Cheshvan, the Hebrew month between Tishrei and now Kislev, is famous for not having any Jewish holidays in it, and yet the New York Jewish community used it to celebrate. Moreover, the nature and scope of this celebration holds encouraging news for our community and its ability to engage its members.
The celebration was “Jewish Social Action Month,” an annual initiative getting thousands of volunteers to engage in hands-on tikkun olam, repairing the world. The good news from this year’s JSAM in New York is that the definition of social action is continuing to broaden. It now includes new areas and causes that were not traditionally perceived as “social action.”
This trend has potentially positive implications for our community, as we struggle to keep members involved. Expanding the scope of social action to include new areas like the environment or health and wellness means that more people can pursue their various personal passions as part of the communal agenda. Not limiting ourselves to narrow, and sometimes outdated, definitions of social action can help send the right signal about the level of openness and inclusiveness of our community in general, suggesting that everyone can find a place inside it.
Determining the scope of the current definition of social action among New York Jews sounds like a complicated task — but in recent years, JSAM has evolved into an annual barometer indicating the social causes that spur the community.
As part of a global initiative, now in its fifth year, UJA-Federation of New York and others supported social action projects led by local synagogues, day schools, grassroots organizations, and service agencies. This year, UJA-Federation’s Commission on the Jewish People received 80 JSAM project proposals from all corners of our community.
Each of these proposals met our three conditions for a JSAM project: hands-on volunteering, Jewish learning, and an effort to collaborate with another community. This record number of proposals provided us with a fascinating glimpse into the communal social action compass, the direction in which it is pointing and the range of areas it covers.
So, what are the issues that fell under our community’s definition of social action? The top area of concern is poverty, hunger, and economic distress. Two years into the economic recession, the majority of proposals received were for projects that provide assistance to those in economic need. Helping the poor definitely is not a new cause; however, the focus on this area surely reflects both the public’s general mood and the Jewish community’s response, as demonstrated by UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care, an initiative that provides access to employment services, supportive counseling, financial consulting, pro bono legal services and Jewish spiritual care.
A passion to help those in need has always been a virtue of our community, and is within the traditional scope of social action. However, this is not the case with the second-ranking area of concern addressed by JSAM project proposals: the environment. One out of every eight proposals included such terms as “harvesting,” “gardening,” “farming,” and “water sustainability,” replacing the more traditional “soup kitchens” and “food drives” that often dominate community service projects.
This is a great example of how the New York Jewish community can – and according to JSAM, does — adapt its offerings of social action programs to meet new trends and areas of interest. The growing interest in environment is not at all unique to the Jewish community, and has been gaining popularity everywhere in America. However, it presents a wonderful opportunity to engage those who connect to their “green” community more than they do to their Jewish one. Ethical guidelines for environmental justice are found in our Jewish texts, and practical models of sustainability are becoming easier to find. For example, Eden Village Camp, the first summer camp with Jewish environmentalism as its founding principle, was launched this past summer with major support from UJA-Federation of New York.
In many cases, the traditional definitions of social action prove to be interconnected with the new ones. Some communities used the JSAM grant to build gardens with the help of neighboring low-income communities; others provided food to the hungry with vegetables they grew themselves.
Ranking third in the issues covered by proposed projects was the elderly, and fourth was health and wellness. These four categories covered half of the proposals received. The other half target specific causes that members of our community wanted do something about, demonstrating once again the wide range of perceptions of social action. Among those was a program for children and young adults in Brooklyn whose parents are incarcerated, and a project aimed at reducing bullying in a Long Island elementary school.
Is this annual barometer scientific? Definitely not. But we can use this unique snapshot to learn something about the state of the community in the fall of 2010. Hopefully, keeping our minds open, in allowing for a richer and broader definition of social action, proves that we are also keeping our doors open to all members of our increasingly diverse community.
Uri Leventer-Roberts is planning associate for the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People.