When I was in Hebrew school in the 1970s, progressive Judaism was mostly about our teacher wearing overalls and using rock music in our ceremonies. We considered the struggle of other Jews around the world, and on Hanukkah, we would light additional candles for those locked away behind the Iron Curtain. By the ’80s, the seder plate might have held an orange. Women were more present on the bima — and in the congregation of our Reform community, women sometimes wore prayer shawls and yarmulkes.
Today, progressive Judaism has a different face than the one I grew up with — and it’s attracting a wave of support mainly from a younger generation of Jews. They strongly identify with religion, but they crave political action around social justice and inclusion as part of the main course, not as an extracurricular Jewish activity.
In April, at the Community Immigration Passover Seder hosted by the Kadima Reconstructionist Community, in the basement of the St. James Cathedral on Seattle’s First Hill, I’m in line behind a woman in a progressive Muslim organization. At my table, the young woman next to me is a convert to Judaism, drawn in by the social justice values she experienced during a stint with the Avodah Justice Fellowship in Washington, DC. The couple across from me is from Atlanta: She’s black, he’s white, from a Conservative Jewish family. It’s their third year at a seder together. There’s a group that advocates for the Duwamish Tribe, a group from the Somali Community Center, and a Jewish LGBTQ group. Today’s update to the seder plate at the rabbi’s table includes a lock and a melting block of ice, meant to symbolize the weakening of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (known to many simply as ICE).
“Jews have long been involved in civil rights causes,” says Rabbi Zari Weiss of the West Seattle Reform congregation Kol HaNeshamah. “But we’re seeing a lot of first-timers participating, whether at the airport travel ban protests or the counter-rally against Act for America or the community seder at the Northwest Detention Center.”
That seder was just one of a series of events that brings progressive politics to the forefront of religious gatherings. Kadima holds discussion groups on how to be good allies with immigrant and refugee neighbors. They offer “queer Talmud” classes. They spread the word on interfaith and social justice events in our area. But Kadima isn’t the only group embracing the political.
“Organizing Judaism has been eclipsing congregational Judaism for a while now,” says Rabbi David Basior of Kadima. “These new organizations aren’t always synagogues, they’re not hierarchical, and they sit at the nexus of politics and religion. Right now, there’s a call for accountability — and social justice —from members of our communities, particularly from millennials.” “Organizing” Judaism takes place outside the traditional structure of synagogues and Hebrew schools; it plays out in kitchen table gatherings, at planned meetups, and on social media.
JUIR — Jews Undoing Institutional Racism — is one of these organizing groups. JUIR started with a small group of Jews who met at an anti-racism workshop, and its Facebook group now has over 200 members. They’re focused on understanding what racism is, how it works, why it’s so tenacious, and how it can be undone in the broader community — and in themselves. This also means grappling with questions around being “white Jews,” acknowledging the complex experience of Jews of color, and participating in actions that help undo institutional racism in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
“We have three areas of focus,” says Talya Gillman, a lead organizer. “We want to integrate anti-racist ideas into our daily lives, our workplaces, our synagogues. We participate in local organizations like Real Rent” — which encourages Seattle residents to pay rent to the Duwamish Tribe for use of their land. “But we also focus on personal transformation.” She recognizes that the personal work can be difficult for a population used to being derided as less valuable than the dominant culture. “We try to be open to being wrong, which can be hard for a people who have heard they’re wrong over and over in the past.”
Kadima is 40 years old, but Basior sees a revitalization of political engagement, “maybe in response to the election, but maybe some of it is coming from millennials who are returning to the values of Jewishness -— without leaving their politics at the door.” This isn’t without conflict. Basior has faced backlash for his non-mainstream views of Israel, and even in these progressive circles, tensions rise as soon as Israel enters the conversation.
Basior uses a surfing analogy. Kadima is trying to “ride this wave of change,” he says. “Sometimes we fail, sure. And we try to learn from that. But we want to be as visionary as possible. It’s like we’re on the banks of the Jordan, but we’re not going to cross until we can all cross together.”
Gillman draws drier comparisons, referring to the wandering of the Israelites in the desert. “We’re trying to figure out who we are in this story,” she says. “For many of us, we’re not the oppressed anymore. But who are we? Where are we going from here?”