Social Justice Jews: Standing Up for anyone but themselves


I believe in social justice. One of the most-quoted verses of the Torah: Zedek Zedek Tirdof – Justice, justice, you shall pursue – is one of the key life values in Judaism. 

I was raised on the values of Tzedek, Tzekaah and Tikkon Olam and social justice, and all those wonderful things, in my Jewish upbringing, including my involvement in United Synagogue Youth. In its leadership structure, there is even a position – Social Action Tikkun Olam – set aside to fundraise for various social causes, Jewish and non-Jewish

Social action meant collecting food and school supplies.

It also meant making phone calls and marching for our Soviet Jewry bretheren to be free to emigrate to the U.S. or Israel.

It also meant learning about and speaking out for Ethiopian Jewry.

It also meant studying the formation of the modern State of Israel and marching for her proudly in the Israeli Day Parade.

Being a Jew who believes in social justice for others does not mean that I believe in ideological or existential suicide.

I also believe in Jewish self-preservation. In the belief that Jews have a right to live freely and more than survive but thrive in their own ancient homeland and from there be a light unto the nations.

That is Zionism.

I do not believe in appeasing one’s enemies in the name of justice. That is simply suicidal.

The Jewish Voice for Peace Convention is underway right now in Chicago. Its key speakers are two Palestinian women who led the Women’s March on Washington, Rasmea Odeh is a convicted Palestinian Terrorist who murdered two college students in 1969 and the other, Linda Sarsour, recently was interviewed stating that Zionism and feminism are incompatible.    In my latest

 In my latest piece in the Detroit Jewish News covering where Jewish Millenials are in their own Jewish journey, three out of the four young, bright women I spoke to have actively been involved in Jewish Voice for Peace.

One is a rabbi. One is a lesbian. Which I completely do not get, because homosexuality is not a human right that is preserved too much under the magnanimous terrorist organization Hamas which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2005. 

Overall, in my opinion, which I can express here in my blog but not in my reporting, I think the work they do, fueled by Jewish values, is fantastic. 

It is fantastic that they fight for housing rights for the poor in New Orleans. Or the rights for the LGBTQ community in New York. These are all strongly tied to Jewish values. 

But Ahavat Yisrael – a love of Israel, and standing up for Israel and therefore the Jewish people and therefore themselves, is a value that you seemingly can no longer carry out in the name of all other leftist values. 

It troubled me that when it comes to Israel, these young people become involved not with AIPAC or Stand With Us, but Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that does not question the meaning of the term “occupation” because if they did they would have to admit that it is the occupation of 1948, not 1967, that the oppressed that they so willingly and lovingly support are talking about. 

It troubles me that if they truly cared about Palestinian genocide, they would be calling out governments such as Lebanon and Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been murdered. 

I could not write about this in my article. And I was so congratulated today by a reader that was “so glad” that the left is being covered in a Jewish newspaper. 

I am hoping that other readers read between the lines and see that this is a generation that has lost its moral compass and has little to no understanding of Jewish history. 

Avodah’s work toward social change attracts many Detroiters

Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer

Perhaps it is because they grew up just outside a city that has seen its share of poverty and segregation or maybe it’s their strong desire to find meaningful ways to express their Jewish values through pursuing social justice causes.

No matter the case, many Detroit millennials have taken the directive “Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20) to heart by spending a year participating in New York-based Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps. They said Avodah shaped not only their career paths in standing up against poverty and discrimination, but also forged a new and inclusive Jewish identity for them.

For nearly 20 years, Avodah has worked on social change and anti-poverty issues in New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Chicago. More than 1,000 have participated in its Jewish Service Corps program. In the last four years alone, at least 15 of the organization’s alumni hail from Detroit, says Steve Bocknek, the organization’s senior director of external affairs, who is also a native Detroiter. Executive Director Cheryl Cook also is from Detroit.

Rabbi Alana Alpert of Reconstructionist Congregation T’chiyah participated in Avodah in 2006. The program inspired her to become a rabbi. In rabbinical school, she continued to organize communities for change on a range of causes, including prison reform, Palestinian rights issues in Hebron and in the LGBTQ community.

“I can’t imagine my career happening without Avodah,” said Alpert, also co-founder of Detroit Jews for Justice, a group that strives to make social change central to the life of Congregation T’chiyah and then spread these efforts into the entire Jewish community of Metro Detroit.

“I was empowered to do serious work at my placement right out of college,” she said. “I gained skills for leadership and self-care that sustain my work, and I joined a Jewish community that continues to nourish and support me.”

Just as she does with other Jewish holidays, Alpert engaged millennial Jews this Purim with a spiel that sits at the intersection of tradition and current events. Last year’s theme centered around the poisoning of the water in Flint. This year’s Haman was portrayed by Secretary of Education Besty DeVos threatening the schoolchildren of Detroit.

According to Alpert, this project is led by Jews in their 20s and 30s. They do not see synagogue membership as a mechanism to their Jewish identity, she says, but are making Judaism relevant to them. They want to immerse themselves in social justice causes, and this is the language and framework to which they respond.

Alpert said within Detroit’s younger generations of Jews there is a great desire to heal the rift that occurred between urban and suburban populations during the ’60s and ’70s. She says Jews for Justice wants to help heal Detroit. However, she cautions that alleviating the short-term symptoms of poverty — like collecting food and school supplies — may feel good to the volunteer, but real change will only come by influencing policy change at the city, county and state levels. She is looking to inspire a Jewish generation that is into social change and justice for the long haul.

While Avodah attracted transplants like Alpert, a California native, to make a go in Detroit, it also led others elsewhere.

Native Detroiter Elizabeth “Lizzy” Lovinger, 28, participated in Avodah in 2010 and now lives in Brooklyn. A longtime activist in the LGBTQ community, her work through Avodah with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis led to her current position in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She said moving to a new city when you are young and single can be very lonely, and she is thankful for her year with Avodah and the professional and social support it provided.

“I lived with other Avodah participants that year,” Lovinger said. “After a hard day at work, I came home to supportive Jewish housemates. We cooked dinner together and talked about the challenges of our work and shared advice.”

Now, she enjoys the inclusiveness of the Park Slope Jewish Center, in addition to hosting Shabbat dinners where topics of conversation range from building communities for Jews of color to fighting racism.

She also is an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a Jewish American organization that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and works toward a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Avodah’s Bocknek says there is no relationship between Avodah and JVP.

Elizabeth Lovinger

Lovinger said her involvement with JVP, which developed independently from her involvement with Avodah, along with her activism in Brooklyn-based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and at her synagogue, are central parts to her Jewish life in Brooklyn.

“I’ve long been opposed to the occupation, and I wanted to find a Jewish community that contained a wide variety of opinions and experiences about Israel and Palestine,” she said.

“This was actually something I was looking for when I started in Avodah, and something that is just as important to me as my community’s commitment to racial justice, economic justice, LGBTQ justice and ending other forms of oppression. By defining Judaism on my terms, I have truly found my Jewish community.”

Work In New Orleans

AvodahNewOrleans.jpgSeveral Avodah participants who grew up in Detroit headed south and worked for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) to fight against housing discrimination issues.

At an early age, Lisa Tencer, 28, became aware of Detroit’s “extreme segregation issues” and decided anti-poverty work, through a Jewish lens, would become her life’s calling. Upon her 2015 graduation from the University of Michigan, she enrolled in Avodah’s program in the Crescent City.

Tencer continues to work at GNOFHAC and is now a testing coordinator monitoring trends in housing discrimination. She maintains her Jewish connections in her new city by living in the local Moishe House and being an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace.

“My childhood neighborhood in Huntington Woods was just a few miles away from neighborhoods vastly different than mine,” Tencer says. “When I moved to New Orleans with Avodah, I saw many of those same painful similarities. It helped me redefine my Jewish identity. Just because I do not attend a synagogue does not mean I do not have a deep connection to Judaism. I choose to identify through social action.”

Miriam Liebman

Another Detroiter who spent her Avodah year fighting for fair housing at GNOFHAC is fifth-year Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical student Miriam Liebman, 30, of Farmington Hills.

During her Avodah year in 2009-2010, she helped GNOFHAC in its lawsuit that overturned a discriminatory “blood relative” ordinance in St. Bernard Parish that violated the Fair Housing Act. The ordinance prohibited property owners from renting to non-blood relatives. At the time, 93 percent of the population in the parish was white.

“What I saw and did in New Orleans through Avodah strengthened my resolve to someday return to my native Detroit,” said Liebman, who grew up going to Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills and had a day school education through the 10th grade.

“I know the reality of the job market for young rabbis, but someday I hope to be back to work and live in Detroit. To me, this is what it means to be grounded, to come home to a place where my family roots are.”

Liebman said her Avodah experience reinforced her knowledge of justice being a core pillar of Judaism.

“Justice affects how we see and look at other individuals and makes us realize they, too, are created in the image of God,” she says. “The question is: How can we mobilize communally in how we see and change the world around us?”

2015-2016 New Orleans Corps member graduation, with Corps members and alumni. Lisa Tencer of Huntington Woods is seated, third from left

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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a public relations professional and reporter -- and always thought I would live in the New York Metro area - before my husband took a job in Rochester, New York. Most in Metro New York can't find Rochester on a map,and neither could I before we moved. I am now a columnist and a freelance writer for Rochester's only daily newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle. I also am passionate about gardening, fitness and most of all, Jewish education and Israel Advocacy. Here's my perspective on Western New York living - the good, the bad, and the snowy.

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