The Shalom Center: Spiritual Roots, Prophetic Action
The Shalom Center equips activists and spiritual leaders with awareness and skills needed to lead in shaping a transformed and transformative Judaism that can help create a world of peace, justice, healing for the earth, and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.
We weave the human experience of our own day with Jewish spiritual tools, such as sacred texts, midrash, liturgy, and ritual.
We connect the experience and wisdom of the generations forged in the social, political, and spiritual upheavals of the last half-century with the emerging generation of activists, addressing with special concern the planetary climate crisis and the power configurations behind that crisis.
Within this broad mission, The Shalom Center’s leadership has chosen to emphasize three approaches:
1. The Shalom Center seeks to reunify political action and spiritual search. We consistently reframe social action as the expression of spiritual commitment, drawing on the celebration of festivals, life-cycle ceremonies, and daily practice in ways that move and change the wider society.
For example: we have celebrated Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish festival of trees’ rebirthing in midwinter, as an action to defend ancient redwoods against corporate devastation. We have offered an acclaimed approach to B’nei Mitzvah as a time for intergenerational covenant, ceremony, and curriculum to prevent global climate disaster. We have made the confluence of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy seasons in 2005, 2006, and 2007 into a shared celebration of peacemaking. In 2009, we celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the first Interfaith Freedom Seder, originally held on the first anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, by creating and holding an Interfaith Seder for the Earth. We have developed the approach of “eco-kosher” practice for consuming not only food but other gifts of the Earth — coal, oil, etc. — in order to affirm a sacred relationship with the Earth. Building on the meanings our holidays and practices have accumulated since ancient times, we create new openings and opportunities for making tradition relevant, drawing on it to heal the world.
2. The Shalom Center focuses on issues and alternatives that other organizations are not addressing—a pioneering, prophetic approach. Sometimes this has meant becoming the “tugboat” that can nudge larger organizational vessels in new directions; sometimes it has meant becoming a “seed-bed,” nurturing ideas that sprout and flower in other fields.
As “tugboat,” The Shalom Center spent five years working with grassroots rabbis and activists of Reform Judaism toward moving the Union for Reform Judaism to decide to call for an end to the US military presence in Iraq—which it ultimately did. As “seedbed,” The Shalom Center won strong support for Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel through the Olive Trees for Peace campaign in 2001. This led to the formation of RHR/ North America. The Shalom Center raised the question of torture as one with specifically religious and Jewish implications, with the result that RHR/ NA has taken on this issue and run with it. Over the last twenty-five years, a veritable orchard of constructive initiatives has sprouted from seeds planted by The Shalom Center.
3. When The Shalom Center addresses a specific issue — like climate crisis, or the Iraq war, or the systematic combination of disemployment and overwork, or spiritual emptiness — our approach is deep and systemic, looking beneath the specific issue to the power dynamics that have shaped it.
Jewish tradition underlines this question through the archetypal story of Pharaoh: enslavement, xenophobia and damage to the earth (the plagues) are rooted in Pharaoh’s addiction to his own top-down, unaccountable power. For example, in our pre-Passover message in February, 2008, we invited members of the Jewish community to deepen their understanding of the holiday by considering “Who or what is Pharaoh in our world today, bringing eco-disastrous plagues upon our heads? Can we face the Pharaohs who are turning the great round earth itself into a narrow place—Mitzrayim (the Hebrew word for Egypt, which actually means ‘Tight and Narrow Spaces’)?”
Underlying Institutional Values
Success means activating and mobilizing the broadest possible range of individuals and organizations to work for healing of the earth and our societies.
We reject expanding the organization for expansion’s sake, creating additional infrastructure that is expensive and time-consuming to support; all additional expenditures and initiatives should be justified by results.
Partnership is our main modality: by joining hands with other organizations, we can multiply everyone’s effectiveness and do more with less.
Criteria for Setting Priorities
We prioritize projects according to three criteria:
(1) Catalytic opportunities. If we don’t do a particular piece of work that needs doing, will anyone else? Can The Shalom Center be a catalyst in this area?
(2) Strategic partnerships. Is there a strategic opportunity to inspire and attract others to focus on the issue? Are there potential partners who can be activated if we take early steps?
(3) Resources. Are the resources available to support a level of work that will be inspiring and catalytic?
Currently, three major program priorities drive The Shalom Center:
(1) Addressing the Global Climate Crisis, especially drawing on Jewish and other religious teachings about shaping a sustainable society; coping with the problems created by unacccountable concentrations of corporate and government power in making change difficult; and working on these issues with special concern for those most vulnerable and most hurt as the climate crisis unfolds. The Shalom Center has sought to connect household and congregational hands-on “greening” with advocacy toward reshaping public policy.
(2) Addressing unjust and destructive concentrations of political and economic power in the hyper-wealthy and in giant global corporations — power that corrupts democracy, including elections, and delivers enormous “benefits” to those who wield the power while depriving the poor, the aged, the sick, the middle class, and large numbers of women of ways to meet their individual and social needs.
(3) Peacemaking, especially among the Abrahamic communities both within the USA and in the broader Middle East, where violence is especially intense and where it engages intense emotions in the overlapping circles of the Jewish community, the other Abrahamic communities, and the American public generally. For almost ten years, The Shalom Center has especially worked both within the Jewish community and the Abrahamic multireligious sphere, first to prevent the US-Iraq War and then to end it as quickly and peacefully as possible. The Shalom Center has also worked on possibilities of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peacemaking, and as part of its Abrahamic and interfaith connection-making has also addressed interreligious tensions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims within the United States.