Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice is now Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice. Why bend the arc? Because American history and Jewish teaching both teach that the arc of history requires our active participation to bend toward justice.
Coined in the 1850s by the abolitionist Theodore Parker as he spoke out against the injustices of American slavery, “bend the arc” harkens back to our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt, a movement that has inspired many Americans to act in pursuit of justice.
In a recent survey on Jewish values, released April 3 by the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., the most noteworthy thing about the results was how completely unsurprising they were.
As the researchers summed up, the findings “confirmed how central social justice and a sense of commitment to social equality are to American Jewish values and politics.” This mirrored findings of last year’s demographic survey of East Bay Jews, in which 70 percent said tikkun olam, repairing the world, was the most important thing to them about being Jewish.
And yet, there is a gap. There is a gap between the America we want and the one we have. There is a gap between the values of American Jews and the extent to which we channel those values into action in a way that is powerfully and publicly Jewish.
We have the values and potential to create powerful partnerships, to inspire young Jews and secular Jews about Judaism through justice, to co-create the powerful constituency and coalitions we need to ensure immigration reform and dignity in the workplace, to safeguard our democracy, repair the safety net, reform our criminal justice system, end hunger here at home, and create an education system that eliminates the achievement gap. The beautiful 50-year-old image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma needs new images and emblems, our contribution to this time.
As we announced our new name early this month, we found ourselves observing Passover in the days before it began. On April 1, some of our Jeremiah Fellows traveled to a prison in Chino. These young adult activists joined incarcerated women in celebrating the world’s oldest liberation story at an early seder. On April 4, we hosted a food and justice seder at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington with our partners in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Earlier that same day, some of our leaders went to the White House to talk about some of the most pressing issues we face as a nation — issues that require immediate action.
For example, one in four California children is growing up in poverty, and research shows that these children are often intensely and chronically stressed. That stress is detected in children as young as 24 months and is actually toxic to their developing brains, impairing cognitive function and their ability to succeed in school. Children of color are twice as likely to be poor as white children.
These are not just issues of policy, but of morality.
Economic inequality — which, according to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, has returned to 1928 levels, with the richest
1 percent receiving 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income — affects low-income Americans and those without a college education most intensely. But the effects also are felt by college students overwhelmed with debt. They face major challenges finding jobs and housing they can afford. Many of the young college graduates I work with despair of ever being able to own a home in the Bay Area.
I am the granddaughter of immigrant garment workers. My path to a superb education and unparalleled opportunities depended on the trade union movement and the dignity and living wages it provided, as well as on quality public education, progressive tax policy and affordable housing — all of which in turn depended on the dedication and sacrifice of those who could imagine a better way.
In every American social justice movement of the 20th century, Jews across the spectrum, from nonobservant to Orthodox, have participated in actions to increase economic opportunity and equity. Today’s realities call us to renew our commitment, as Jews, to work in real partnerships with communities most affected by inequality. By joining together, we revitalize Jewish life, we hold America to its promise, and we bring that tradition firmly into the 21st century.
Susan Lubeck is the director of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Bay Area.