By Rio Scharf
In recent years we’ve seen an explosion in the number of service learning projects, social justice fellowships, and volunteer experiences designed for young Jews. Programs like Avodah Service Corps, American Jewish World Service (AJWS), and Alternative Spring Break offer us powerful chances to see other sides of the world and lend a hand. Although these programs are positive experiences for the mostly privileged youth involved, they do little to address the roots of the challenges facing the communities of color that they seek to help. As important as it is to build houses, run farms, and operate clinics abroad, these projects frequently neglect the structural causes of the problems at hand. In fact, the Jewish community’s support of these service projects often serves to avert our eyes from the oppressions our own community commits.
Through years of sermons, Hebrew School, and summer camp, I’ve heard my fair share of the tikkun olam rhetoric, imploring us to reach out to other people’s communities and repair them. In recent years, I’d become a poster child for this type of service, working with community organizations in Costa Rica, mentoring Latino youth in Los Angeles, and running organic farms in central Argentina. Yet only during my last service experience did I come to recognize the inadequacies of this model of social change.
For the last six months, I worked on an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, using sustainable agriculture as a tool to educate, employ, and empower the local community. Working and living in a predominately low-income black neighborhood felt isolating at times, but my Jewish community back home had long encouraged this type of service work, so I felt their
support all around me.
In mid-November, a group of Jewish teens visited the farm on a service-learning trip. Though they were from New Jersey, they felt familiar. They reminded me of the world I grew up in and the community I left behind. They exuded optimism and a will to help. After traveling 1,200 miles to serve this community, they couldn’t wait to get their hands dirty.
We gathered under the shade structure to escape the humidity and I posed a question to them, “Why are half the staff on an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward Jewish and non-local?” They quickly raised their hands and offered explanations for this strange phenomenon. One student said, “Repairing the world is a Jewish ethic.” Another claimed that, “Our history of oppression demands that we help other oppressed people.” And a third
volunteered that, “Jews have a long tradition of sustainable agriculture and development.” These teenagers offered incredibly insightful explanations for the high level of Jewish involvement in the
project. Many provide these same reasons to explain the disproportionate involvement of young Jews in all aspects of social justice work. Although they might be compelling reasons, they fail to tell the whole story.
Our desire to enter other communities and repair them is multifaceted and not altogether noble. We cannot neglect the fact that our eagerness to enter poor black and brown communities and offer solutions for their ills repeats a long history of missionary practices that the philanthropic and non-profit sectors replicate. We also cannot deny that this work serves partly to give us a sense of altruism and adventure. Most importantly, though, we must reflect on how these projects may serve to distract us from our own involvement in the problems we seek to address. This kind of distraction is a very real motivation for many Jews who embark on these projects, and as I found it characterized my own experience in New Orleans. After learning about the utter injustices of our corporate agricultural industry, I chose to teach gardening to kids in Louisiana. Truthfully, I could have had a far greater impact by confronting speculative finance frauds that are trading grain on the future’s markets and thereby raising food prices worldwide. Yet that type of confrontational work lacks the glamour and allure of an urban farm in the Lower Ninth Ward. Challenging my own cousin, himself a perpetrator of injustice within the agricultural industry, elicits a greater discomfort than anything I felt during my time in New Orleans. These fears and desires collude to keep me working far from home and averting my eyes from the injustices my own community commits. Pressures from within the Jewish community to leave home and fulfill tikkun olam also contribute to a lack of self-reflection, resulting in a mass of young Jewish activists that rarely take responsibility for our own role in oppression and injustice.
We cannot underestimate the role social pressure has in conditioning our activism. For example, when I tell my parents’ friends that I’m working with poor folks in the Lower Ninth Ward, they shower me with compliments and donate graciously to the program. I feel their support and it fuels my work emotionally and financially. My best friend, on the other hand, organizes to stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Needless to say, the temple isn’t begging her to speak at luncheons. In fact, her father threatened to cut her off financially and emotionally. The cues here aren’t so subtle. Fight oppression, they seem to say, but do it elsewhere.
The social justice rhetoric in our communities also prevents us from turning the gaze on ourselves. We criticize Islamic communities for misogyny and homophobia, but never reflect on how these forces operate in fundamentalist Jewish communities in Israel and the US. We hear many Jews talk about tikkun olam in connection to genocide in Darfur, but rarely regarding occupation and oppression in Palestine. By shaping our understanding of justice, these conversations protect the Jewish community from critique and shape us into socially acceptable “activists.”
The opportunities available to us also shape our practice of social change. The availability of social justice fellowships and jobs with youth groups or service learning projects is clearly a blessing. These options offer us some direction and meaning during a chaotic time of our lives. Yet much like Teach for America and the PeaceCorps, these programs have no intention of disrupting the status quo. Elites create and fund these projects and they work to entrench the current distribution of resources and power. They provide scarce relief to low-income communities, thereby preventing social upheaval. And they help privileged young Jews pad our resumes and post-college tool kits, allowing us to gain the privileges of an upper-middle class lifestyle. This refusal to attack social problems at their roots is entrenchment of the status quo at its finest. Hid by its veil of altruism, it continues nearly unnoticed.
The Jewish community’s deep involvement with the non-profit sector also works to shape our views and practices of social change. For example, Avodah, the Jewish Service Corp, works with young Jewish activists to help them become “lifelong agents of social change.” Yet the program only places participants into non-profit organizations, thus giving the impression that these 501(c)3 projects are the primary mode of social change. We can see this same privileging of non-profits above other modes of social change throughout our Jewish communities. While these organizations have brought great advantages to us, they also have inherent and deliberate limitations that shape their potential. In return for their tax exempt status, these organizations surrender the ability to do most political advocacy or confrontational organizing. Though the tax exemption allows them to collect donations and grants, it requires them to limit their tactics for solving the problems they address. Rather than organizing to challenge and dismantle the structures that contribute to inequality, many non-profits provide services to minimize the consequences of this inequality. We see tens of thousands of food banks, but only few groups challenging a system that lets millions go hungry despite massive food surpluses. There are homeless shelters in almost every city across the nation, but few groups bringing attention to the millions of foreclosed houses sitting empty amidst mass homelessness. These services are absolutely essential, yet historically they have served more as a means of social control than social change. By conditioning reliance on the very systems that promote inequality, these programs quell dissent and minimize calls for greater rights and entitlements.
Furthermore, non-profits are bound by their donors. The funders of non-profit projects are often affluent individuals and though they act philanthropic, they also have a vested stake in the current distribution of power and wealth. Elites design projects that provide benefits to the disadvantaged without upsetting the structures that guarantee them their privilege and status. When we become reliant on their funds, we are shaped by their will. This dynamic explains, for example, why my mom’s social program for senior citizens is prohibited from addressing the conflict in Israel/Palestine. When elite money funds our programs, elite interests dictate our actions.
We live in an increasingly complex world, where social control takes evermore intricate forms. Through pressure, rhetoric, and programs, we come to privilege certain modes of social change over others. Above all, we learn to do social services in other people’s communities rather than confrontational work in our own. Others have drawn attention to the ways that Birthright trips and summer camps craft young people into Zionists by making Israel fun and focusing on the personal/cultural rather than the political. Similarly, our social justice programs and rhetoric condition youth into certain conceptions of social change that limit our impact. If we wish to change society, we simply cannot operate within frameworks developed by those invested in the status quo. We can certainly use their resources and enjoy their all-expenses-paid-for trips, but we must always remember who’s framing our experience and how we’re being shaped.
I am not calling for a strictly insular Jewish community, one that focuses on our own problems while neglecting those of others. Nor am I attempting to end all service-oriented projects, which can be absolutely essential for those struggling to live a healthful and dignified life. Rather, this article is a call for solidarity instead of charity. For if we truly wish to help one another, then we must first challenge the practices in our own community that aid oppression.
Published on page 18 of the Winter 2012 issue of Leviathan.