Our event a few weeks back starts off sounding a bit like a joke: A sheikh, a rabbi, and a Christian professor walk into a Hillel…to discuss the nature of justice with a multi-faith audience. The punchline leaves a little to be desired, but the scene itself was incredible.
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and some self-described “other” students took time they could have otherwise been using to watch TV or head to a party instead came to examine the nature of right and wrong from the faith traditions of Abraham.
The teachers asked questions of each other. The students pushed for clearer distinctions. Quotations and translations led the conversation from the practical to the metaphysical and back again. And in the end, participants from all faiths signed up for the next event.
As the director of social justice and Israel programs at Hillel at the University of Washington, my job allows me the opportunity to collaborate on events like this and a hundred others, and it seems they grow deeper and more compelling every week and month. The reason? Because young Jews want to be inspired by their faith and tradition, they want their culture to call to them across thousands of years and move them to action. They want Judaism to make them feel righteous again.
As a bit of background, I should explain that I am in the Jconnect Seattle age range myself (21-32), and left a career at Microsoft four years ago to begin this work professionally. I was always steeped in these values — my grandfather worked on labor rights as a printing press owner, my parents took my sister and I to volunteer as children — but synagogue on High Holy Days was a place to struggle against sleep, not against inequity. Nothing ever felt particularly Jewish about social justice, or vice versa.
When I deserted the software life, my plan was to start a non-profit of my own, to reach out to young Jews in Seattle and encourage them to serve as a community, Jewishly. When Hillel offered me the opportunity to do this work with them, I jumped at the chance.
Since those beginnings, the program has grown every year, inspiring more lives, creating more experiences, staging ever more ambitious projects to pursue justice in the world with a distinctly Jewish flavor. Because of our success, we now have a formal partnership with Repair the World, a new national Jewish organization dedicated to service.
Our anti-slavery Freedom Shabbat event was celebrated in 20 cities in four countries in its pilot year. Our partnerships with American Jewish World Service and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee take our students and young adults around the world each year on service learning experiences as Jewish ambassadors. And when they return? Participation in the Peace Corps, programs with the Jewish service corps AVODAH, Teach for America, AJWS volunteer summers, and leadership positions throughout the Jewish world.
I’m not using social justice as a way to draw young people into the Jewish community out of fear they are disconnecting in droves (which they are). I’m striving to remind our community of one of the reasons Jewish civilization has been so inspiring — the opportunities we have to be a force for good throughout the world.
When the ideas of kindness and justice are at the forefront of modern Judaism rather than a side note, my generation and those after me will have no hesitation to be openly and steadfastly Jewish.
Before all of this started, before I left my life in the business world years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Rabbi Yitzak Greenberg at a conference on young Jewish leadership. I had been frustrated at the level of self-congratulation I saw for simply making an effort to encourage young leadership, and he seemed as good a person as any with whom to address it.
“What’s the goal in the end?” I asked. “Even if we make all these people the luminaries of Jewish life in the future, if they just rehash the same sentiments that haven’t motivated young Jews in the past, don’t we just go the way of the Mayans eventually? A proud, respected civilization that gave its contribution and then faded when its time had passed?”
“Well,” he responded with a wry, rabbinical smile, “you’re the one who’s here. So why don’t you tell me?”
And I told him I believed the lessons of Jewish culture and thought and religion offered essential wisdom with which to heal the planet. I replied that joining the determination of the Jewish people with movements for change in the world could be transformative, and in our time. I was there because there is a great beauty and majesty and humility in our faith, and that if we began to act the words of our prayers each morning rather than merely speak them, our call could bring the peace and righteousness the world so desperately needs.
I still believe all these things. The Jewish world is awake to them, too. Groups like Hazon and Rabbis for Human Rights, Not For Sale Campaign and Interfaith Youth Core are some of our partners to create this change in the world. Next year we will have three interns on staff focused on service and social justice to keep up with the participant demand for programs, and I believe demand will continue to increase.
I know if the Jewish world had been offering me opportunities like this when I was a student, I would have asked where to sign up to take on a leadership role. I’ve seen the same with many of our students, and it’s one of the many reasons I stay inspired by and committed to doing this work in the Jewish community. And if you are reading this and have sons or daughters in Seattle between 18-32 years old, send them our way—we’ll likely have something for them to be a part of that very night. Chances are they’ll like it, because the work we do here is pretty amazing.