Hillel the Elder’s famous dictum — “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I?” — is widely understood to mean that, as Jews, both individually and collectively, we need to balance what is done in our own self-interest with our efforts to serve the interests of others.
The Jewish community has an array of organizations representing us in the arena of public affairs that reflect this duality of particularism and universalism. However, I’ve been concerned for many years that our communal public affairs efforts on the “myself” side of the ledger — Israel advocacy, combating BDS, fighting anti-Semitism — has overwhelmed and overshadowed our efforts on the “others” side.
That said, it would be a mistake to judge American-Jewish involvement with issues affecting the wider society only through the efforts of our own organizations. I am convinced that a significant number of individual Jews play an outsized role in advancing social justice in conjunction with non-sectarian institutions, and that their commitment to this cause is no coincidence. It is inextricably bound up with their Jewish identity. In fact, I was recently introduced to several Jewish women here in New Jersey who exemplify this connection between their activism and Jewish values. (Apologies to Jewish male activists, of which I’m sure there are many. I’ll try to catch you in a later round.)
For the last 33 years, Phyllis Salowe-Kaye of West Orange has served as executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action (NJCA), a “statewide grassroots organization fighting for social, racial and economic justice,” according to its website. In a wide-ranging telephone conversation, Salowe-Kaye, who calls herself an “aggressive progressive,” told me that Jewish identity is central to her lifelong passion for justice.
“As Jews, we are taught that you have an obligation to reach out to others, to give back,” she said. “These Jewish values exist across all the religious movements.”
She told me NCJA has “led the fight to force banks to reinvest in our communities, to make corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and to provide family leave insurance, paid sick days, and a minimum wage of $15 for all workers.”
Salowe-Kaye grew up in Bradley Beach where she attended an Orthodox synagogue, and now she is a long-time member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, a Reform congregation. Even though she does not have a leadership role in the Jewish community, “I believe in God,” she said. “I still pray.”
She said her commitment to helping others and instinct for leadership were shaped by her parents. As an example, she recalled when a group of Holocaust survivors and their families were resettled in Bradley Beach after the war. Her father, who owned the town bar, went out of his way to hire the survivors so they would have income, while others in the community collected Chanukah gifts for the survivors’ children, many of whom were born in displaced persons camps.
Salowe-Kaye said that like her father, her mother was a role model who encouraged her to question authority. “There used to be a public auctioning of aliyot during the High Holy Days in my Bradley Beach synagogue, Congregation Agudath Achim,” she explained. “When the auction started, my mother would very demonstrably get up and walk out of shul through the center aisle. She saw this practice as a great divider in our congregational community.”
After graduating college, Salowe-Kaye taught in Newark schools for 10 years. When the teachers went out on strike in 1970, she was arrested and eventually jailed for two weeks in 1972. “My parents were very proud of me for going to jail for a cause I believed in,” she said. “I was also arrested in an East Orange demonstration around rent control issues three nights before my wedding,” she said, with more than a hint of pride in her voice.
Unlike Salowe-Kaye who draws heavily on her Jewish religious heritage for inspiration, Hetty Rosenstein of South Orange sees her lifelong commitment to activism in distinctively secular terms. As director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Rosenstein’s union represents some 70,000 working families in our state.
“Ours is a politically progressive union, deeply engaged in many aspects of community affairs,” she told me. “We don’t only deal with matters directly affecting our members, but also advocate for the Affordable Care Act, Social Security, and other causes that generally influence the welfare of the working class and their families in New Jersey.”
Rosenstein says she was born and raised in a leftist secular Jewish home and attended Sholom Aleichem schools. “We learned history and Yiddish,” she said, “and already at age 6-7, I already knew what side I was on — the side of the oppressed, the side of those fighting for justice and freedom for all.” This is her understanding of what it means to be Jewish, “not whether you keep kosher or light candles,” and it has been the driving force of her life.
Staci Berger from Piscataway is president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, a statewide association of over 150 community-based development organizations. “Preventing people from becoming homeless and giving them self-determination within their community are very much connected to Jewish values as I understand them,” she told me. Berger grew up in a home steeped in social and political activism — her mother marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Boston — and as a high school student she served as chair of the Tikkun Olam Committee of the regional United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter. “I’m not religious,” she said, “but even someone not practicing Judaism can still have a Jewish heart.”
Bottom line: When doing an accounting of Jewish social justice engagement in the wider society, we should count the efforts of individual members of our community alongside those of our Jewish public affairs organizations. And to be clear, it’s in our self-interest. For one, if the wider society surrounding our Jewish community is insecure and unhealthy, that can’t be good for us. More importantly, when we enhance our impact on the general community’s welfare using Jewish values as our guide, in the process of improving the world we strengthen and give profound meaning to our Jewish identities.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.