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How We Can Deepen Social Justice in the Jewish Community and Beyond

How We Can Deepen Social Justice in the Jewish Community and Beyond

An interview with contributors to “Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority”

Hand in a pink sweater holding the new Moral Resistance book

As the director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, I have the privilege of working with extraordinary leaders whose activism and insights are changing how American Jews engage with critical social justice issues of our time. A new anthology called Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, co-edited by Rabbi Seth Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, is a collection of essays exploring the spiritual origins of the Jewish pursuit of justice, including women’s health, LGBTQ rights, health care, racial equity, and much more – all through a Reform Jewish lens.

I caught up with some of the anthology’s contributors to learn more about their perspectives.

Abby Levine: What is it about this moment that cries out for a book like this?

Rabbi Seth Limmer, senior rabbi at Chicago Sinai Congregation and Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority co-editor: We are experiencing both a moment and a movement. The hatred and hostility of our moment parades before us on a daily basis. But the movement is harder to see, as most media pay little attention to news that is good.

For over a decade now, we rabbis in the Reform Movement have been organizing ourselves and our institutions to be better – more effective, more intentional, more accountable – in working for social justice. The authors in this book, along with many others, have been shaping our movement for a decade to best position the Reform Movement to respond to the fierce urgency of now.

Ilana Kaufman, director of the Jews of Color Field Building Fund: We are living in a moral desert in the U.S., and if our clergy are not acting and leading as moral compasses, who is? We need a multiracial set of Jewish leaders who can guide us boldly into the future.  

Ruth Messinger, global ambassador of American Jewish World Service and mentor-in-chief at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable: Times are bad in ways that many of us haven’t experienced before. Many Jews are seeking opportunities to push back against hatred and bigotry, and want to root their resistance in Jewish tradition. And many Jewish organizations are reckoning with their own inaction around racism, sexism, and other injustices.

Rabbi Rebekah Stern, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, member of the California Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s leadership team: In recent years, racism and xenophobia have found their place in public conversations at a volume and frequency that feels unprecedented. Jews of Ashkenazi descent in North America are uniquely positioned: We have assimilated within American “whiteness,” and we have also come to access great privilege and power. Yet, because of persistent Anti-Semitism, we continue to experience vulnerability.

I believe that in today’s political climate, white Jews have a tremendous opportunity to do meaningful work in repairing some of the brokenness of our nation.

The Jewish community is not a monolith. That’s why I’ve started saying “Jewish communities” rather than “the Jewish community.” What tensions do you see among the discussions in the book?

Rabbi Seth Limmer: The biggest tensions we see revolve around how much work needs to be done, and how to prioritize our energy, resources, and time. Just as the persecution of immigrants and the harassment of women are increasingly pervasive, so too are the scourges of systemic racism and global climate change. There is little we read about in this book that we can put on the “back burner” while we fight other issues.

There is also a tension in many of our institutions that this book is intended to address: the disconnect between our desire to do good work and recognizing that our skills might not be up to par with our aspirations. Moral Responsibility and Spiritual Authority speaks to all of those needs through its very design: Our first section speaks to the deep theology that commits Judaism to social justice; our second explains the sources that motivate us on the urgent issues of our era; our final pages provide a toolkit for how to be the best activists and advocates for justice that we can be.

How would you imagine people using this book to strengthen learning and action around Jewish social justice?

Ilana Kaufman: I hope people read the chapter I co-authored to reflect seriously on their roles in enabling racism and white supremacy. Every rabbi has been racist or done something racist. But rabbis with courage and moral discipline are able to wonder about, reflect on, learn and grow from those experiences – and then do better moving forward. 

It takes actual work. I’d like to see this chapter be part of every clergy’s and pre-service clergy’s professional development.

Five years from now, what do you hope Jewish leaders and Jewish communities will be doing differently to address injustice and inequity?

Rabbi Seth Limmer: We hope that in five years people will not only have better skills to do the work of social justice, but they will have better language and deeper theology to understand why that work is such a crystalline expression of their Jewish Identity.

Ruth Messinger: I want every Jewish leader and every person training to become a Jewish leader, including rabbis and educators, to understand that justice issues are an ancient part of our tradition and should, therefore, be part of contemporary teaching. I want those same people to have not only articles, books, and guides, but real examples of how other leaders and organizations have done this work successfully. 

Ilana Kaufman: I hope the Reform Movement will have reframed its understanding of the Jewish community. I’d like to see every Reform institution committed to living our multiracial reality. This means building systems and structures to ensure we can be who we really are. It means redesigning curriculum and pedagogy with a multiracial lens. It means developing new hiring practices for our shuls so we don’t reflexively always hire white people. I want every Jewish leader to be authentically trained and versed in multiracial education, content, and pedagogy. 

Rabbi Rebekah Stern: I hope Jews of Ashkenazi descent will begin or continue their own individual process of recognizing the white supremacy from which they benefit. I hope that members of Reform Jewish communities, including Jewish professionals and members alike, become motivated to commit to the hard work of acknowledging and rooting out the racism and white supremacy that is pervasive in our own communities.

It is this racism and white supremacy that keeps our clergy and staff, boards and committees, program and service participants, almost exclusively white. Our American Jewish community is more multiracial all the time, but our American Jewish communities most often do not reflect this reality.

I firmly believe that we cannot, with integrity, do the work of overturning white supremacy outside the Jewish community until we have begun that work within the Jewish community. It is arduous, challenging and sometimes painful work, and it is also the critical work of moral resistance, if we ever hope to speak and act with spiritual authority.

Join us at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism on January 14 at 5:30pm for a book launch celebrating the publication of Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, edited by Rabbi Jonah Pesner and Rabbi Seth Limmer. Register now. 

Abby Levine is the first director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of 57 Jewish organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective. Under her leadership, the roundtable has doubled in size, supported sector-wide efforts on civic engagement, immigration and racial equity, inclusion and diversity, and organized two conferences of 150 people across the network. Previously, Abby led a coalition of 30 local progressive organizations in Columbus, OH, with America Votes, served as the founding San Francisco staff member for Progressive Jewish Alliance, now Bend the Arc, and worked in development for DC Vote, which works for DC voting rights and statehood.

Abby received an Abraham Joshua Heschel award from Jews United for Justice in 2013, and is in the current cohort of the Schusterman Fellowship, a Jewish leadership development program. She has a BA in political science from Yale University and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two kids, Zachary and Lilah

Abby Levine
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