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Focus on Issues: Group to Focus on Social Justice, but Some Worried About Partisanship

April 11, 2001
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According to a popular joke, a group of American Jewish tourists in Israel ask their tour guide, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”

Tikkun olam, of course, is a Hebrew term, one that describes the Jewish obligation to repair the world.

The joke’s humor lay in the fact that many American Jews are more literate in social activism than in Hebrew.

According to a new study, however, most American Jews not only don’t know it’s Hebrew, but aren’t even familiar with the term tikkun olam.

And with only 31 percent reporting that Israel is personally very meaningful to their Jewish identity, chances are they won’t be asking Israeli tour guides much of anything.

The findings were two pieces of a recent study measuring American Jewish attitudes toward “social justice,” a somewhat vague term that can fit a variety of causes, depending on the speaker’s politics.

The study’s major finding – that American Jews remain strongly supportive of predominantly liberal social justice causes – is being used to promote the new organization that commissioned it.

Amos: The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice, was officially launched last week. It aims to place social justice higher on the Jewish communal agenda and to provide training and other support for Jewish groups that want to address social justice issues.

Amos’ founding comes as a number of people tout social justice and community service as a means of engaging unaffiliated young Jews:

A new organization in its planning stages, Partnership for Service, seeks to increase community service rates among young Jews while teaching what Jewish tradition has to say about volunteering.

Through a project called Tzedek Hillel, several campus Hillels are focusing on volunteer efforts, including spring break programs in which students do things like build houses for the poor.

Several Jewish organizations are discussing the possibility of joining forces for a Jewish Peace Corps in which recent college grads would commit to a year or two of service, combined with Jewish learning.

The new study, based on phone interviews with 1,002 U.S. Jews, indicates strong Jewish support for social justice. But it also reveals a fundamental paradox that likely will affect Amos and similar efforts.

The overwhelming majority of American Jews say social activism is important to their identity as Jews, and they feel proud that Jewish organizations do social justice work. In fact, 56 percent say social justice is more important to their Jewish identity than Torah or text study.

Nonetheless, a clear majority – 74 percent – don’t care whether their own social activism falls under Jewish or secular auspices.

“If you don’t perceive your community as sponsoring social justice activities, you’re not going to say you prefer to do them with other Jews,” said Leonard Fein, the founder of Mazon, a Jewish hunger-relief organization and one of Amos’ architects.

Jewish organizations need to address the “big issues of our time” to show Judaism’s relevance, Fein said.

Not everyone interprets the survey as a clarion call for more social justice activities.

“When I see these surveys that show that for many Jews,” the “meaning of Jewish identity is social justice, I worry, because among other things that doesn’t tell you why you shouldn’t marry a Unitarian,” said Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington. “I don’t know that spending more energy on those activities is an effective strategy for Jewish continuity in America.”

Abrams, who serves on the advisory committee of the American Jewish Committee, said selection of social justice causes should be done on the basis of the “the higher the Jewish content, the better.”

“Jewish groups have to be very careful not to allow partisan politics or ideological politics to creep in,” he said.

It is not yet clear how Amos will manage to assist Jewish organizations and champion social justice while avoiding controversy over its choice of causes.

Amos’ survey indicates that American Jews’ favorite causes include abortion rights, fighting against anti-Semitism, access to affordable health care and strengthened gun control laws.

Few causes enjoy complete consensus, however.

In recent years, a number of Jewish leaders, particularly Republicans, have questioned community activism on issues that are not explicitly of Jewish concern.

In 1999, top leaders with UJA-Federation of Greater New York urged the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which coordinates the policies of Jewish organizations on social issues, to narrow its focus to issues of direct concern to the Jewish community, such as elder care and Jewish rescue.

The JCPA and the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, still are hammering out what role each should play on social justice issues.

However, Hannah Rosenthal, the JCPA’s executive director, downplayed the lack of consensus.

A recent survey conducted by the JCPA showed that the “overwhelming majority of Jewish federation donors support social justice public policy and efforts,” she said.

In particular, Rosenthal said, there is widespread support not just for aiding Jews in poverty but for “public policy that deals with the poor throughout the country.”

Diana Aviv, the UJC’s vice president for public policy and a board member of Amos, said, “As the federation system thinks about what its own mission is, the scope of the work it engages in relative to its resources may be a subject for federations to talk about, but federations do embrace social justice.

“We work on immigration issues not just so Soviet Jewish refugees can come, but so that we have generous policy for all,” Aviv said. “When we work for better conditions in our nursing homes, it’s for all recipients, not just for Jews.”

It is not yet clear how large Amos will be, how it will be funded or how many organizations it will work with. It has a preliminary arrangement to work with the JCPA on poverty-related issues, and for now is being funded primarily by three private Jewish foundations.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is founder and director of the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, which offers teen and adult seminars on the connection between Judaism and social activism. He said he welcomes Amos.

However, Amos needs to stick to its mission of training and consulting, and not champion specific causes, Schwarz said.

“Some of the principals in Amos, when they see issues they just start to salivate,” Schwarz said. “Unless they discipline themselves in this area, they’ll quickly become a shadow of the JCPA.”

However, Rosenthal said she thinks Amos will augment, not duplicate, the JCPA’s work by helping to train leaders and mobilize resources.

“They are the increased capacity that local communities cannot afford,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a perfect fit.”

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