Jewish Social Justice Priorities: Us or Everyone?

The disconnect is striking.

“The Jewish vote,” we were told last year, is all about support for Israel.

But here I am at the Consultation on Conscience, Reform Judaism’s biennial social justice confab, put on by the Religious Action Center, a joint effort of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Israel is on the agenda, to be sure.   But it’s a crowded agenda.  And our friends in Washington seem to “get” that better than the pre-election press.

The Consultation’s keynote was a conversation between the URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.  They talked about Israel.  But they also struggled with Sudan and Syria.  They emphasized international LGBT human rights.

Senators and members of Congress of both parties are poised to talk with us Tuesday about immigration reform and economic fairness, the environment and international human rights.  And about Israel.

Rabbi Danny Gordis claims that too few of us prioritize our own people.  He argues that our universalism, unique in Jewish history, harms our own people.

But the argument between universalism and particularism goes back to the Bible itself.  Ruth suggests that redemption can come from anywhere, even Moab. Ezra takes the opposite view.

The best of our prophetic books, Isaiah, cries out for justice, seamlessly, for Israelite and foreigner alike.

So what energizes the crowd at the Consultation?

Judging by the applause, marriage equality is a critical concern, along with its near relative, LGBT employment non-discrimination.  For me, that’s personal:  my mom is a lesbian.  As a congregational rabbi, LGBT equality is a concern in our own Texas community, where our members can and do lose jobs because they are LGBT. But admittedly, these issues are universal.  My read of the prophets tells me to join Rabbi Jacobs and Ambassador Rice, concerned about persecution for LGBT folks worldwide, in countries with no Jews.

Immigration reform is high on our agenda, particularly for the rabbis at the Consultation who are leading a new effort, Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  Some of our Jewish communities include immigrants whose status would be affected, but most are outside the Jewish community.  So perhaps we should be surprised that the polling data before us shows that American Jews overwhelmingly agree that a path to citizenship must be included in comprehensive immigration reform.  For me, and I’m not alone, this view is motivated by Torah:  We are commanded to remember the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt.  And our views on immigration are also motivated by the American Jewish experience:  We Jews, better than some other Americans, recall our people’s immigrant experience and identify immigrants’ journeys with those of our own forbears.

But make no mistake:  Israel’s peace and security remain very much on the minds of Consultation attendees and our speakers.  We lauded Ambassador Rice on the partnership she and the administration have shared with Israel at the UN, facing adversity together, and she told us about Israeli strides at the UN that were news to many of us.

All of the above are concerns at the Consultation.  All are Jewish social justice priorities.  All are universally important, and all are particularly Jewish.

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