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Demise of Social Justice Group Contains Lessons for Movement

Leonard Fein began championing the idea of social justice as a vehicle for Jewish continuity almost a decade ago.

Today, social justice projects are an integral part of many synagogues and community centers, and new organizations continue to spring up.

But Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice, the organization that Fein helped found about a year and a half ago closed its doors several weeks ago, leaving some to ponder the direction of the social justice scene in the Jewish world.

Social justice has grown in popularity in the Jewish world during over the last decade, with the issue now more intricately woven into the programming and goals of local and national organizations.

In fact, the Trust for Jewish Philanthropy launched the Jewish Service Coalition in September to help coordinate Jewish-sponsored service and volunteer programs from around the world and allow coalition participants to discuss programming and share strategies.

Fein said he does not regard Amos’ closing as a tragedy.

“Circumstances really changed for the better,” he said. “The process was a spur to action for other organizations.”

But he acknowledged hard truths that contributed to Amos’ demise, including some that other social justice projects may take into account as they seek to stay visible and integral.

Amos was conceived when the security and diplomatic situation in Israel was much more stable. Now, with Israel in crisis, many items on the Jewish community’s domestic agenda have taken a back seat, including social justice.

Also, the emergence of so many social justice projects makes it harder for each to distinguish itself when asking foundations for funding.

But the major reason for Amos’ demise is that the American economy’s ills have translated into less funding for all kinds of projects.

“Our funders were saying, ‘We have more groups asking for money than we have money for,’ ” said Jeremy Burton, Amos’ former executive director.

“It was a very difficult climate to gain attention and persuade organizations to take on new grass-roots social justice projects,” Burton said.

Amos did have some successes, such as a training program for local synagogues through the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council. But Amos’ niche — community organizing and training — and the general service of “capacity building” were never easy to explain or market.

“Amos suffered because it was doing incredibly important, but behind-the-scenes, work,” said David Rosenn, executive director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and a former board member of Amos.

Looking back on its year and a half existence, Amos concluded in its final report that it may not have properly assessed its mission.

“Throughout its existence Amos struggled both to find and articulate its purpose and uniqueness,” the report said. “In the case of Amos, it was questionable as to whether the capacity-building function required a stand-alone organization with costly infrastructure as opposed to being a sub-project or department of an existing institution.”

The report noted the group’s successes in consciousness-raising about social justice and serving as a national network for Jewish professionals and lay leaders committed to social justice. But it questioned the organization’s ability to define a niche, and saw problems with leadership and board functioning.

While the future of social justice within the Jewish community is still changing, one of Amos’ goals — raising public awareness of social justice issues — has been embraced by a number of organizations. Also, those who took leadership roles through Amos can now consult for different groups and local organizations.

But Amos’ final report still challenged the Jewish community.

“Although Amos was not viable as a stand-alone organization, its mission and central concerns are still relevant,” the report concluded. “There is insufficient attention to social justice in the Jewish communal system.”

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