Attending the Religious Action Center’s (RAC) Consultation on Conscience is always immensely inspiring. Attendees are exposed to a multitude of speakers on the urgent issues of the day, as well as to social justice leaders who share their passion and their drive. At the end of the second day this year, several speakers provided me with renewed motivation to pursue this work. Rabbi Sid Schwartz offered a remedy for burnout: connecting our push for social justice to our tradition. He reminded us that Jews are “no longer the most vulnerable members of society” so that we must think beyond tribalism and embrace “the responsibility of privilege.” He urged us to implement a regular service trip to the developing world in our congregations.
Thinking beyond the boundaries of institutions, and a deep concern for the other were the themes of a session with Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of the emergent congregation, Ikar, in Los Angeles. Sister Campbell’s organization has focused on systemic reform in the areas of health care, immigration, peace and economic justice. Sister Campbell was instrumental in organizing the “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2012 to oppose the Ryan budget. She was reprimanded by the Vatican for promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” During the session, she was quite sanguine about the criticism she has received from the officials of the Church. She affirmed that our faith values regarding community are desperately needed to maintain our democracy. She believes that people are starved for this kind of leadership which the Catholic Church is not providing. “We are called to be manna for the world so we can nourish the world and act responsibly together.”
Rabbi Brous said there are two questions posed by God in the Torah that we must keep asking: “Ayecha?” I.e., “Where are you spiritually?” and “Ay hevel achicha?” “Where is your brother/your sister?” (from Genesis 4:9). She cautioned that we must move “from individual dignity to communal purpose…We are on the verge of meaninglessness if we don’t bring the kingdom of heaven down to earth.”
The most surprisingly moving session, however, was Naomi Natale’s “On the Power of Art to Confront Genocide.” When I saw that title in the program, I was skeptical that this would be a worthhile session. In fact, Natale’s work is transformative. Her project, called “One Million Bones,” aims to educate and connect people in a visceral way to the genocides still occurring in the world, most notably in Sudan, Congo and Somalia. She and her team work with communities to make bones out of clay and then lay them out in strategic places. The bones are meant to honor the victims of genocide and mass atrocities. Natale has brought this project to a number of state capitals. The visual effect of 50,000 bones lined up and piled up two feet wide and tens of feet long is incredibly powerful and affecting. Natale plans to bring a million bones to the National Mall in Washington, DC June 8-9.
I am terribly grateful to the RAC for exposing us to these amazing people.
Rabbi Suzanne Singer is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.