-Americans communities thus grew.

Both of these factors led to some (but not all) Jewish activists feeling kicked out of the civil rights movement. Historian and activist Aliza Becker notes that "some Jewish activists from this time have never moved past this rift."
"Jews joined [the Civil Rights Movement] in disproportionate numbers, by some estimates
representing more than 50% of white civil rights workers

These Jews were drawn to the cause of African American Civil Rights for a range of reasons including:

belief that
Judaism requires one to work for justice
for all people;
desire to achieve the
ideals of American equality
identification with the "otherness"
of African Americans;
memory of the Holocaust
and a resulting sense of obligation to prevent racist violence against another group;
embarrassment (among young Jews, especially) about the middle-class suburban values of many mid-century American Jews and
a desire to find meaningful community
- Jewish Women's Archive
Beginning in 2004, many rabbis, young people, synagogues and Jewish organizations worked to end the genocide in Darfur. This work was led by American Jewish World Service and the Save Darfur Coalition.

"I salute you for your presence, for your activism, for your leadership, for your determination to make a difference. Today is just the beginning. Keep speaking out, keep organizing, continue your commitment to move toward the world that should be—a world without genocide, a world where rape is not a weapon of war, a world where people are not left to starve,
a world that makes real the promise: 'Never again.'

- Ruth Messinger’s keynote speech at the rally for Darfur, National Mall in Washington, D.C., 2006
"The fact is that the
Jews are a people that live most creatively and most
productively and most humanly and most Jewishly precisely at the intersection
of universalism and particularism
, precisely where 'If I am not for myself, who will
be for me?' encounters 'If I am only for myself, what am I?' But the balance between
the two sets of claims, sometimes coincident and sometimes competing, is
inherently unstable.
In every generation, there are those who would weight the
scales heavily in the one direction or in the other.

The essence, the specific genius of the Jews, is the proposition that this world is not working the way it was meant to, that it is a broken, fractured world and that we are implicated in its repair.
- Leonard Fein, "Smashing Idols and Other Prescriptions for Jewish Continuity," (1994)

We hope you feel connected to the Jewish social justice movement and everyone who has paved the way for us to embody Jewish social justice in our different, authentic ways. Thank you!
American Jewish World Service website
Becker, Aliza; May 2016 interview and her resources
Jewish Currents: http://jewishcurrents.org/leftists-and-the-civil-rights-movement-20405
Jewish Women's Archive website
JJ Goldb
erg, Jewish P
JJ Goldberg, http://forward.com/opinion/329923/liberal-jews-didnt-betray-israel-our-organizations-betrayed-us/?attribution=home-hero-item-text-
Keshet website
Nathan Cummings Foundation publication, "If I am for myself alone, what am I? Jewish social change in the 21st century"
Union for Reform Judaism http://tmt.urj.net/archives/2socialaction/032905.htm

Many photos are courtesy of Jewish Social Justice Roundtable member organizations
A basic underlying tension in the history of Jewish social justice work is symbolized by the famous quote from Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself,

If I am only for myself,
who will be for me?

what am I?


What do these questions mean to you?
In what ways are they relevant to your work?
How might they help you engage with the history of Jewish social justice in the United States?

Keep an eye out for these tensions as we dive into the history.

An Introduction
For many of us and our organizations,
Jewish labor organizing at the turn of the 20th century is an important foundation for our work
. The story of working class Jewish struggle in this country is also tied to the story of Eastern European Jewish immigration:

"Jews and Jewish organizations helped to produce many of the most significant economic and social justice victories during the first decades of the 20th century. As the Jewish population swelled due to mass immigration before the 1920s, working class Jews – many with radical politics – became a force in American life."

- Nathan Cummings Foundation
History of Jewish Social Justice in the U.S.
An Introduction
Jews first immigrated to the United States in 1654, when a group of Sephardic Jews
arrived from Brazil.

In 1819, Rebecca Gratz (right) and other Philadelphia women formed The Female
Hebrew Benevolent Society. It was the first American Jewish charity outside of a synagogue.

Several Jewish women also became leaders in the 19th Century women's rights movement. One prominent leader was Ernestine Rose (left), known for her advocacy for women's property rights in New York State in 1836.
Socialists, communists, and anarchists are another important piece of Jewish activist history beginning in the 1880s.

Emma Goldman, the best known Jewish anarchist in U.S. history, was thought to be one of the most dangerous radicals in America and was deported to Russia during the Red Scare of 1919-1920.

In this video, we hear Emma Goldman speak about her return to the United States for a visit in 1933.
Questions to explore
Emma Goldman 1869 - 1940
Early 20th Century

Many Jewish organizations founded at the turn of the 20th Century supported Jewish immigrants, provided services to working class and poor Jews, and established religious communities.
These are often referred to as Jewish defense organizations.

As we continue to see today,
Jews were leaders in efforts for broader societal change through non-Jewish organizations
. For example, both the
American Federation of Labor (AFL)
founded in 1886 and the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
founded in 1911 had Jewish co-founders.
Where do you fit in?

This timeline illustrates when Jewish organizations were founded over the last century.
Which of these organizations have been part of your Jewish justice journey?

(The logos below are contemporary. Many organizations went by other names and had different logos when they were founded.)
The Cold War and Second Red Scare - 1950s
Kosher Meat Boycott - 1902
Jewish women on the Lower East Side in New York City often managed household finances and in 1902, led Kosher meat boycotts to protest price increases. The boycotts turned to riots as women broke windows and threw meat into the streets to rot.
Uprising of the 20,000
In November 1909,
23-year old garment worker Clara Lemlich helped lead thousands of workers on strike
. At a union meeting she demanded the male leadership allow her to speak and said:

"I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike.”

Her leadership inspired over 20,000 women to strike and helped build membership in the International Ladies Garment Worker union.
Triangle Shirtwaist
Factory Fire
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 killed 146 workers. Most were young, immigrant women and many were Jewish. The factory's owners were also Jewish.

The fire has great significance in the labor movement as an example of the worst consequences of under-regulated industrialization. In the aftermath of the fire, union membership surged once again, with leaders like Rose Schneiderman and many others.
In 1929, the largest Stock Market crash in history caused the Great Depression and threw many people into extreme poverty. The U.S. economy began to recover with the New Deal policies, ushered in by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1938).
The New Deal was the beginning of important social welfare programs that still exist today
“At the March on Washington in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz addressed the rally just before Dr. King gave his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Two of our nation’s most significant laws for social justice and equality - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The legal strategy for ending segregation and discrimination in housing, transportation, schools, and accommodations was led in part by lawyers from the American Jewish Congress in partnership with the NAACP. And perhaps the most iconic photo of a rabbi in American history features Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King to Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.”

- Nathan Cummings Foundation
1960s: Civil Rights Movement
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the beginnings of the Cold War and fears of Soviet espionage led to heightened political repression in America. Some of us know of this period as the Second Red Scare and the era of McCarthyism, named for Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led investigations of supposed infiltrations of the government by Soviet agents and Communists.
In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet Union.
Their execution in 1953 deeply frightened and divided the Jewish community

"The trial and execution of the Rosenbergs was a direct outgrowth of the political and social climate of the early 1950s...

Jews from various walks of life were particularly targeted because of their disproportionately large affiliation or sympathies with leftist politics during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Jewish establishment’s fear of Anti-Semitic backlash in the wake of anticommunist sentiment resulted in a further distancing between itself and the accused."

Jewish Women's Archive
The Soviet Jewry Movement began in 1963 with the goal of building awareness of the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. It began with small study groups and grew into a movement of thousands, with a special emphasis on youth leadership.

The movement for Soviet Jewry peaked in the the 1980s and inspired the activism of many Jewish justice leaders today who were involved as children and teens.
Six-Day War - Impact on American Jews
Importantly for Jewish social justice history, the Six-Day War transformed the American Jewish community:

“Before 1967, Israel was seen as an underdog and therefore a point of identification for many social justice activists, in and outside the Jewish community.
The Six-Day War changed that and both sparked a resurgence of Jewish pride and made it more complicated for many Jews on the Left to identify with Israel
- Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director of Jewish Women's Archive

"[The Six-Day War, also called the 1967 Arab-Israeli War], thoroughly changed the world's image of the young Jewish state. For nineteen years, Israel had seemed a tiny, helpless outpost, surrounded by powerful enemies that might destroy it at any moment. Now, in less than a week, it had transformed into a conquering superpower.

To begin at the beginning, it was not the Six-Day war that transformed American Jewish life. If anything, it was the waiting period before the war.
During those three tense weeks in May, countless American Jews experienced a shattering anxiety that Israel might be destroyed
- J.J. Goldberg,
Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment

Questions and Tensions
Not all Jews supported the Civil Rights Movement. Some saw supporting civil rights for African Americans as less of a priority than meeting the needs of the Jewish community. As the Black Power Movement grew, some Jews had concerns about Anti-Semitism in the black community and chose to stay out of the movement.

Put yourself in the shoes of American Jews in the 1960s. Why would some support the Civil Rights Movement and others wouldn't? What values might have motivated people on each side of the issue?
Are there lessons we can learn from Jewish involvement and non-involvement in the Civil Rights Movement? How does that inform our current work?
Changing Political Landscape
Jewish Social Justice Emerges - 1980s
Growth & Collaborations - 1990s and early 2000s
Organizations focused on relationships between Jews and the broader community emerged in the 1930s and 1940s (also known as community relations organizations). Many were founded in response to Anti-Semitism in Europe.

Issues of injustice and inequality have often been on the agenda of these organizations in addition to the goal of combating Anti-Semitism.
In the 1950s, fear of associating with Communism split American liberals and leftists, and the Jewish community was no exception. Many organizations distanced themselves from any appearance of Communist sympathy.

Several organizations -- the Jewish Labor Committee, NAACP, American Jewish Congress, Urban League and Workmen’s Circle -- refused to join an effort to integrate housing in New York because it was led by a "Cominform [Communist] apologist," in the words of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Imagine you were an American Jew working for social change during this time:

How might Hillel's two questions help you determine where to direct your work and whether to be visibly active in social change?
What is similar and different in how you make those choices today?
Questions and Tensions
Soviet Jewry Movement
Our Legacy, Our Future
The first local Jewish social justice organization (Jewish Council on Urban Affairs) and the social justice arm of the Reform movement (the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism), were formed in the 1960s.
Questions and Tensions
Considering Hillel's two questions once again, what does this rift between Jewish and African American communities in the U.S. mean to you? Do you see aspects of this rift in your work today?

Are there questions about this period that you want to research and explore? How might learning more about this period inform your Jewish social justice work today?
New Jewish social justice organizations focused on poverty and human rights were founded in the 1980s.
The Great Depression and World War II
Jewish Feminism
Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first female rabbi ordained by a seminary in the U.S. She was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1972. That same year, a Jewish feminist group called Ezrat Nasham presented a "Call for Change" to the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was founded in 1968 as an egalitarian institution, with Rabbi Sandy Sasso being the first to graduate in 1973.

Paula Hyman, a member of the group, wrote:
"Ezrat Nashim grew out of a study group on the status of women in Judaism that formed in the fall of 1971 in the New York Havurah, a countercultural community of young Jews who studied, observed Judaism, and engaged in politics together."

These women were part of an important era of Jewish Feminism in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case legalizing abortion was decided in 1973. Activism by these women and the movement they built and sustained was critical in that moment, and in the reproductive justice fights that are still being fought today.
LGBTQ Rights
Immigration Reform
#ChanukahAction - 2014
Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. People around the world were aware of the Nazi Party's Anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish policies. American Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress launched a boycott of German products.

In 1944 and 1945, as World War II was ending, President Harry S. Truman loosened quota restrictions on immigrants displaced by the Nazi regime and thousands of people immigrated to the U.S. In 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act allowing 400,000 new visas - about 68,000 went to Jews.
Hitler Becomes Chancellor
Keshet, founded in 1996 in Boston, was the first Jewish organization focused specifically on LGBTQ rights and inclusion. Keshet is now a national organization with offices in multiple cities.

"Our work is guided by a vision of a world where all Jewish organizations and communities are strengthened by LGBTQ-inclusive policy, programming, culture and leadership, and where Jews of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live fully integrated Jewish lives."

- Keshet
In winter of 2014, spurred by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many others, Jews in dozens of cities held direct actions to protest police violence. The effort was called #ChanukahAction and sought to center the voices of Jews of color.
Dozens of Jewish Social Justice Roundtable organizations worked together on immigration reform in 2013.
The Roundtable offered opportunities for collaborations at the local and national level
, including training and coaching through JOIN for Justice, funding, media support, strategic advice and connections.

Jewish organizations held 119 events about immigration, led 142 meetings with members of Congress or their staff, and engaged 497 leaders. A highlight was our video showcasing the movement, dubbed by Upworthy, "Obama Takes A Second To Talk About Jews In America. It's MEGA Inspiring.”
The 1963 March on Washington: Rabbi Joachim Prinz's Speech
Jewish professional, lay leader, volunteer member, friend: you are part of a rich legacy of activism, of organizing, of hard work and of introspection. As you will see in the following slides, you are also part of a legacy of tough choices, a little bit of fear, and a lot of victories.
You may be paving new paths, but you are not reinventing the wheel and you are not alone.

The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable has compiled this presentation as an introduction to the history of Jewish social justice in the United States.
Our goal is to offer historical context to both inform and inspire your work.

This Prezi provides information, photos and video from American Jewish history, primarily in the 20th Century, organized by decade.

Each decade includes:
What was happening in American society as it relates to Jewish justice values
What Jewish organizational life looked like
Some relevant questions and tensions

Go through the presentation using your keyboard arrows, or browse around with your mouse. Enjoy.
“Woman’s sphere is in the home, they told us. The last thirty years have been devoted to proof of our boast that the woman’s sphere is the whole wide world, without limit.”

- Hannah Greenebaum Solomon (right),
First president of the National Council of Jewish Women in Chicago
19th Century
Early 20th Century
Early 20th Century
Early 20th Century
Early 20th Century
1930s and 1940s
1930s and 1940s
New Jewish Agenda
The New Jewish Agenda, founded in 1982, was one of the earliest modern Jewish social justice organizations, mobilizing American Jews around domestic and global issues including: economic and racial justice, women's rights, middle east peace, nuclear disarmament, and human rights in central America.

New Jewish Agenda coined the often-used phrase, "A Jewish voice in the progressive community and a progressive voice in the Jewish community."
Many leaders from New Jewish Agenda went on to set up and lead other Jewish social justice and feminist organizations.
1990s and Early 2000s
1990s and Early 2000s
Efforts to engage synagogues in interfaith community organizing began in the 1990s and really took hold in the early 2000s. For decades, churches had been joining congregation-based community organizing networks to address issues of injustice, yet few synagogues were participating.

Synagogue organizing offered rabbis and synagogue members an opportunity to act for social change as an explicit expression of Jewish values.
This was the result of intentional efforts by Jewish funders and organizations such as Jewish Funds for Justice and Just Congregations.
1990s and Early 2000s
1990s and Early 2000s
1990s and Early 2000s
Synagogue Organizing
Rabbi Abraham Cronback at the funeral of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
American Identity post-Holocaust and post-establishment of Israel
Jews in the Civil Rights Movement: Why?
Early 20th Century
"By the end of the Second World War, every significant faction of the American Jewish community had united behind Jewish statehood. When Israel won independence in 1948, all but a handful of synagogues and Jewish organizations pitched in to support the fledgling state with money and political muscle.

During the 1950s, support for Israel was so widespread among American Jews that actual Zionists -- members of the [World Zionist Organization] -- began to wonder out loud whether Zionism was needed any longer. Israelis said the Zionists' task was to persuade American Jews to pack up and move to Israel, but most American Zionists had never accepted that job to begin with.

As for the other great task of the Zionist movement -- offering Jews a vehicle for robust debate on how to shape their future -- this no longer appealed to the leadership of the [World Zionist Organization]. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, the WZO had become an arm of government. Its primary duty, enshrined in Israel's 'Basic Law: National Institutions' of 1952, was to manage Israel's relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

And what Israel wanted from the Diaspora was support, not arguments."
- JJ Goldberg
No new Jewish social justice organizations were founded in the 1950s. Why do you think that is?
Full transcript