A single sermon cannot heal our world. A single person cannot heal our world. Social justice is a collective endeavor. We need partners to make systemic change in our communities, our states, and our nation.
More than three years ago, Rabbi Judith Schindler invited me — a lay leader — to co-author a book with her on Jewish social justice. I was not an author by profession, but I wanted to help her mobilize other congregations to effect meaningful change such as we had accomplished together in our community.
The existing Jewish social justice books we found were targeted to rabbis, rather than synagogue boards or social justice committees. Rabbis and congregants hear sacred texts differently, see community issues differently, and operate in their synagogues differently. Collaborating, we could write a book to guide rabbis and congregations to travel together on their own journeys of synagogue civic engagement.
Recharging Judaism calls American synagogues to take institutional stands on social justice issues, explaining why with deep discussions of Jewish texts, and showing how utilizing our primary research — fifty interviews with lay leaders and clergy from congregations immersed in this work. Our intended audience included rabbis, of course, but also their lay boards and social justice volunteers, three groups with diverse agendas and a broad spectrum of Judaic backgrounds.
The writing process taught us how to reach these dissimilar audiences because our own perspectives were so different — hers as a rabbi, mine as a former synagogue board member and social justice committee co-chair. For example, my co-author would draft a paragraph referencing God and I would recommend we substitute the word “divine.” I would enumerate the details of a successful process and she would suggest we edit it down to a key anecdote. Whether we were parsing a text or illustrating a framework for action, we debated every word so that our book would speak to all its readers.
I laughed out loud while we were writing the preface. I had drafted the sentence encouraging more exploration of the modern rabbinic works that we had excerpted. When she edited the paragraph, she added the same suggestion about the writings of the Jewish sages — a thought that had not occurred to me.
I was not the only one attuned to modern issues rather than the timeless relevance of Torah and Talmud. When asked which Jewish text inspired their social justice work, lay leaders we interviewed were more apt to quote some version of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “praying with his legs” as he walked in Alabama for voting rights fifty years ago than they were to cite an ancient text that their clergy had shared at the start of a social justice committee meeting.
Do I believe that sharing these texts is important? Absolutely. Establishing the basis of civic engagement causes in Judaism is a unique responsibility of synagogue clergy. Recharging Judaism provides discussions of our ancient texts that are accessible to lay leaders like myself who are eager to live our Jewish values outside our sanctuaries. To assist this work, Sefaria Source Sheets with Rabbinic texts are available as companions to every chapter.
Recharging Judaism uniquely guides the rabbinic work that ensues from applying those teachings in America today. We share examples of how rabbis recruit capable lay leaders and align with their board while leading the congregation and the community. Our frameworks also enlist the participation of your congregation — rather than solely your social justice committee — and guide you to do this work outside your synagogue building where many American Jews are rallying to stand for our values.
Perhaps your congregation already accepts civic engagement as its fourth pillar alongside Torah study, worship services, and acts of loving-kindness. If so, kol hakavod. Yet you might find that the examples we cite from other successful congregations — and the cautionary tales of missteps — inspire even more effective and sustainable work. The polarizing political climate today may also warrant rethinking how you navigate your congregation’s journey of civic engagement.
This book was my sixth major collaboration with Rabbi Schindler over the course of more than a decade in which I was enjoying early retirement from the business world. Just over a year ago, I realized that I was no longer retired, but an author charged with a new mission — as a Jew, as an American, and as a synagogue leader. What Dr. Susannah Heschel wrote about clergy and congregants in our foreword spoke to me personally: “We are partners and we are Jews of passion. To pray and keep silent on the injustices of our world is blasphemy – and utterly un-Jewish.”
Judy Seldin-Cohen is a community advocate and first-time author in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her prior professional life included management consulting at Booz Allen in Chicago and vice president of ticketing at the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team. She and Rabbi Judith Schindler co-authored the newly published book, Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America, available now from CCAR Press.