Margie Klein has spent much of her life fighting for what she thinks is right. Currently a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass., Klein spent four years as a grassroots political organizer and entered rabbinical school with a mandate of building a social action curriculum, essentially from scratch.
Klein also created and co-edited Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights), a book released in December that seeks to bring Judaism into the realm of social action and environmental activism. She spent the first weekend of April in Seattle, speaking at several venues around the city, including Hillel at the University of Washington and Congregation Beth Shalom, addressing the possibility of tying together Judaism’s seemingly exclusive strands of spirituality and social action.
In the 2004 election, many progressives were blindsided by the so-called moral message of the religious right, an issue that became abundantly clear as Klein traveled the country working for the Project Democracy campus voting organization. What she found was that progressive, religious people — in her case, Jews — did not have the language to counteract that message.
“I myself am an observant Jew, and almost everywhere I went, there was a strong presence of the religious right, who [were] telling my students and the communities I visited that if you believed in God or were a religious person, then you had to vote based on who would prevent abortion and gay marriage,” Klein said in an interview with JTNews. “I saw that people in the progressive movement, of which I was a part, [people who were] advocating social justice and environmental protection — were losing in part because we didn’t have a compelling way to talk about why we were doing what we were doing.”
Righteous Indignation is, in a sense, a printed response to those and other issues many progressive Jews grapple with, from the environment to immigration to poverty, to defining who’s welcome into the Jewish community. Forty-five Jewish scholars and leaders contributed to the book that Klein edited with Rabbi Or N. Rose and Jo Ellen Green Kaiser. The response from the contributors was, Klein said, very enthusiastic.
“‘We’ve been looking for this kind of book [because] we haven’t been able to find it, but we’re too busy to write it,’” she said the contributors told her.
Though she is working to build the progressive religious movement, Klein said she prefers not to think of social action issues in terms of left versus right, liberal versus conservative.
“We’re organizing around an issue-based agenda without talking about specific parties or policies or candidates,” Klein said.
That means telling all political candidates they must be talking about renewable energy, for example.
“We’re studying texts where, 1,500 years ago, they’re talking about how it is a sin to have an inefficient oil lamp. It’s amazing to find these texts that are talking so much about the same things,” Klein said. “Our tradition teaches us about conservation and not about waste, and we want a clean energy future…. This is not a partisan message.”
It also means working across the spectrum of Jewish belief, from the atheistic to the Orthodox.
“Within the Orthodox community, you’re making claims about health care and poverty and the environment and education — these are issues we can all work on together and we’re excited to work on those issues,” Klein said. Issues like same-sex marriage or women’s rights, she said, are “more complicated.”
One issue, however, does not work cross-spectrum: Israel.
“There are a fairly wide set of positions around Israel and the Middle East situation that are outside of the bounds of what it’s acceptable to talk about within the American Jewish community,” Klein said. “I think that’s divisive and in some ways destroys the potential for some people to be pro-Israel, because they don’t feel they can be pro-Israel and critical of the Israeli government.”
Contrast that to Israel itself, where, she added, “everybody’s arguing over everything, and there’s this rich sense of democratic debate, and [that] discussing what’s right is part of the moral fabric of society.”
If the issue of Israel is polarizing, Klein sees the confluence of Judaism practiced as religion and Judaism practiced as tikkun olam as quite the opposite. Without forcing any views upon anyone, her mission is to allow God, when appropriate, to become a part of the conversation, and to empower many Jews who may have found spirituality missing from their social action work.
“The position that we’re coming from is a position of communal strength. Saying [that] these are things that our community cares about, and the texts are a way of inspiring our community to work on these things,” she said. “But when we’re coming to the public square, we’re not saying you need to believe this because the Talmud says this.”
As someone who worked in the trenches of activism, Klein said she knows firsthand what it’s like to burn out on a cause. That’s where the spirituality comes in.
“I know from personal experience we can forget what we’re doing and why we’re working on things, and it can be incredibly powerful and inspiring to connect our work with a broader community and religious framework, and with the spiritual resources of our tradition,” Klein said. “When we don’t do our social justice work as Jews, [we’re] sort of losing a debate we don’t even realize we were a part of. People are putting forth that religion equals these issues [i.e., abortion or same-sex marriage], and so it’s sort of incumbent upon us to say ‘and these other issues, too.’”
That is why the Righteous Indignation Project, an offshoot of the book, is sponsoring a conference at Hebrew College in early May. The conference, which will include speakers from 15 Jewish social action organizations from across the country, is intended to focus on educating both Jewish and interfaith groups about issues in the upcoming election, but it’s also about getting deeper into the issues so these activists can effect real change.
“The Jewish community has disproportionately focused on service efforts — going to the soup kitchen, doing beach cleanup, visiting the sick — but not thought about curing the diseases that those Band Aid solutions address,” Klein said. That means “thinking about ensuring how people make enough money to put food on the table, or have a healthcare system that can provide for them before they wind up in the hospital.”