From the White House to our house: Why social justice matters

Last Friday, July 29, one hundred seventy Jews from sixteen states gathered at the White House.  The reason: to make clear that   growing an economy that works for all Americans is at the top of the Jewish communal agenda.

The gathering included twelve of us from Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice (PJA & JFSJ).  Drawn from the twenty-one organizations belonging to the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, our group of grassroots leaders engaged top administration officials on many of the issues that greatly concern our Jewish communities. After a morning of policy briefings about housing, healthcare, food justice and education, we discussed our concerns with senior presidential advisors such as Valerie Jarrett and Jon Carson.

Our group embodied the diversity of the American Jewish community.  From a white New York venture capitalist to an African-American from the South Side of Chicago to businesspeople, retirees, educators, doctors, students, lawyers, longtime community advocates and a plethora of rabbis from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations, our group crossed lines of race, age, religiosity, and class. Despite our differences, our voices resonated in deep agreement. As Jews, we inherit a rich rabbinic tradition that compels us to pursue justice and a historic legacy of participation in the human rights struggles of the modern era. And so on Friday, we represented the priorities of millions of American Jews who recognize that our material and spiritual well-being intertwines with the fate of our neighbors in cities and states around the nation.

Administration officials listened carefully with us to the words of Carole Levine, a volunteer leader from the National Council of Jewish Women, as she told of the difficulty she has encountered in securing a job after being laid off from a 30- year-career as an executive in the non-profit sector and how she tries to help her former colleagues who are less fortunate than she.

We all heard from Aaron Weininger of Keshet, who spoke about two friends who had lost job opportunities within the Jewish community because of blatant discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.

We all learned the story of Adam Savitt, a Guatemalan immigrant and a member of a Highland Park, Ill., synagogue, from his friends at Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Violently arrested off his front porch, Savitt was then deported in spite of the fact that he had followed the proper procedures in applying for the permanent legal status that would help him stay in the U.S. and continue raising children and running a successful business with his wife, an American citizen.

On a day when the Tea Partiers’ twisted maneuver to hold the economy hostage to their extreme demands was driving the government toward slashing the lifelines of the most vulnerable and undermining the public investments necessary for economic success in the 21st century, PJA & JFSJ and our allies spoke for broadly shared prosperity and stood up for the most vulnerable as a vital national interest. When asked what we cared about, all 170 of us raised our hands to show our support for securing the social safety net and ensuring that the budget isn’t balanced on the backs of the least fortunate.

Our words reflected our long-standing efforts to invest in quality jobs, decent housing and good public policies in communities across the United States. Amidst a storm of unhelpful political posturing and divisive rhetoric, we are a movement of action. On the issue of domestic employment, for instance, PJA & JFSJ in Los Angeles is currently organizing Jews who hire nannies and housekeepers to improve their own employment practices and to advocate for a statewide Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. And nationally, PJA & JFSJ is helping to lead the “Caring Across Generations” coalition, which seeks to reform the care-giving industry so older Americans can rely on good, affordable care from high-quality caregivers with fair salaries and safe working conditions.

For the Obama administration to acknowledge the significance of our Jewish communities and what we have accomplished by inviting us to the White House was gratifying. Even more encouraging was their willingness to listen to our concerns and critiques, as 170 community leaders spoke truth to power, tactfully and strategically. Every official reminded us about the importance of local advocacy in the struggle to shift policy: there is surprising impact when two dozen people call a Congressperson or eight people show up at City Council or four people reach out to a regional administrator of a Federal Agency. And we realized for ourselves, too, the value of concerted citizen action. When we pressed administration officials about the immigration raids that still rend families, and when we pushed them to preserve the social safety net, and when we praised them for the strides recently made on LGBT equality, we understood that change cannot only come from the top. Deep, enduring change depends on people from across our diverse society joining together to build powerful coalitions that can hold our elected officials accountable for the common good.

That is why Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) merged this June with a plan to expand our local base-building and organizing from coast to coast. We seek nothing less than the reconstruction of a strong middle-class, secure in their civil rights and undergirded by good paying jobs, and basic social safety nets. Now is the time to stand up and redouble our efforts to create the kind of society we want to live in, one in which all people enjoy a decent place to live, a job that lets them provide for their family, and access to healthy food, good medical care, and a fair legal system.

In the halls of power, via the media, and on the ground, we and our multi-ethnic, multi-faith partners are insisting that America live up to its promise. Through local campaigns for fair government policies and business practices, national advocacy efforts, innovative media initiatives, leadership development programs, and direct investments in low-income community development, we are already making a difference. We build on a long history of efforts to involve Jews, as Jews, in forging solutions to our country’s most pressing challenges. None of us benefits from a country hobbled by economic inequality, division and callousness.  Jewish values and our community’s own interests impel us to reclaim a proud role as leading advocates for economic opportunity and basic rights.

Last week in Washington, DC, the White House and leaders representing twenty-one Jewish organizations took note of how far we have come. Now we are preparing to take the next step. Join us.

David Levitus is a historian and a member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice- Southern California Regional Council. Scott Einbinder, a film producer, chairs the Regional Council and serves on the National Board. Rabbi Dara Frimmer, of Temple Isaiah, is a Regional Council member. At the White House, she represented the American Jewish World Service in addition to PJA & JFSJ.