History and Program Overview
For centuries, the Jewish prophetic tradition has challenged our people to hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for creating a just society and alleviating suffering. As Jews integrated into the social and political fabric of the United States, this prophetic call has often influenced our participation in American public life. Indeed, our history in this country has generated myriad expressions of how Jewish identity and citizenship can be fused: Some, such as prayers for the government, carry explicitly religious valence. Others, such as secular Jewish organizations that advocate, lobby and organize, reflect a commitment to reifying Judaism’s ethical underpinnings.
It is also the case that our struggles here against Anti-Semitism and our relative financial success have meant that our participation in social change efforts has been nuanced, complex and inconsistent. Moreover, as our acceptance in America has grown, many Jews’ relationship to whiteness and the access that it brings in American society has further complicated our communal as well as individual positions.
As our country finds itself in a new political reality, many members of our community have been asking what is BJ’s role in the current political landscape—generally, as a faith institution and specifically, as a Jewish congregation with a longstanding legacy of political action. We feel compelled to engage the full weight of our religious, cultural, and historical tradition to help us navigate the path forward.
Following last year’s historically divisive election season, which exposed deep failings in progressive politics, surfaced vile and hateful speech, revealed deep fissures in our nation, and re-introduced Anti-Semitism into the political mainstream, the depth of what we are facing as a democracy cannot be underestimated. Urgent questions tug at our hearts: what can I do to make a difference? How can it be that so many Americans over looked hate when they cast their vote? How can millions of Americans not vote at all in times like these?
And more broadly speaking: What is the role of faith in public life and social movements, historically and today? How can religious values help America live up to its core ideals of justice, equality and freedom? At this political moment, how might religion in general—and Judaism specifically—help reknit the social fabric of our country?
Faith & Public Life
To respond to these and other pressing questions, we are launching a year-long initiative at BJ, entitled Faith & Public Life. The initiative reflects two truths that we are holding simultaneously: The first, that Judaism calls us to alleviate the injustice and suffering we see in the world, and that the need to act on our values is greater than ever. The second, that we will only heal the widening rifts that run across our country by opening our hearts and minds to dialogue across lines of difference–not simply to talk but to listen and to forge a broader and deeper politics.
To wrestle with both these truths, Faith & Public Life will engage the BJ community through multiple pathways, and in partnership with several collaborators. Through study, conversation, and action, we will explore the relationship between religion and democracy, and consider what Jewish wisdom, experience and practice has to offer our efforts to repair the torn social fabric of today’s America. In addition, we will consider the role of religion in Israeli politics and the influence of Jewish law and tradition on Israeli civil society.
Faith & Public Life builds on BJ’s history of political action and direct service, creating new ways for people of all ages to be involved. Just as importantly, this initiative continues our efforts to engage in difficult conversations around controversial and nuanced topics, as we did through the Israel Dialogue Initiative (IDI) and the Jewish Identity, Belonging, and Community (JIBC) initiative. We recognize that BJ members do not always share the same views on political and social issues, and believe that there is value in creating spaces for discourse and mutual learning. Faith & Public Life is the next iteration of our commitment to the spiritual task of dialoguing across difference.