Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a Washington-based educator and social activist, attended a Jewish social justice conference with participants from Israel, Europe and the United States a few years ago, and came away upset by what he observed.
The young Jews from three continents seemed to be talking past each other, he says. The existential threats facing Israel — primarily from a nuclear Iran now — dominated the Israelis’ thinking; the Europeans were concerned with the growing prominence of anti-Semitism, particularly from the Islamic community; the Americans live safe from either danger.
Neither group, Rabbi Schwarz said, understood the others’ lives enough.
To bring young American, European and Israeli Jews together, the rabbi proposed an international human rights program, which announced its first fellowships earlier this month.
The Rene Cassin Fellowship Program (renecassin.org), based in New York, London and Jerusalem, will offer yearlong study-and-travel fellowships to 36 Jewish young professionals, ages 25-35. Participants (it is not a full-time program) will attend monthly seminars in their hub cities, conduct discussions with their overseas peers via Skype, work with local governmental or non-governmental organizations on specially designed “Impact Projects,” and travel together in June to Israel, and to Geneva next fall.
European and American participants are required to pay $500 (Israelis pay $250), but all their other expenses are covered by the fellowship.
The program’s goal is to bring a divided Jewish community closer together, and to bring a “Jewish perspective” to human rights activities, Rabbi Schwarz says.
Young Jews in the U.S., Israel and Europe usually share a commitment to social justice work, to “creating a better world,” he says. “This is what makes Jews tick.”
But many Jews have stayed away from the human rights community, which in recent years has taken on an anti-Israel tinge.
“It’s a mistake” for concerned Jews to “boycott” human rights organizations, says Rabbi Schwarz, who is serving as the fellowship program’s project director and its core educator here. “We fought [too hard] to get a place at the table.”
“It is sad and a bit ironic that some in the Jewish community have acquired an aversion to the array of organizations that deal with human rights,” Rabbi Schwarz wrote in the program’s mission statement. “This stems from the fact that for several decades many human rights groups have put a spotlight on Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinian population living in the territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.
“The RCFP starts with a different premise,” Rabbi Schwarz wrote. “We believe that many international, national and NGO forums in which human rights is the focus can either support or detract from the legitimacy of nations. Israel and the Jewish people have an important stake in the issues addressed by these bodies.”
The $150,000-a-year fellowship program, funded by a lead gift from UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People, aims to give its participants the skills to bring a Jewish voice to such human rights groups, either as employees or as volunteers, the rabbi says.
Participating organizations include the New Israel Fund, the Uri L’Tzedek Orthodox social justice organization, UJA-Federation’s Emerging Leaders Program, Teach For America and American Jewish Committee’s Global Access program.
The program, which will begin in May, is named for the late French Jewish judge who won the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The program will offer a wide variety of traditional and contemporary Jewish texts on human rights, from a non-denominational point of view. “This is not a religious program,” Rabbi Schwarz says. “This is not a rabbinical school program.”
The program is open, according to its publicity flyer, to individuals who “show a passion for social issues and [are] interested and open to explore those issues through the lens of Jewish values.” Fellows will probably represent a range of Jewish and political backgrounds, Rabbi Schwarz says.
Participants may find themselves taking opposing positions on various political and social justice issues, he says — some may disagree with his views or those of the program’s educators in London and Jerusalem. Which is OK. “We’re not an advocacy organization. The notion that there is a ‘wrong side’ and a ‘right side’” on a particular issue “is a position that we would resist.”