Three years ago, the Jewish Social Action Forum [JSAF] organised as a forum for professionals and organisations in the UK with a general interest or specific agenda within social justice. Increased professional leadership, moving from mainly linking Jews with wider campaigns to cultivating a distinct Jewish social action campaign agenda, and establishing JSAF within the mainstream communal landscape—have allowed for increased impact and a greater sense of direction. These developments have also posed their own challenges. Does maintaining sufficient consensus limit JSAF’s role in more assertive campaigning? With increased professionalization, how does JSAF mobilize lay and wider support? Here are some lessons learned for communal organizing for social change:
Create a Communal Force
JSAF’s first approach was to link up with wider social action campaigns. JSAF built a relationship with the Fairtrade Foundation, culminating in the production of the Jewish Guide to Fairtrade, 41 synagogues signing up to be Fairtrade, and a social enterprise selling Fairtrade kippot, with over £8000 worth of sales to date.
While also employing this approach, the most recent & largest campaign of JSAF, the Big Green Jewish Website & Big Green Jewish Campaign—launched in the build-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference—shifted from reliance on climate change as a ‘hot topic’. Instead, we set the agenda for our own broader campaign tackling these issues within a Jewish community context—our current focus on food encompasses packaging, food miles, and sensible fish and meat consumption. We focus on getting synagogues and community buildings to engage with edible gardens, reduce reliance on disposables for kashrut, and increase Jewish organizations’ use of Vegware.
Whereas previously professionals were the main participants, rabbis from across the denominations work together on this agenda. In addition, it has been supported by senior members of government—Ed Miliband, then secretary of state for energy and climate change, was guest speaker at an Age of Stupid screening, and his successor Chris Huhne endorsed our edible garden project for schools.
Capitalize on Trends of the New Generation
A factor drawing communal leaders and service providers to JSAF is a perception that our work engages a younger demographic they are not reaching. While JSAF member organizations involve a range of ages, the demographic most commonly impacted through our work is in fact younger people who connect with the universal dimension of Judaism we seek to foster.
A recent International Broadcasting Trust study, Global Generation: How young people in theUKconnect with the wider world, found that world issues are increasingly a concern for young people. The challenge will be translating that concern into action.
Nevertheless, the Jewish social action community should be confident about motivating members of this new global generation. The report found some common factors among young people active, including encouragement from religious institutions, coming from international families, or experience of social injustice. Jewish educational approaches tend to be experiential and underpinned by a sense of dugma ishit (leading by example).
Many Jews have direct or indirect experience of injustice, and many of our narratives and customs link our experience with a wider push for justice, such as placing a chanukiah in the window as a sign of hope for oppressed people everywhere. Jewish social action should have a fertile ground of young people for whom connecting with injustice is obvious.
Link and Share Globally
JSAF has been keen to develop relationships with partners in Europe,America, and Israel. Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s president, was the keynote speaker at the Darfur rally. The Jewish Guide to Fairtrade was adapted to a Hebrew resource by the Israeli organization Bema’aglei Tzedek. Member organization Tzedek has worked with AJWS; Jeneration and JCC for London have participated in Paideia and ROI conferences; and Mitzvah Day—now in its fifth year—mobilized 20,000 volunteers worldwide. JSAF is the European partner working on SIACH and hopes this network will enable this emerging sharing to build into concrete partnership.
By engaging people with Judaism’s near six-millennial struggle to grapple with life’s biggest questions, we not only shape a message on slavery or wasteful destruction. We also imbue those we touch with a profound spiritual and material purpose—not with forced dogma—but with a framework to support their journey of activism.
Many questions remain. How do we engage activists with Judaism because it provides a framework of values pushing us to pursue justice rather than because we want unaffiliated Jewish activists to be more literate and maybe become more affiliated? How do we articulate a distinct Jewish social agenda while participating in a broader global movement addressing injustice?
We continue to grapple with such questions as we work to cement Jewish social action as a current community endeavour and eternal tenet of Jewish identification.
This blog is adapted from the full article JSAF – setting the agenda published in Presentense Issue 13: Social Action
JSAF are housed at JHub and further the Jewish contribution to wider society by bringing together JHub residents, other Jewish social justice NGOs and broad based Jewish communal institutions to encourage more consciously Jewish social action throughout the community.