BOSTON (JTA) – Ivy Hest spent a lunch hour last week knocking on doors in this city’s State House urging legislators to support a bill calling for Election Day voter registration.
Hest, 22, walked the halls of the Massachusetts seat of government July 16 with a colleague, handing out packets containing an hourglass – “time is running out” for the bill, they told the bemused legislative aides they met – and cookies, to “sweeten the democratic process.”
The bill was scheduled for Senate debate the following day. Several other states have passed such bills, Hest and her companion explained. Those states now report higher voter turnout, especially among the poor, the elderly and immigrants – groups that often find it difficult to register in advance.
Hest is no stranger to advocacy.
She organized student efforts on Darfur while at Brandeis University, has lobbied on issues of poverty and housing, and now works at a shelter for poor and homeless women.
Nor is she a stranger to Judaism. Growing up, Hest was active in her family’s Reform congregation in Boca Raton, Fla.
On this day she is bringing together her Jewish and social justice commitments, taking part with two dozen other young Boston-area Jews in the 11th-hour lobbying effort.
“Let My People Vote” is the first direct-action event supported by the Righteous Indignation project, which is working in tandem with two Boston-based legislative action groups, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action and the Jewish Organizing Initiative.
Hest’s rabbi and family encouraged her to infuse her sense of social justice with her Jewish values, she said.
“They wanted me from the beginning to make this Jewish connection.” Looking around at the other young Jews in the room, she declared, “Now I’m doing it.”
The Righteous Indignation project aims to build a national momentum of progressive Jews working for social justice from within a framework of Jewish values.
Launched in February with a book of essays by rabbis and activist leaders, and continuing with a training conference in May in Boston attended by 150 young activists, the project has entered its third phase: sending out young Jews to register voters in five key cities and lobbying politicians to support social justice issues in the 2008 campaign.
Along with Boston, groups are under way in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Milwaukee.
Paticipants are doing this work, organizers say, while talking the language of faith.
“There is a groundswell of interest among young Jews on issues of social justice and the environment, and on the nexus between that work and Jewish text study and Jewish ritual,” said Rabbi Or Rose, associate dean of the Hebrew College rabbinical school and co-editor of “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice,” the book providing the intellectual foundation for the project.
“They’re asking, how can we take purposeful action in the world as Jews?”
Jews typically have been at the forefront of social justice activity in this country, from union organizing in the early 20th century to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What’s different now, experts say, is the growing interest in engaging in this work from an avowedly Jewish platform.
This intersection of Judaism and social justice has proven particularly compelling to Jews in their teens and 20s, as evidenced by the host of new organizations that have sprung up to harness this energy, the growing willingness of Jewish funders to support their efforts, and the rapidly increasing numbers of young applicants for Jewish service opportunities at home and abroad.
According to “Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community,” a just-released report by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Jewishly inspired social justice action not only has the potential to reinvigorate the 21st-century American Jewish community, it is already doing so.
Jewish social justice groups such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice, on the margins of the organized Jewish community a decade ago, are now thriving, growing and influential. So are older groups like the American Jewish World Service, which gave itself new life by moving aggressively into the field.
Momentum has grown in the past year as traditional Jewish groups became involved, from the Reform movement’s Just Congregations initiative, which encourages synagogues to join interfaith faith-based social justice efforts, to Yeshiva University student support for Darfur.
“Until recently, traditional Jewish organizations – AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents – represented the voice of American Jewry,” focusing on protecting Jews in an often hostile world, according to the Cummings report. That focus, the report says, does not compel most young Jews.
“With the emergence of alternative Jewish voices has come a new narrative about Jewish values in a global community … focusing instead on what Jews can and should do to protect the rights of others,” the report says. “This agenda is resonating with younger Jews, who find in it a meaningful way to connect their Jewish identities with their progressive politics.”
This spring, Or and his co-editors, Margie Klein and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, presented the Righteous Indignation project at synagogues and private homes nationwide.
“As a young person, I did social justice all the time, but not as a Jew,” Green Kaiser told one crowd in March at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. “What we’re saying is, we have an obligation as Jews to all people, to go out from our own personal moral conviction into the world to make real change.”
That’s why 20-year-old Max Goldman showed up to the voter-registration effort here.
Sporting a union button, the Tufts University student said he’d been turned off by what he described as the “political apathy” of the Jewish community in his native Connecticut town.
“This is the first young progressive Jewish action I’ve been to,” he said. “I’m here because I think access to voting is important.”
As Hest finished up her rounds on the fourth floor, having handed out some two dozen lobbying packets, she reflected on her satisfaction with the day.
“The one thing that spans all religions is the sense of justice,” she said. “To some degree, I just happen to be Jewish. There’s a strong tradition of Jews taking action for a just society, and I’m identifying with it this year.”