It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just 1 percent of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today's generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today's fights.
But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews, and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol, and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein describes the loose but committed network of grassroots volunteers that maintains this activity. "There are eight or ten of us that keep the day-to day work going, 20 of us that come all the time, and 100 that come out to a rally," she says. Goldstein adds that while CJJ's regular meetings are held in Raleigh and Durham, it claims members from all over the state, including the metro regions of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Greensboro.
Faith in Action
Max Socol, CJJ's 27-year-old co-founder, grew up in Greensboro and now lives and works in Raleigh as principal of a temple-based school. His organizing pedigree, though, dates back to his living and working in Israel in 2008-2009 with Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI). From there, he moved to Washington, D.C., where there were plenty of opportunities to work for social justice but no consensus among those who were doing the work. "There were two moments," he says, "that crystallized for me the idea that it would be useful to advocate for justice from a Jewish perspective."
The first such moment, he says, was at the Occupy D.C. encampment, where Socol attended meetings and tried to make his voice heard. "My overall experience with that movement was, 'Gee, I've never met so many people who have similar political opinions, but have such a hard time communicating with each other," Socol says. "All of us wanted to address economic inequality in a public, hands-on way; but despite that, we couldn't get through a single organizing meeting! We didn't have a single touchstone with which to communicate." Socol says that this prompted him to re-examine how a shared commitment to Jewish ritual and practice might become such a touchstone.
Socol became active in the DC Jewish community, attending Shabbat dinners where people discussed how to support the Occupy movement. "I'm actually getting more done," he remembers thinking to himself. "Organizing within the Jewish community allows me to leapfrog these communication barriers because we understand each other."
Socol's second moment of clarity came when he approached a mentor about using Torah as the foundation for taking action and organizing others to work for social justice. He was apprehensive, he told his mentor, about being so bold as to "politicize the texts" -- in other words, to interpret and apply Torah to modern struggles for economic and social justice. "She laughed in my face," he says. "She said, 'Have you ever even read the book of Jeremiah?'" Socol saw what she meant and decided to embrace a social-justice interpretation of Torah. "I'm not going to pretend," he adds, "that Jeremiah is only speaking metaphorically when he says a society that fails to care for the poor is doomed."
Socol's faith-driven activism found some willing partners in the Jewish community when he moved back to Raleigh in 2012. As liaison for his congregation's social action committee, Socol says he couldn't sit by as the committee organized simple acts of charity while hard-right Republicans swept to power at the statehouse. The new state majority, backed by wealthy North Carolina businessman Art Pope, began passing tax cuts for the wealthy and moved right along to gutting voters' rights. Socol asked the committee to consider taking a political stance. "I said, 'It's great that we send ten volunteers down to serve at the food pantry every month, but there's a reason that there's greater need at the food pantry. Are we in any way going to express unhappiness with the new tax plan?'"
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein had had a similar moment a few years ago when it became clear that Jews in her state needed to speak out. "The debate over immigration reform was to me very disturbing in North Carolina," she says. "It just seemed like candidates were fighting over who could be more anti-immigrant. It shocked me." Goldstein says she began attending regular events with Jewish social activists in Raleigh, and met some others who wanted to become politically engaged. "There was a proposal two years ago to have a constitutional amendment that would limit the right of gay people to marry. That also bothered me," she says. "It pushed many Jews to take a political position where they had never taken a position before."
In 2012, along with a few people from his own congregation who were interested in doing political work, Socol began reaching out to social action committees at area congregations, and a group formed that became the executive board of CJJ.
A Growing Movement
Fortunately, North Carolina's legacy civil rights movement institutions had been marshaling their supporters and resources to provide an opportunity for CJJ to take action in concert with other progressives from around the state. The NAACP's Rev. William Barber, North Carolina's most vocal progressive leader, and other labor and community activists have spent the past six years crafting a 15-point progressive policy agenda. This helped to create a "big tent" under which Jewish and other faith-based activists could organize for change. Beginning in 2012, the policy agenda formed the basis for a series of weekly rallies at the state capitol that became known as Moral Monday Marches (or Moral Marches when they aren't held on a Monday). Following its initial board meetings in 2012, CJJ began recruiting Jews from around the state to come to the Moral Monday Marches.
The agenda, known as Historic Thousands on Jones Street (or HK on J), serves as both a list of policy demands and a rallying cry for the state's grassroots progressives. "If you believe in unabridged voting rights for every citizen, expanding our democracy, fighting against the forces that would attempt to steal, segregate and suppress our vote, you should march with us," reads a web banner ad for the most recent Moral March, which took place Feb. 8. CJJ responded to the call, turning out 130 Jews from across the state for a Shabbat morning service before the march, which was on a Saturday. Total crowd estimates for the march ranged from 25,000 to 80,000.
Goldstein has found the Moral Marches to be an exciting moment for Jewish progressives in the state, especially in the cities of Raleigh and Durham. Despite being just a 30-minute drive apart, Goldstein says that "in many ways the communities are isolated & separate. It (the Moral Marches) just made me feel like I was part of something bigger. It was empowering to say we can do something to mobilize the Jewish community." Goldstein adds that a group of rabbis from around the state have been working with CJJ, signing statements of support and working with their congregations to encourage participation. "Several rabbis have really been phenomenal and willing to write sermons and bring their congregations out and help CJJ to make this really be something in North Carolina," she says.
"I think the big change that we have brought is that we have reconnected the Jewish community to the broader political community in North Carolina," Socol says. "That connection had become weak. We were kind of limited to a once a year visit from the Jewish legislators." Socol adds that CJJ welcomes a diversity of levels of Jewish observance, acknowledging that approaching social justice activism from a place of Jewish religious identity may not be for everyone. "There are plenty of folks in CJJ who wouldn't ever bring up faith as why they are activists," he said. "I tend not to challenge that. I say that for me, it's important that this [work] come from a place of faith."
CJJ includes some core Jewish teachings in its statement of principles, with a foundation composed of three primary teachings: B'tzelem Elohim (In the image of G-d), meaning all human beings are created in the Divine image, and that members follow the Torah's requirements to "put ourselves in the position of others, and to protect their fundamental rights and dignity as carefully as we protect our own." CJJ also holds as central the teaching to "Love thy neighbor as thyself"; the teaching of "tikkun olam"; and the value of kehillah, or community. Though it is politically non-partisan, CJJ's mission includes the statement, "We work to influence policy at the local and state levels and encourage individuals and Jewish institutions to take a stand on important issues in our community."
Being the 1%
But Socol adds that working among other faith groups, even as progressives, in a state that is 79 percent Christian-identified and 1 percent Jewish-identified has its challenges. "For me personally, the biggest unexpected challenge is how thoroughly infused progressive politics are in this state with Christianity, and with evangelical Christianity in particular. I wasn't expecting it," he says. "When we first got going, I had people asking me, how are we going to be comfortable at these rallies where Jesus is being invoked all the time. I thought, we all get through our daily lives just fine-we'll just put a little asterisk in our minds next to the prayers! In actually attending these rallies I've realized that yeah, it's challenging. It's that same communications barrier that I experienced at Occupy -- people really don't know much about Judaism or Jews in North Carolina. We are more likely to experience casual anti-Semitism. People will make an off the cuff remark, and somebody takes it the wrong way, and all of a sudden you have a little dustup that you've got to clear up between people who are really on the same team."
Socol explained that it helps to view some of these tensions in the historical context of the civil rights movement in North Carolina. "My gut feeling," he says, "is that you cannot separate progressive activism in the South from the civil rights movement. People who are the top level organizers in progressive organizing in the South today are people who grew up in the civil rights movement. And that movement is integrally Christian. That's the reality of where that movement comes from. Particularly when we work with the NAACP, it's only natural that they view their work as Christian work. It's not like it's only in the South -- the difference is that it's all the more pervasive because of our civil rights history. I think that's a gain, not a loss.
"I grew up in Greensboro. I grew up going to that Woolworth's lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. And I learned not only that it was important, but that it happened here. On my doorstep. Civil rights is a part of what we do. And when it comes to Christianity, I just have to be careful that I don't say anything that makes an assumption about somebody
Socol adds that his response as a CJJ organizer is to proudly wear the outward signs of his Jewish faith, hoping his visibility can help other Jews see that they have a place in the movement for social justice. "We don't want people to be uncomfortable with being identified as Jewish," he says. "Nobody is going to intimidate me into not appearing Jewish. I'm out there with my kippeh and my tallis. Others may be less comfortable with that."
Another challenge CJJ has faced is how to mobilize younger Jews. "I can count on two hands the number of young people who have come out to CJJ events," he says. "We've hosted a couple of events with local young professionals groups to try to bring people in. But where the rubber meets the road and we need people to come out and register voters or come out to a rally, younger folks just aren't in the mix."
Socol adds that CJJ organizers continue to try to get Jews from across the state involved with social justice work on whatever level makes sense for individuals. "If you want to be able to come out to a Moral Monday rally, we have this big banner that says CJJ and you can come and stand with us and be in photos, or you can drift away and no one will be the wiser." Socol says CJJ meetings include some text study to anchor the social justice work in Jewish practice and ritual. "To me, that's the point," he says. "We want to have a common language. We also make sure to include texts that are not Jewish altogether for people who are not religiously inclined."
CJJ organizes and raises public awareness around issues of economic justice and inequality. But Socol says the word "union" isn't necessarily helpful in doing this work. "The language around labor rights is really different in the South. We're one of the least unionized states in the country. The South is the least unionized region of the country. It's not uncommon to meet somebody who identifies as liberal and also identifies as anti-union." Goldstein says that, with this in mind, CJJ has chosen to focus on achieving policy goals that would lessen inequality, such as fighting for better access to healthcare through Medicaid (which the NC legislature declined to expand using the money available through the Affordable Care Act). They also try to speak up for teachers, who have come under attack in the state. "North Carolina always had a reputation for being a strong supporter of public education," she says. "We've seen a real regression here. Salaries are very low."
Raising awareness of, and getting more Jews involved in, policy issues that affect regular and poor North Carolinians is one of CJJ's major goals for the next year. To this end, they are already mobilizing teams of people in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill to register voters and make sure people have the proper identification to comply with the state's new Voter ID law. Raising money to make the work sustainable is another pressing goal. "Our funding is zero dollars," Socol says, laughing. "We are developing a fundraising plan."
Originally published at Tikkun Daily.
Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. Dean has worked for nearly two decades at the cross section of labor and community-based organizations linking policy and research with action and advocacy. You can follow Amy on twitter @amybdean or contact her via www.amybdean.com.