siach connects the conversation
In recent years, North American Jewish social justice and environmental organizations have experienced a period of tremendous growth and increased visibility. The meteoric rise of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), from a nearly defunct organization merely a decade ago to a $43 million enterprise in 2009, is the most obvious example. Alongside AJWS are at least 150 other nonprofit organizations, which are attracting increased numbers of young Jews and engaging them by combining hands-on activism with Jewish learning and experiences.
Not only are individual organizations thriving, but there is a growing recognition of the existence of a distinct field of Jewish environment and social justice work, demanding attention and cultivation. In 2009, we witnessed a wide variety of exciting, new, field-building ventures: the launch of On-1foot, a user-friendly website of Jewish texts and source booklets on contemporary social justice issues; the creation of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a coalition of leading Jewish social justice organizations; and the founding of Repair the World, a new organization aimed at making service a defining part of American Jewish life.
And interest in social justice and the environment within a uniquely Jewish context has surged outside of North America as well. The Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) in the UK, an umbrella organization uniting a variety of Jewish social justice organizations as well as larger Jewish organizations with dedicated personnel in the social justice field, is a prominent example (p. 20-21). Similarly, a growing number of Israeli organizations, such as Bema’aglei Tzedek, the Heschel Center, Tevel B’Tzedek, BINA, Teva Ivri, and Mizrach Shemesh, are also providing new avenues for Israelis to explore their Jewish identity through practical social action.
If North America, Europe, and Israel have each spawned rapidly-growing, Jewishly inspired social change organizations, why has knowledge-sharing and collaboration between these organizations been sporadic at best?
It was in December 2008 that I first began to understand the answer to this question.
While speaking to a group of Jewish social justice professionals in midtown Manhattan, I looked around the room and thought: These people bear a striking resemblance to my own staff halfway across the globe at Bema’aglei Tzedek. They are of similar age, inspired by the same canon of Jewish texts, share similar experiences in advocating on behalf of disenfranchised populations, and are equally passionate about leading systemic social change.
But, my initial feelings of camaraderie and connection were quickly replaced by a sober realization: Bema’aglei Tzedek’s nativeborn Israeli staff will probably never interact with these North American colleagues, since few opportunities exist for meaningful communication and collaboration between Israeli social justice and environmental organizations and their counterparts abroad.
While in the US, I learned that some of the leading Jewish social justice organizations have a policy—in some cases board-driven and fairly public, in other cases de facto and unspoken—not to collaborate with Israeli organizations. Due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel is considered to be too divisive, complicated, and politically-sensitive to be broached, let alone partnered with, even on issues that ostensibly have little to do with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Back home in Jerusalem, things were not much better. Although some Israeli organizations had tried to partner with counterparts abroad, others had little interest in doing so. Feeling minimal connection to Jews outside of the State of Israel and/or alienated from Jewish discourse, they could see little value in collaborating with Jewish communities in North America and Europe.
It was then that I began imagining what an international network of Jewish social justice and environment professionals would look like. This network would tackle the “big picture” questions possible only in an international context: How can we galvanize the Jewish People to play a distinct role in responding to climate change and fostering sustainability before the next Shmitta year (end of the seven-year sabbatical cycle)? How can the global Jewish community double the number of Jewish young adults on service learning programs? What would it take for the international Jewish community to rally around the cause of transforming Israel into the first carbon-free country in the world?
Exactly two years later, Bema’aglei Tzedek, along with Hazon in North America and JSAF in the UK, is now in the throes of launching Siach: An Environment and Social Justice Conversation, thanks to the generous support of the UJA Federation of New York. Siach, a global network of experienced Jewish social justice and environment professionals and lay people, will be anchored in a series of conferences rotating around the globe. One hundred twenty participants—approximately 40% from Israel, 40% from North America, and 20% from Europe—will attend the first conference in May 2011 at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut.
The first annual Siach conference, and the ensuing network, will enable Jewish social justice and environment activists to establish relationships and partnerships cross-border, foster a more nuanced understanding of environment and social justice work in Israel and the Jewish community around the world, and create an international movement of Jews working together on environmental and social justice issues.
By coming together, Jewish social justice and environment professionals can model a diverse, respectful, and passionate community that embodies tikkun olam in the truest sense of the term. In the words of Judith Belasco, director of food programs at Hazon, “Over recent years, there has been an incredible growth of Jewish environmental and social justice organizations. While fundamental goals such as tzedakah, chesed and tikkun olam are the same, knowledge-sharing and collaboration between these organizations has been sporadic. Siach provides a powerful platform for Jews deeply engaged in these fields to find common ground and ways to raise the whole of the work that is occurring.”