A cherished friend of mine, a Christian working as a Synagogue Administrator, once asked me, “How are the same people both conservative with the congregation’s money and so liberal politically?” Her observation was mostly accurate; the Board members eager to grow the Temple’s budget were as much in the minority as the political conservatives.
I answered: “Jews are commanded to remember the heart of the stranger. We take that seriously. Yes, we may fit in here in America now, but Jews acutely remember when we were despised, outcast, and impoverished. Therefore, we identify with those who are vulnerable, and we advocate for their interests more even than our own.” Viewed in this light, our social justice priorities are largely shaped by the welfare of others. Temple finances, on the other hand, are strictly about the health of our own institution.
Upon reflection, though, my answer was too simplistic. A political conservative may be just as concerned about the poor as the liberal, with different philosophy about how best to benefit those in need. Moreover, some of our social justice advocacy – on behalf of Israel, for example; or protecting the separation of church and state – is self-interested.
Perhaps the most problematic part of my answer, though, was that we are far from the only Americans with a history of persecution. Unlike other ethnic or religious groups that are mostly white and at least middle income, though, American Jews remain strongly identified with our historic vulnerability and that of many people around us. What makes us different?
Why are so many American Jews deeply worried that Dreamers may soon face deportation? Yes, a Jewish DACA beneficiary or two has been identified; but most American Jews today are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. Why have we made a priority of compassionate immigration reform when so many other groups who share our immigrant history have not?
Why is our Reform Movement mobilized to protect access to health care for the tens of millions of Americans who gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act? Yes, more than a few of us have ACA policies, but still more of us benefit from the tax reform that imperiled ACA’s viability by removing the individual mandate. Other demographically-similar groups tend to take the view opposite our Movement’s.
At the dawn of 2018, a century removed from the end of the last mass wave of Jewish immigration, we may think that we are motivated by our immigrant history, but we are more likely inspired by our religion itself. Torah is the reason. Thirty-six times, Torah reminds us that we must pay attention to the welfare of the stranger, having been oppressed as strangers in Egypt.
As we welcome 2018, in an era when the fastest-growing religious identity in this country is “none,” American Jews, even the self-proclaimed atheists among us, still believe: We are here to make the world a better place. We are duty-bound to seek the welfare of the most vulnerable in our midst. We are grateful that most American Jews are neither needy nor oppressed, and Torah turns that gratitude into action.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.