The work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, is engaging the generation of Jews in their 20s and 30s in unprecedented numbers. Among those helping to organize and inspire these young people is Margie Klein, a third year student at Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Boston. Klein is the founder and director of Moishe House Boston: Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, a welcoming Jewish community of people in their 20s and 30s. A graduate of Yale University, Margie also founded and directed Project Democracy, a youth voting project that mobilized 97,000 students to vote in the 2004 election. She is also the co-editor (with Rabbi Or N. Rose and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser) of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights), a groundbreaking anthology featuring over 35 articles on a wide range of social and environmental justice topics. The book has inspired The Righteous Indignation Project, which seeks to mobilize progressive Jews to voice social justice and environmental issues as religious and moral priorities in the 2008 election season and beyond. Jewish Woman spoke to Margie about her work.
Q: What is the difference between social justice and direct service such as helping at a soup kitchen?
A: Social justice is an end. Social justice means there is equality across society in terms of opportunities. Social justice activism and organizing are efforts toward systemic social change to create more racial, economic and gender equality and often has to do with economic or political freedoms. Social justice work and organizing are related talmudically to the concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world through systemic social change, and thinks into the future about consequences of our present-day actions.
Direct service corresponds with the concept of gemilut chasidim, acts of loving-kindness, which responds to the immediate needs of individuals in the here and now. Both are very important but often gemilut chasidim doesn’t solve a problem, but alleviates symptoms of a problem. That’s very important but it’s not enough to serve someone soup, you need to finish the job by helping that person learn to provide for himself so he or she won’t need your generosity to get by.
Q: Is today’s Jewish social justice work akin to what went on in the Sixties in terms of working for civil rights or the rights of women?
A: In general, there is energy now for creating a better world like there was in the Sixties, but there are a couple of interesting differences. One is that, in general, most of the work done by Jews in the Sixties was outside a religious context. There are a couple of obvious exceptions, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, but generally people’s religious motivations were under the radar for what they did. When you ask people who registered voters during Freedom Summer in the South, at the time they didn’t know they were doing it for a Jewish reason. In retrospect, after they had raised children and thought about Judaism, they recognized that what they had done was related to their Jewishness, but while they were doing it they weren’t talking so much about Jewish texts or Jewish values. My generation is much more comfortable in saying that they work they are doing is coming from a Jewish place or even from a religious place.
Another difference between the ethos of Jewish activism in the Sixties and now is that it that then, as a minority, Jews felt empathy toward the black minority because we had experienced something similar and had a close memory of the Holocaust. We were particularly attuned to issues of discrimination and race. Now there’s a move away from understanding that our obligation is related to our own status as a minority because younger Jews haven’t grown up feeling particularly persecuted.
Q: What are some of the religious roots of social justice?
A: The religious narrative we’re talking about is Abraham Heschel’s concept that what God needs from us is that we care not only for God but for other Godly creatures and that we recognize divinity in other people by honoring their human dignity and treating them with kavod—with respect. Another idea that figures prominently is that, as thinker Michael Walzer says, we need to frame our own narrative in the meta-narrative of the Exodus story, that wherever we are is mitzraim (Egypt), a narrow place. There’s always a promised land and the way to get there is by marching in the desert together. There is the sense that our work harkens back to our identity as a people formerly oppressed who now work in solidarity with other people who face similar challenges.
Q: What was your first experience in trying to work for social justice?
A:When I went to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City my school was asked to be the Jewish representative at a parade to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s freedom and to take a stand against Apartheid. I held up a big sign that said, “Jews Opposed to Apartheid.” CBS news wanted to include us in their story, so the principle of my school asked me to be spokesperson. At age 10, when asked, “Why do you care about Apartheid?” I said, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt, so now we have to free anyone else who seemed enslaved.” I had at the core of my identity that that was what I was supposed to do as a Jew.
Q: How did your involvement progress?
A: As I mentioned I went to the Heschel School, a very progressive Jewish day school in Manhattan and I thought that Judaism was about working for social justice. When I graduated from 8th grade, I was upset to find out that this didn’t seem to be true for the broader Jewish community. I did volunteer in high school for a soup kitchen that combined Judaism and social justice and we studied teachings on hunger and homelessness in the Jewish tradition, but generally it wasn’t something that was part of my Jewish life as much. Then when I got to college I was very involved in the Jewish community and very involved as activist leader but didn’t connect these two parts of my life. The key activists on campus had big Shabbat dinners and it was through them that I started to make the connection, but not really. After college I did a program called Green Core, for environmental organizing and was sent to places that didn’t have big Jewish communities. I had to create a community for myself. I started having Shabbat dinners and invited non-Jewish activists. I found that activists were really craving some way to process their work emotionally and spiritually and loved the context of Shabbat as a way to do it, even though they weren’t Jewish. When I moved to Washington, D.C., I started having Shabbat dinner for my activist Jewish friends.
Q: You had been an organizer for Project Democracy, working to register young people to vote in the 2004 election. What made you leave that world to go to rabbinical school?
A: I was getting more and more frustrated as I traveled the country for Project Democracy and started learning how different communities were talking about religion within the context of 2004 election. I found a lot of people were equating religion with Right Wing fundamentalists. If you wanted to vote in a religious manner that meant anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage were core priorities. That’s not what I believed nor what I thought were religious issues. I got increasingly frustrated that my perspective was not represented in the public square. I thought that religion was being bastardized and that the progressive views that I held were not being presented in a particularly moral way. I kept complaining to my friends that we needed to have a deeper language to talk about these issues and why wasn’t anyone stepping up to do it. Finally my friends said that if I was so upset about it why didn’t I step up and do it myself? I took the challenge and applied to rabbinical school after the 2004 election.
Q: Women have brought so many new aspects to the rabbinate. What do you hope to bring to the rabbinate?
A: I hope to bring my passion for social justice and my love of Jewish tradition and Jewish community. One trait that I bring that is less in the traditional male rabbinic model is the rabbi as organizer where it’s not my role to be front and center all the time. I see a lot of my role as being behind the scenes and training and empowering regular people to step up and lead. That’s a role that women have been great at through the ages. The challenge is balancing the “moon” leadership in reflecting the greatness of others and the “sun” leadership of taking the stage and having the courage and power to speak out and say what’s right or what’s wrong.
Q: How did Righteous Indignation come about?
A: When I got to rabbinical school I made it my project to learn as much as I could about Judaism and social justice. I realized that there wasn’t a book that had the answers accessible for people to use to discuss and organize around in their communities. It didn’t have to be the most erudite, scholarly work but it had to make the text accessible to regular people. I embarked on a two-year project working with my professor creating the book, Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice. Rabbi Or N. Rose and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser and I made a list of everyone we felt were the Jewish experts on different social justice issues in terms of how these issues related to the real world. We asked them to write a few thousand words each on a particular issue and we turned it into an anthology. It is a good starting point for people to grapple with what Judaism has to say about the important political issues of our day and gives spiritual and intellectual resources and guidance to bring these issues to the fore as moral and religious priorities.
Q: You founded Moishe House in Boston. How is that a training ground for social justice work?
A: It’s a base in the community for Jews in their 20s and 30s to come together for community building opportunities and social justice work. We have 3 goals: to transform the Jewish community to be more involved and invested in social justice work; to help Jewish activists make a difference on critical social justice issues here in Boston, drawing on the Jewish tradition as source of strength, guidance and inspiration and also as a tool to talk about why these issues are so important; and to train the next generation of Jewish social justice leaders to do this work. We’ve got 600 people involved in our efforts at all different levels coming together to learn the skills and gain the support they need to be powerful activists and Jewish community members and to express their Judaism through a commitment to organizing.
Q: A lot of young people have gone to volunteer in New Orleans and that has become a way for young Jews to reengage if not in social justice, then in direct service. What are some other ways you see young people getting involved?
A: I think that the New Orleans thing is more college, not people my age. It’s more alternative spring break. I’ve seen Jewish young people disproportionately represented in every social justice organization. Some of the areas they are working in are workers’ rights, the environment, health care, immigration and Darfur.
Q: In what way is this involvement in social justice helping to keep young people involved in Judaism?
A: Through Righteous Indignation I’m working through eight organizations nationwide that work with people in their 20s and 30s about social justice. Generally Jewish young people do not work through synagogues because synagogues tend to be framed around families. People who are not yet married don’t really fit in. This is a larger issue in Judaism: there seems to be a gap between Hillel and marriage of 10-15 years. A lot of young people who want some sort of Jewish life gravitate toward Jewish social justice organizations or various minyanim that are to varying degrees progressive.
Q: Our readers fall in all age brackets. What would you suggest to someone who wants to pursue social justice and doesn’t know where to begin?
A: I would suggest that they look on the Righteous Indignation website because we have listed most Jewish social justice organizations that exist in major cities. If they are not in a place with an established organization then one good place to start is the local Jewish community relations council or to call one of the organizations listed on our website.="">