Tikkun Olam On Steroids


For two weeks this summer, the lobby of the JCC Manhattan became a temporary recruitment venue for a city-sponsored identity card program.

City workers offered information on IDNYC — a government-issued ID card available to all New York City residents age 14 and older — to the 3,000 people who enter the Upper West Side facility each day, and enrolled some 1,000 of them in the initiative that provides legal identification to men and women irrespective of their immigration status.

The IDNYC was the first activity of the JCC’s Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility, which officially launched last month.

The Center — named for a 19th-century émigré from Eastern Europe who was the grandfather of the Center’s anonymous funders — is a civics-focused program designed to teach JCC members and neighborhood residents the fundamentals of U.S. democracy and encourage them to become involved in political life.

“This is not partisan politics,” and it is not endorsing the policies of any particular party, said Eve Landau, director of the Center. “We are a catalyst for change in the community.”

Landau previously served as founding director of the two-decade-old Ma’yan, a feminist and social justice leadership training project whose activities are being absorbed by the new Center.

Ruth Messinger, former president of American Jewish World Service, is the Center’s social justice organizer.

Landau and Rabbi Joy Levitt, the JCC’s executive director, who created the Center, said it was in the planning stages for a long time and was not prompted by the divisive political environment that many people say followed the candidacy and election victory of President Trump. But they note that current conditions have made the work of the Center more urgent.

“This is not partisan politics… We are a catalyst for change in the community.”

The violence in Charlottesville this summer, in which a young woman protesting a march by white supremacists was fatally struck by a car driven by one of the supremacists, was “a cruel reminder that democracy requires our ongoing engagement to survive and flourish,” Rabbi Levitt wrote in a message to JCC members.

The purpose of the Center, one of nine under JCC auspices, is to “remind us about our responsibilities as citizens,” according to its mission statement. “We start with the radical idea that change is possible, that bringing people together with a shared desire to work for a better, fairer, and safer world for everyone is the very essence of what Jewish tradition demands of us.”

Themes of Center programs will include Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the environment, LGBTQ rights and feminism, Rabbi Levitt said.

Think Tikkun Olam on steroids. All with a Jewish flavor.

“We needed to increase our reach,” Landau said.

Center staff is available on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m. for visits from members of the community.

The Center’s social justice-centered programs include literacy tutorials, a Children of Abraham Peace Walk between Jewish and Muslim and Christian sites on the Upper West Side, a 2020 Vision “boot camp” for teens, Democracy Sundays that feature speakers on “critical social and political issues,” workshops on topics like racism and sexuality, a candidates’ forum, a voter registration drive, a “Muslim in New York” photo exhibition in the JCC’s Tisch Gallery and this summer’s pop-up registration drive for IDNYC.

How will Rabbi Levitt judge the Center a success?

If more people vote, if young people decide to run for office, if anti-Semitism decreases, she said. And if the civic-minded programs bring about more civility in the city: “If there are actual conversations between people who are different from each other.”

The two-year-old municipal ID program, which offers a form of identification for people who do not have a driver’s license, was aimed at people who are homeless and the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented immigrants. But civil liberties advocates raised fears that such an identity card might single out its bearer as an “illegal” immigrant.

This has particular resonance for members of the Jewish community, Rabbi Levitt said, because “we were once immigrants.”

“The Jewish community is very sensitive to this issue,” she said.

A century ago, she said, “many [Jewish] people were turned away and could not get into this country.”

The Center hosted the IDNYC registration drive, said Rabbi Levitt, to encourage enrollment among legal residents and help diffuse the card’s onus. In other words, to make life easier for undocumented immigrants.

“It’s a city initiative … we live in the city,” Rabbi Levitt said.

“I wanted the community to know what we stand for,” said Rabbi Levitt, who called the Center “a laboratory for the whole community.”

She said the Center plans to partner with such Jewish institutions as synagogues, HIAS, other JCCs and the Hebrew Free Loan Society on future programs. “We are not doing this work alone.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and CEO and author Dov Seidman will discuss how to repair the breakdown of unity, truth and trust in U.S. politics at the JCC Manhattan, under the aegis of the Stern Center for Social Responsibility, on Monday, Nov. 27 at 7:30 p.m. For more information: 646-505-4444.