The Jewish Social Justice Bus

Last month I was invited to speak at the Jewish Funders Network’s (JFN) annual conference in Los Angeles. JFN has emerged as an important player in the American Jewish community. As Jewish Federation fundraising has been relatively stagnant for the last two decades, family foundations have emerged as a very important source of philanthropic venture capital, helping to get new ideas and new organizations off the ground. In my new book, Jewish Megatrends (Jewish Lights), I write about the differing fortunes of Jewish legacy organizations (e.g. Federations, synagogues, JCC’s and membership organizations) and the Jewish innovation sector (e.g. new organizations that have been targeting Next Gen Jews). The former are suffering from serious attrition; the latter are booming. In any event, JFN has become the support network for Jewish family foundations.

On the second day of the conference, participants were able to choose from four bus tours of Los Angeles: LA Arts, Creative Community Engagement, Health and Social Services and Social Change. Not surprisingly, I chose Social Change, a central focus of my work and passion. Even before we boarded, not exactly knowing who had signed up, the trip became dubbed “the Jewish Social Justice Bus”.

And what a bus it was! When I wrote my book, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World, I identified and tracked down for interviews about 50 Jews who were playing an important role in the emerging Jewish social justice sector. I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store to find some of the most important leaders of that field on the same bus—Simon Greer, who led the Jewish Funds for Justice and now is president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation; Alan van Capelle who succeeded Simon at JFSJ, now called Bend the Arc; Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service; Dan Sokatch, president of the New Israel Fund; Rachel Levin of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation; and Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR. I found myself invoking Tefillat haDerech, the Jewish prayer for safe travel, because if the bus happened upon misfortune, the whole field of Jewish social justice would suffer a cataclysmic setback.

The field trip included a few stops and a chance to meet an array of activists. One was the Breed Street Shul in the BoyleHeights section of East LA. Once a thriving Jewish area, the neighborhood has suffered from some decline in recent years and most of the synagogues closed their doors years ago. In 1988 the Shul was registered as a national historic landmark, insuring that it would not be torn down and eleven years later, a non-profit group incorporated with the express intention to refurbish the synagogue. What is most significant about the project is that the intention was not to create a museum. Rather the goal was to create a new hub of Jewish activity in a section of LA that might attract different Jews than those that join affluent suburban synagogues. Part of how Breed Street is already realizing its dream is through partnerships with immigrant organizations in the neighborhood, mostly Latino.

Many urban areas throughout America are being re-discovered by younger Jews who are drawn not only to more affordable housing, but to mixed neighborhoods filled with the kind of cultural, political and social energy that is rare to find in suburbia. These Jews are also drawn to a different kind of social justice engagement. There was a time when Jews of conscience left their comfortable neighborhoods in the suburbs and spent an afternoon in a social action program in the inner city, only to go back home at the end of a few hours. Today, Jewish social justice activists know that real social change only happens when we create alliances with at-risk communities, live and work side by side with those communities and treat our allies as full partners. Indeed our meetings with Angelica Sales of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of L.A. and with Kafi Blumenfeld of the Liberty Hill Foundation spoke of just those kinds of partnerships with the Jewish community.

The Breed Street Shul represents a return to a neighborhood that was once bustling with Jews who might have been the grandparents of the Jews now moving back in. But it is more than that. It also represents an embrace of a serious commitment to tzedek, to the kind of justice work that is central to an authentic expression of Jewish living and Jewish values.

It is exciting to note that similar reverse migrations of Jews are happening in other communities in America. In Detroit, Jews helped to save the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) that was located in a former Jewish neighborhood downtown. In WashingtonD.C., the original Adas Israel in Chinatown was about to be sold to become a nightclub when it was bought by a few Jewish philanthropists. Refurbished and re-dedicated in 2004, the Sixth and I Synagogue is one of the brightest success stories in American Jewish life. Seven days a week Sixth and I is bustling with activity, including an eclectic mix of religious services, cultural events and social justice engagement in the neighborhood. It is no accident that both AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and Moishe House, are renting houses for their 20-something participants in similar urban neighborhoods. There is more than a little poignancy in the fact that these grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants are now moving back to the old neighborhoods to help a new generation of immigrants establish lives of dignity.

Those of us who were on the Jewish social justice bus may have helped a bit to create the impetus for this kind of re-engagement with the Jewish past and with Jewish values. But it is the young Jews who are now “walking the talk” of Judaism who are really to be celebrated.

The day after the Jewish social justice bus trip, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Morton and Jane Blaustein Foundation and the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation joined together to launch “Justice, Justice Shall You Purse”, a $1 million Jewish social justice matching fund under the aegis of the Jewish Funders Network. It is an exciting moment in the expansion of Jewish social justice in America and precisely the kind of development that I wrote about and encouraged in Judaism and Justice.

The Jewish social justice bus is on the move. It is time to get on board.