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On Human Rights Holiday, Group Seeks Commitment to Tikkun Olam

December 13, 2006
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It’s been 58 years since a new religious holiday was widely recognized by the Jewish community, but Rabbis for Human Rights hopes a historic event marking its 58th anniversary this year will be the newest addition to the Jewish cycle. International Human Rights Day, celebrated each year on Dec. 10, marks the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that launched the contemporary movement for the protection of basic civil, political and social freedoms.

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, the domestic counterpart of the Israeli group, chose this year’s commemoration to launch its first conference on Judaism and human rights to draw attention to an oft-overlooked international holiday and to the group’s campaign against torture.

A ceremony Sunday across from United Nations headquarters in New York had a distinctly religious flavor, with readings and prayers drawing from Jewish and non-Jewish sources and the lighting of a symbolic Chanukah menorah for human rights.

“Never in human history has Human Rights Day been viewed as an important day, and we would say a sacred day,” Rabbi Brian Walt, the North American group’s executive director, told JTA. “We hope we will encourage and inspire the Jewish community to see the consonance between the teachings of Judaism and its contemporary expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The conference signifies not only the North American group’s development into an entity that does more than just financially support its Israeli counterpart; it also reflects the emergence of tikkun olam — literally “repairing the world” — as a defining element of American Judaism and an integral component of rabbinic training programs.

Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a 7-year-old Orthodox rabbinical school in New York City, requires the study of texts relating to Jewish ethical obligations, as well as a course on community organizing that teaches students to build coalitions around issues of common concern and leverage those alliances to push for political change.

At the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a $1.5 million endowed chair in social responsibility is part of a new leadership preparation program that focuses partly on social-action training. The program requires rabbinical students to study Jewish texts related to tikkun olam and perform field work in that area with rabbinic mentors.

“On a voluntary basis, we’ve had electives in social action and social responsibility over the years, but it’s now becoming a required part of the core curriculum of the rabbinic program,” said Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, describes the trend as a “cyclical phenomenon” that was last evident in the post-World War II period, but regressed in the 1980s as American Jewry began to look inward.

“There was a pendulum shift widely perceived away from some of these universalistic notions and toward greater concern with Jewish issues,” said Sarna, citing the campaign for Soviet Jewry as a prime example. “What is so interesting is that we’ve seen a move back in the other direction.”

The Jewish community’s embrace of the social-justice agenda varies across denominations. Nearly a third of attendees at this week’s conference, which ran Sunday to Tuesday, came from the Reconstructionist movement, a stream that makes up less than 3 percent of American Jewry.

The Orthodox community, meanwhile, was vastly under-represented, with only a handful of rabbis and students taking part in the conference.

Rabbi Dov Linzer, head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, recognized the hesitation in the Orthodox world to become involved in organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights. A conversation Monday among Orthodox participants in the conference — virtually all of them affiliates of Linzer’s yeshiva — dealt exclusively with how to draw more Orthodox rabbis into human rights work.

“Traditionally, modern Orthodoxy was a lot about what we can get from the outside world in terms of culture, how we can be intellectually enriched,” Linzer told JTA. “Where that really falls short is understanding what we owe the outside world. A true modern Orthodoxy and true engagement is not just about taking, but about giving as well.”

There are exceptions, of course: This summer’s rally in Washington against the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, drew a large Orthodox contingent, including several busloads of students from Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of Y.U.’s recently established Center for the Jewish Future, is on the rabbinic advisory board for the American Jewish World Service, a Jewish social justice organization that has been a key backer of the Darfur movement.

But some Jewish groups have been turned off by the human-rights community’s frequent abuse of human-rights law to demonize Israel. And Orthodox groups have been slow to unite with liberal rabbis around the issue.

Some, like the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel, generally don’t participate in cross-denominational efforts. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the group’s public affairs director, said his organization doesn’t want to “muddle the message that we stand for” by uniting with non-Orthodox rabbis.

But Tsvi Blanchard, one of the few Orthodox rabbis at this week’s conference, says Orthodoxy has been preoccupied for several decades with its own internal community building.

“It’s only been recently that, outside of individual members of the community, there’s been the social-cultural-religious resources to reach out beyond ourselves,” said Blanchard, director of organizational development at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

To the extent that Orthodox Jews are prepared to become active beyond their communities, Blanchard says they’re unlikely to do it with groups that are perceived as less than fully supportive of Israel — an accusation that has dogged Rabbis for Human Rights due to its vocal activism on behalf of Palestinians.

The original Israeli group has been a leading voice of opposition to the Jerusalem municipality’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes built without proper permits.

Rabbis for Human Rights says the municipality routinely denies building permits to Arabs. Municipal officials have said that Palestinians, sometimes sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, build illegally in an attempt to claim disputed land.

That issue intruded unexpectedly on the conference: Word arrived that a home whose demolition Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of the Israel-based group, tried unsuccessfully to prevent in 2002 had just been destroyed again after Rabbis for Human Rights helped rebuild it in 2005.

The assembled rabbis and rabbinical students quickly composed a letter of protest to Israeli and American officials and held a press conference Monday at the Israeli Consulate in New York. They also raised enough money to rebuild a significant part of the dwelling.

In describing the letter to his colleagues at the conference, Walt described himself as a proud Zionist. In an earlier interview with JTA, he rejected the suggestion that the group’s work on behalf of Palestinians implies a lack of concern for Israeli security.

“Yes, we do oppose the policy of administrative home demolition, but that’s not a security concern,” he said. “In fact, I would argue the demolition of homes is in some ways a policy that endangers the security of Israel.”

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