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What Can Reform Judaism Teach Us about Social Advocacy?

What Can Reform Judaism Teach Us about Social Advocacy?

Confirmation class, Temple Israel of Westport with RAC banner in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

I discovered a voice…I never knew existed – one that speaks up, stands up for what she believes in, and challenges others to do the same.”
Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar participant

It was the great modern philosopher-theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who coined the term “spiritual audacity” to describe our responsibility as Jews to question our relationship with our own Judaism, and challenge ourselves, others, and even God to pursue justice in a seemingly unjust world. He demanded that we, as Jews, advocate for what is right, just, and moral, as well as explore tangible ways in which we can act and stand for justice. 

At Temple Israel in Westport, CT, we teach our 10th graders that Judaism is a religion of deed, rather than creed. Although they grapple with unanswerable questions around the meaning of life, God’s existence, morality, and ethics – all of which can be crucial for a personal Judaism, it is our actions – our obligation to perform mitzvot (commandments) that truly shape our identities. 

To complement our teachings in the synagogue, we travel with our confirmation students to Washington, D.C., each year for the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar, a weekend-long program that exposes them to many important social justice issues examined through a Reform Jewish lens. They also tackle public policy issues and the varied and opposing opinions that so often surround such issues, quickly learning that all opinions, including minority opinions, are essential for a thoughtful decision to ensue. The program culminates when students lobby their own state’s senators and representatives on some of these issues, seeing Judaism come to life.

As they wrestle with what is broken in this world, it is our hope that they also are inspired by our faith to help repair it. Coupled with the weekend’s opportunities for community building, personal exploration, and forging new relationships with other high schoolers, the young people come home with memories and experiences that become part of their core being and make it clear why, season after season, the L’Taken Seminar is a highlight of their confirmation year.

It is our students’ own insights and reflections, however, that best convey the powerful effect of the L’Taken experience. “Judaism comes in many different shapes,” said one. “I had no idea that I could be a rectangle and my friend could be a triangle, and that we both could be Reform Jews!” Another had this to say about Havdalah at the Jefferson Memorial, “I felt like I was part of something greater. Something bigger. Something more profound than me.”

“I did not realize how passionate I was about issues related to abortion, reproductive rights, and even malaria! We don’t have many chances to think about how we feel about issues, and I feel more confident that I can advocate for them and have a place [Temple Israel] to share my views without being judged.” And finally, this: “[Carrie Newcomer’s] song “If Not Now, Tell Me When” is on repeat in my head,” reported another student. “I want to answer the question of ‘When?’ every time I hear it. I don’t think it’s about what we can do now, but what we can always do.”

Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) we are instructed in Deuteronomy. Indeed, even as we transmit this imperative to the next generation, may we all pursue justice, transform belief into action, and repair the world, one deed at a time.

Rabbi P.J. Schwartz is the rabbi educator at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA. He is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, a special education teacher.

Rabbi P.J. Schwartz
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