An amazing thing happened at Temple Sinai last week: Jews of every stripe — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — sat together and listened to Rabbi Avi Weiss describe his principles of “spiritual activism” (also the title of his book published by Jewish Lights Publishing).
It was both unusual and wonderful to see a broad mix of Jews meet together to hear a forceful presentation about leadership, how Jews should engage with their own community and their relationship to the larger world. It was a meaningful event simply because so many different Jews were there to participate. But also, much of what Weiss said is worth considering seriously.
Weiss defined activism as any act performed on behalf of someone else; any act that improves the welfare of another human being. “Spiritual,” he continued, “defines what inspires that activism.”
The world is an imperfect, incomplete place in need of repair. It is incumbent upon Jews, Weiss said to recognize and accept their share of the responsibility to help redeem the world (this is our covenantal relationship with God), and the way to do that, he argued, is to become spiritual activists.
He then defined a spiritual activist in three ways:
First, Jewish spiritual activists have a “unique love of the Jewish people.” While numerous non-Jewish causes are worth fighting for, he said, such as helping tsunami victims, the “pathway to love of all men is love of medinat yisrael (the Jewish people).”
Second, a true spiritual activist is one who gets involved in a cause not because it is popular but because it is right.
Third, according to Weiss, at the moment, “the Jewish soul is more challenged than the body.” He declared that assimilation is a bigger challenge to the vitality of American Jews than anti-Semitism.
Weiss’ presentation brought to mind two very different ongoing human rights campaigns. One well known, the other not. One heavily supported by Jews, the other less so. One Gentile, one Jewish. The first is the humanitarian crisis in Darfur; the other is the advocacy effort on behalf of Jewish refugees from Arab lands.
Jews were out front early trying to stop the killing and displacement of millions of innocents in western Sudan. And Jewish groups, including many younger Jews, were very visible at the national march last year in Washington. More recently, however, Darfur hasn’t been leading the news, as they say. Indeed, David Rosenberg, head of the Pittsburgh Darfur Emergency Coalition, would like to encourage the Jewish community “to re-engage” on the issue.
The campaign to raise awareness of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is a very different story. It is not and has not been a leading concern for most Jews. Instead, small but committed groups like Justice for Jews from Arab Lands and The David Project have been working hard to push for greater awareness, as well as pushing for changes to U.S. and international policy regarding rights and redress for Jewish Middle Eastern refugees.
There is a movie, “The Forgotten Refugees,” which chronicles the story of those who were forced from their homes, lost their property and were exiled from their home countries. The movie has yet to be screened in Pittsburgh but when I asked a representative from The David Project about getting a copy here to Iron City, I got a very enthusiastic response. Will Jewish Pittsburgh respond?
Meanwhile, these two efforts, on behalf of the refugees from western Sudan and refugee Jews, would seem to exemplify Rabbi Weiss’ call to arms. Let’s fight for the rights of others no more and no less than we would the rights of fellow Jews. And then, if Rabbi Weiss is correct, the pathway to love of all mankind (and greater engagement on Darfur) will be achieved through love of medinat yisrael (and fighting for Jewish rights and justice).
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.)