Last month we were honored to be invited to Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield for their annual MLK, Jr. Day Assembly. DJJ Community Organizing Intern Eleanor Gamalski presented to the students about the Jewish tradition of working for social justice, and how DJJ hopes to be a part of that legacy. You can read her speech below.
Hello to everyone - thank you so much for hosting me in honor of the approach of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It’s one of my favorite days of the year and I think one of the most important. I’m very grateful to have this opportunity to speak with you. I thought I’d start by talking a bit about the Jewish impetus to work against injustice, as well as Jewish involvement in social movements throughout history and here in metro Detroit. I’m also excited to tell you about the work we’re doing today with Detroit Jews for Justice.
To be honest, I grew up in a pretty secular household and I didn’t have much exposure to Hebrew or Jewish ritual. But I’ve always felt a strong connection to my family’s history and culture, and I see my Jewish identity as a way of placing myself within the world, this country, and in our region. I also know that my Jewishness has played a central role in attracting me to social justice work. The opportunity to further explore that feeling and to learn more about Judaism is a large part of what excites me about working with DJJ. So, I’m sure you all have a lot more knowledge of the Torah than I do. But I thought I’d share what I’ve been learning so far about the ways Jewish tradition compels us to work for a better world.
You might be familiar with this quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20: “tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” Tzedek means righteousness or fairness, so we can translate this sentence to “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Jewish scholars tell us that there’s no extra word in the Torah, so we have to ask, why say “tzedek” twice? Many have interpreted this passage as meaning that not only must we pursue just causes, but we have to pursue them through just means. It’s saying that how you give matters just as much as what you give. Are you looking down on people in need, or are you giving to them with respect? Are you giving more than just money? Are you devoting your actions to equality? The African-American philosopher and activist Dr. Cornel West offers a helpful insight in this vein. He says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” This place of love is really where DJJ tries to work from, and it’s the force that has driven a lot of Jewish activists throughout history. It’s part of why they’ve felt a responsibility to stand up for what is right.
Another part of this idea of justice is that every human life has value. A leader in the civil rights movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” He underlined the Jewish concept that all of us must stand with people that are struggling. So it’s not that Jews just happen to be involved in social movements. As Rabbi David Saperstein has said, the thread of social justice is so woven into Judaism that if you pull that thread out, the entire fabric unravels.
The history of Jewish involvement of social causes starts with the first immigration of Jews to this country. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews fleeing persecution and poverty in eastern Europe came to the U.S. to find continued struggles - difficult working conditions, low wages, and poor housing. Many were forced to work on Shabbat, and mourned the loss of a thousands-year-old sacred tradition. So in the 20s and 30s, they started to rally, holding protests and boycotts. Together with other laborers, they won the five-day work week we have today and protected the observance of Shabbat.
As you probably know, Jews played a significant role in the civil rights movement. This photo was taken in 1965 at the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It shows Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walking together with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, and again Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a close acquaintance of Dr King.
Rabbi Heschel said that during the march he felt like his legs were praying. He felt an inherent connection between his faith and his commitment to the cause. Dr. King often spoke of a shared bond between the Jewish and Black communities. He once said: “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” His remarks drew a parallel between civil disobedience in the civil rights era and dissent towards the Third Reich. He saw the two groups as united in struggle.
Large numbers of Jews participated in the civil rights movement. They helped to found groundbreaking organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). These activists didn’t just pay lip service to the struggle. They made real sacrifices, faced arrests, and put themselves in danger. Jews made up half of the young people in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer movement to register voters in the South. Two young Jewish men in Freedom Summer, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were among those who were killed by the KKK. On a brighter note, Jews contributed to some of the most important civil rights victories. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were both drafted in the conference room of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center building in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, in which Jews also played a key role.
Jewish people have continued to participate in important struggles throughout history, including a significant leadership in the women’s liberation movement. Today, a majority of American Jews say that working for justice and equality and leading an ethical life is an essential part of what it is to be Jewish. Many Jews are directly affected by the most urgent issues facing our country today, especially those in our community who are women, people of color, or low-income.
Focusing back on our region, the Jewish community has far-reaching roots in Detroit and has demonstrated a long-time commitment to urban issues. Perhaps many of your grandparents and great grandparents have history in Detroit - I encourage you to ask them about that. The first Jewish neighborhoods in the city were centered around Hastings St., in areas known as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. They were crowded and life was not always easy, but they were truly dynamic sites of Jewish life and commerce. Signs on shops and local institutions were written in Hebrew, and families maintained a strong cultural identification. In a trend paralleled across the country, these Jewish neighborhoods would become majority black as decades passed. It is significant that unlike many white communities in the city, Jewish folks never reacted violently to the influx of African-Americans, perhaps due in part to their cultural and religious values.
With the decline of the auto industry economy, many Jews moved out of Detroit and into the surrounding suburbs beginning in the 50s and 60s. But in contrast to the greater exodus, which was seen as a desertion of the city for greener pastures, the Jewish community voiced a continued commitment to Detroit - even after many of their families and synagogues had relocated. In 1969, when sprawl had reached striking proportions, the historic Temple Beth-El voiced that their move to the suburbs would not in any way undermine their devotion to the city. In fact, Jewish political engagement with urban challenges seemed to increase over this period. Instead of forgetting about the city with their departure, Jews payed attention to the stark depopulation and become more concerned with all of the interconnected challenges faced by Detroit - issues like poverty, joblessness, and a disintegrating physical environment. They did not see their migration away from the city as an abandonment. They knew they didn’t have to live in the Detroit to see why it mattered and to care about its fate - perhaps many of you share this feeling.
Jews in the suburbs grew their urban activism. They fought fiercely for black and poor communities’ rights to basic necessities like fair housing. Political organizing grew in regional neighborhoods and Jewish voices continued to advocate for Detroit, leading up until today. In recent years, the city has seen a renewed Jewish presence. At places like the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, an influx of young people - many with roots in the suburbs - have joined together with others to demonstrate a strong commitment to Jewish life. The synagogue attracts a uniquely progressive, multiracial group of people interested both in connecting to religious tradition and the core issues facing Detroit.
That brings me to our young organization, Detroit Jews for Justice. DJJ is emerging from a contingent of Jewish folks - young and old, suburban and urban - who seek to grow a progressive voice in our region’s Jewish community, and a Jewish voice in the progressive community. We are still in our beginnings, but we are excited to build opportunities for Jews to join those who are fighting against the injustices facing Detroit. So far, we have protested at Wal-Mart for higher wages and hours for workers, presented to many local institutions about social justice issues, rallied with Fast Food workers, and hosted dialogues around issues of racial and economic injustice and more. Last year, we gathered to watch “Selma” and attended the Central United Methodist Church annual MLK rally and march, and we’ll participate again this Monday. We recently got together for a Shabbaton retreat to continue building a common vision for DJJ. We hosted a “Festival of Rights” event for Hanukkah, where we chose 8 candles to represent issues like the water struggle and land use and discussed them together. We’re doing a lot of brainstorming, relationship-building, and strategizing on the role we want to play in metro Detroit.
We’re also getting our feet wet by supporting the Michigan Time to Care’s coalition’s petition for Earned Sick Time. Many mothers have to choose between caring for a sick child and getting money for weekly groceries. We at DJJ think that no one should have to make that choice, so we’re working to gather signatures for this important cause. We see a connection between the Earned Sick Time struggle and the Shabbat movement. It is an essential Jewish value to have time to renew so we can lead full, productive lives.
We’d love for you to be a part of what we’re trying to build. We’ve found that young people are some of the most exciting people to work with, and we want your input. I sincerely want to invite you to reach out to me after the assembly, to visit our website and Facebook, to email us, or to attend an upcoming event. Connecting with people has been my favorite part of working with DJJ so far, and I’d love to learn about you and your passions. Thank you again for hosting me today. I hope many of you be involved in DJJ, and that you’ll want to pursue social justice work in the future.