Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community

Reference: The Nathan Cummings Foundation /

By Shifra Bronznick and Didi Goldenhar

In 2006, The Nathan Cummings Foundation Jewish Life and Values Program commissioned Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community — an inquiry into the strategies that would engage Jews, Jewish communities, and Jewish institutions more widely, deeply, and effectively in Jewish social justice.

Through Visioning Justice, we sought to identify trends within the Jewish social justice sector and to understand the interconnected relationships between the organized Jewish community and the secular social change world. Concurrently, we took stock of trends in the external environment, including political and cultural trends that might affect the Jewish social justice field.

Visioning Justice and the American Jewish Community culminates with a set of recommendations designed to leverage the progress that has been achieved and to root this growth in strategic initiatives. Our hope is that, by applying wisdom from a wide range of public sector projects, many more Jews – volunteers, philanthropists, activists, advocates, lay leaders and professionals – will engage in Jewish social justice, to deepen Jewish life and to contribute to social and economic justice, in the United States and around the world.

* * *

Visioning Justice was designed as an action research project, in which we strived to create a continuous cycle of conversation, learning, feedback, and experimentation. Over the course of this inquiry, we conducted more than two hundred interviews and group conversations. We analyzed the literature related to social change, participated in conferences, and convened group meetings.

While this report does not presume to serve as a comprehensive environmental scan of the Jewish social justice field, our hope — and hypothesis — is that the organizations and individuals consulted for this report offer a reasonable “fractal” of the field, in terms of critical findings, opportunities, and challenges.

We began by listening attentively to those who work on the front lines of Jewish social justice. Visioning Justice investigated both national and grassroots Jewish social justice organizations; CBCO (congregation-based community organizing) synagogues and independent spiritual communities; local and national agencies in the organized Jewish community; foundations and individual philanthropists; academic scholars and practitioners in the fields of nonsectarian social change and advocacy; veteran and newcomer Jewish social justice leaders and activists; a wide range of Jewish media outlets; and leadership experts.

Visioning Justice’s action research approach was intended to contribute to the field’s ongoing evolution. First, through iterative discussions with Jewish social justice leaders, activists, lay leaders, and practitioners, the process cultivated an environment for strategic thinking. Second, individual and group meetings often functioned as “on the ground” coaching for leaders on the forefront of Jewish social justice. Third, Visioning Justice encouraged several new experiments for building alliances and partnerships. Now, as Visioning Justice moves toward completion, several exciting opportunities suggest that the field of Jewish social justice has matured and is ready for the next level of growth.

What We Have Learned

Progress in the Jewish Social Justice Field

Field Growth: The growth of Jewish social justice organizations – locally, regionally and nationally – has infused the field with greater vitality and diversity. Although most Jewish social justice organizations are still relatively small, some groups are expanding rapidly – through internal growth, mergers and alliances. The emergence of new spiritual communities dedicated to social justice represents another growth spurt, as do the growing numbers of traditional rabbis and congregations making social justice a central commitment.

Dramatic Expansion of Key Organizations: The growth trajectory of the key Jewish social justice organizations has been extraordinary. American Jewish World Service, virtually defunct ten years ago, now occupies a prominent position as a $30 million organization, galvanizing more than 90,000 donors and activists around its agenda of global citizenship. Five years ago, Jewish Funds for Justice [now Bend the Arc] struggled to maintain its viability. Today, this $4.7 million organization can be credited with two successful mergers and influential programs in leadership, social media, congregation-based community organizing, and service learning. Progressive Jewish Alliance [now Bend the Arc], founded as a small Los Angeles operation, has now expanded to San Francisco, increasing its program budget from $185,000 to $1 million. AVODAH, the premier Jewish service corps, started in New York on a $200,000 budget; since then, AVODAH has added programs in Chicago, Washington and New Orleans, with a projected budget of $2 million in 2008.

Increase in Numbers and Diversity: Jewish social justice and service efforts are attracting diverse groups of Jews and increasing the numbers of engaged activists – from the organized Jewish community and from the secular social change sector. The “troops” for Jewish social justice are emerging from many venues, both locally and in broader regional and national collaborations.

Visibility and Impact: Jewish social justice organizations are becoming more visible, domestically and internationally, as they demonstrate their capacity to effect tangible change – from advocacy for hotel workers’ rights in California, to healthcare legislation in Massachusetts, from mobilization around the genocide in Darfur to the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Influence: The progressive Jewish voice has achieved greater “bandwidth” in the public policy arena and cultural landscape – through Jewish and mainstream print media, online publications, and social media. Organizational leaders and activists are finding new ways to communicate their values in the public square, whether reframing kosher certification to include decent working conditions or conveying the message that, in an election year, health care and education are Jewish issues.

Service as a New Communal Norm: Volunteer service projects are proliferating, with participation rising more than 20% annually for the past five years and waiting lists for many programs. Mainstream organizations, such as United Jewish Communities [now Jewish Federations of North America], UJA-Federation of New York and Birthright Israel, are all expressing interest in expanding service opportunities for young Jews. As service “goes to scale,” Jewish social justice practitioners are engaging in a new conversation with major funders. The goal is to find the balance point between authenticity and program expansion, to ensure that service programs remain rooted in core values.

Congregation-based Community Organizing (CBCO): Through the growth of congregation-based community organizing, Jews are joining with people of other faiths and cultures to address such systemic issues as health care reform and affordable housing. Just Congregations – a CBCO initiative launched by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Reform Movement – has brought many more Reform rabbis and volunteer leaders into the Jewish social justice field.

New Connections with the Organized Jewish Community: Through most of the 20th century, the American Jewish community advocated for social justice issues alongside other minority groups and disadvantaged populations. Later in the century, tensions around Israel, anti-Semitism, and affirmative action frayed these alliances; these concerns, alongside the anxiety around rising rates of intermarriage, shifted the communal focus to Jewish identity and continuity. As the major organizations retreated from social justice advocacy, new Jewish social justice groups emerged to address these universal issues, as Jews. In recent years, as more young people flock to the newer groups and more “mainstream” Jews recognize the centrality of social justice to their Jewish identity, new opportunities have surfaced for Jewish social justice groups and traditional organizations to connect around common interests and shared values.

Resources and Philanthropy: As the Jewish social justice field matures and succeeds in attracting the next generation, forward-thinking Jewish foundations and philanthropists are responding with greater interest and increased contributions, some in the millions of dollars. Traditional Jewish funders – including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and The Marcus Foundation – are committing major financial resources to service programs, which they envision as a path to stronger Jewish identity.

Challenges for the Jewish Social Justice Field

Gaps in Leadership and the Workforce: Given the field’s rapid growth, there is an urgent need for systematic leadership training, workforce recruitment, and professional development. Leadership succession needs immediate attention, to create a well-stocked talent pool of CEOs, second-level leaders, mid-level managers, synagogue organizers, and service learning educators.

Small Scale, Many Issues:  While their collective influence is growing, the Jewish social justice voice still occupies a minority position in the public square. Moreover, each organization is committed to its own agenda of social justice issues. The small scale, combined with the diffusion of the social justice agenda, reduces the potential impact that can be exerted on any single issue.

 Network Deficits: Jewish social justice leaders and groups are connecting to each other, to volunteers and professionals in the organized Jewish community, to activists in the secular social change arena, to leaders of new Jewish spiritual communities, and to the next generation of young Jews. However, the demands of organizational life and the varying priorities of these individuals and groups make it difficult to create and sustain useful, mutually beneficial networks.

Knowledge Gaps: Throughout the Jewish social justice field, research and evaluation have been given low priority. For most organizations, programmatic reach already exceeds institutional grasp, such that “knowledge management” falls to the sidelines. For example, as service goes to scale, it has been necessary to “retrofit” a research agenda, with four new studies now underway aimed at meeting the needs of practitioners and funders. It would be preferable if processes for data collection and analysis were embedded in programs from the outset.

Limited Resources: Most Jewish social justice organizations face the challenge of building a more secure, diversified funding base. While new funders have entered the field, grants tend to favor particular kinds of programs; for example, community service initiatives are faring better than advocacy campaigns. Multi-year funding for general operations and capacity-building, recognized as key philanthropic investments in the secular arena, has not yet become a priority for most Jewish social justice funders


The Visioning Justice recommendations are intended to build the field of Jewish social justice. Key elements of field building include cultivating leadership and the workforce; creating organizational norms; developing mechanisms for research and knowledge-sharing; identifying philanthropic resources; creating infrastructure, and fostering collaboration.

Root the Work in Strong Organizations

1. Accelerate Workforce Recruitment and Training

A coordinated process for identifying, recruiting, and training professional talent would expand the capacity of the Jewish social justice field. For recruitment, a social marketing approach would help the Jewish social justice field become more “visible.” Professional development, also a pressing need, offers a logical context for collaboration among the Jewish social justice organizations.

2. Strengthen Leaders and Leadership

A systematic approach to leadership development in the Jewish social justice field would include training, residencies, mentoring, and coaching. In addition, potential leaders might be identified and cultivated from secular and Jewish social justice organizations, CBCO initiatives, service alumni networks, and the seminaries. The Selah program, a leadership training program for Jewish social justice activists now in its second phase, may serve as a model program from which lessons can be extracted and adapted throughout the field.

3. Use Research to Build Field Expertise

For newer initiatives, integrating a research component from the start will enrich the field overall. Scholarly research in congregation-based community organizing (CBCO), for example, will yield intellectual and practical knowledge about readiness factors and success in this kind of social justice endeavor. By comparing CBCO with other faith-based social action efforts, the Jewish social justice field can analyze and help customize the best fit for differing synagogues and spiritual communities.

4. Grasp Opportunity as Service Goes to Scale

The momentum around service is bringing “all hands on deck,” from the mainstream to the innovators, from the most politically active to the most spiritually inclined, nationwide and across generations. The expansion of Jewish service offers many opportunities for weaving Judaism and social justice, while expanding networks and strengthening leadership. Funders and key practitioners can play an important role by both protecting the integrity of existing service programs and nurturing the environments in which new service initiatives can grow.

Create Influential Networks

5. Build the Jewish Social Justice Table

In this next phase, the field needs to become network-centric, branching out to connect diverse individuals and interests through shared values. We envision building a Jewish social justice “table” to expand the field’s potential for influence, impact, and the next level of breakthrough thinking. This table would function as a practical structure for moving individuals and groups out of their insular worlds and into a powerful network for social good. By facilitating collaboration and identifying opportunities for joint decision-making, the table would help organizations leverage local, regional, and national networks.

Based on this inquiry and lessons learned from secular change efforts in the areas of peace and security, education reform, the women’s movement, and the environmental movement, Visioning Justice has launched a pilot project, The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, to explore the viability of such a network. The first convening, held in January 2008, demonstrated the potential of such networks for motivating Jewish organizations and individuals to collaborate with one another.

6. Connect to the Organized Jewish Community around Shared Values

The Jewish social justice community and the organized Jewish community have an unprecedented opportunity, to move from shared interests to a more profound appreciation of shared values. Despite their differences, these two worlds are highly interdependent, with promising collaborations already in process. To develop a coordinated strategy for working effectively with the organized Jewish community, key Jewish social justice organizations might form a “G8” group. Working collectively will enable organizations to leverage current relationships and avoid duplicative efforts. Through this group, volunteer leaders and donors might be approached as potential “ambassadors,” to draw mainstream organizations closer to social justice work.

7. Bring Social Justice Advocacy to the Jewish Social Service Sector

Given their important caregiving role, Jewish social service agencies seem well-positioned to revive Jewish advocacy around social and economic justice. As a first step, several Jewish social justice organizations and social service agencies might consider joining the Building Movement Project’s national interfaith initiative which teaches the social service sector how to engage staff, board and clients in advocacy. Jewish social justice groups also might consider a strategy for bringing representation to the many interfaith coalitions now meeting on health care, the environment, education, housing and the economy.

8. Amplify the Alternative Jewish Voice in the Public Square

To establish the alternative Jewish voice in the public square, there must be a continuous “hum” of individual and organizational voices around values and issues. Many opportunities exist to amplify this voice, through Jewish media, mainstream media, and social media. Fluency in the use of social media should be rewarded, with support of new efforts to use technology for “just-in-time” participation and mobilization and greater interactivity. Online social networks should be complemented by offline activities that link individuals and organizations in a shared progressive Jewish narrative. The Jewish social justice field will benefit overall by continuously offering cultural, religious and educational experiences that teach every leader, activist, and volunteer to tell the story of Jewish social justice in creative and compelling ways.

The Strategic Moment For Jewish Social Justice

We believe this is a moment of tremendous opportunity for the Jewish social justice field – to leverage the growth, build organizational infrastructure, ensure long-term financial stability and develop the next generation of leadership. By securing the progress achieved thus far and responding to the challenges, we open the possibility of elevating social justice in American Jewish life.

From the Visioning Justice inquiry, we have come to understand that, to fully capitalize on this strategic opportunity, it will be important to embrace the diversity of purposes, motivations, and Jewish identities that bring Jews to the work of social justice. Rather than view this multiplicity as a threat to Jewish continuity, we see multiplicity as the core strength of Jewish life and the guiding concept for building a vital field of Jewish social justice.

For post-modern Jews, Jewish social justice is the bridge between universalism and particularism. If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? Jewish social justice offers a profound way to resolve this binary relationship between commitment to the Jewish people and commitment to the people of the world. Through Jewish social justice, these commitments are woven together with new strength and meaning.

Jews of every generation and affiliation – from Jews active in secular social change to Jews devoted to their federations and synagogues – live in multiple worlds. The Visioning Justice inquiry has revealed the extraordinary opportunities to engage people in all their complexity, as Jews and as global citizens.

The field of Jewish social justice has much to contribute to the blueprint for global change. Grounded in theology, culture, and history, Jewish social justice has been translated and transmitted through every generation. The mission is rooted in our collective purpose and values. If we act now, with full force and vision, to move this work forward, then the beginning of the 21st century will become an era of transformation, for American Jewish life, and for the world at large.

 * * *

Read more – download the full report: