I was born a political activist in an interfaith family. While my personal connection to Judaism came later in life, there was no mistaking the commitment to social justice in our household. As a child people often commented that my skill at negotiating what I wanted for myself and my siblings (a later bedtime, a larger allowance) meant I would make a good lawyer. Later on I learned the value of negotiating on behalf of real causes as I became concerned about protecting the environment and campaigning for school board candidates. My freshman year of college a fellow Jewish student convinced me to attend a national policy conference being run by Hillel, a Jewish student organization. I had never seen so many Jews in my life as I did at this conference--and they were all interested in politics! I was determined to know why.
One simple quote in the Pirkei Avot, the teachings of the fathers, says, "You are not required to finish the work, neither are you free to desist from it." This sentiment was something I had carried in my heart my whole life. The first time I heard it at that Hillel conference, however, I was able to put my Judaism in context with the other things I valued. I grew up in a Jewish home with Catholic undertones. We had many traditions, and we valued honesty, kindness, love and social justice. My parents may have belonged to different religions, but they were united in teaching us the importance of environmental responsibility and caring for the ill. In Girl Scouts we always said, "look for work," or "leave things better than you found them." In a way I had always been searching for something larger to which I could relate those values.
Since that college experience I have made it my goal to weave my two loves--Judaism and social action--together into as many aspects of my life as possible. In my first year working at Hillel my job was to serve as a resource to Jewish college activists and volunteers. I coordinated the very same public policy conference that first introduced me to my love for Judaism. At Hillel we work to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for Jewish college students around the world. We have learned through this work that one of the most authentic and meaningful ways to reach Jewish students from interfaith families is through engaging them in social justice activities.
The most obvious reason for this, in my opinion, is that many of the interfaith families today are Christian/Jewish mixes, both having strong roots in charity and volunteerism. I certainly felt this commonality when I attended a Jesuit institution as an undergraduate. The similarities in Jewish and Christian value systems made it very easy for me to focus on social justice.
Another reason students from interfaith families are attracted to repairing the world has to do with the nature of an interfaith family. Coming from a background of compromise and understanding--a family in which respecting one another's very different beliefs is a core requirement of a harmonious home--lends itself to a desire to try to bring about that harmony in the wider world as well, and to work for mutual understanding.
However, the most significant reason for which I believe social justice activities are an entry point for Jews from interfaith families is that they are an equalizer. Of all of the ways one can become involved in Judaism--through a synagogue, through life-cycle events, in social settings--social justice activities are the least intimidating. There is no ritual to learn. There is no Jewish in-speak to understand. You are simply giving of yourself in the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
In early September 2005 when the Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Katrina, the Jewish community mobilized immediately to join the relief effort. To lend comfort to those of us struggling with the immensity of the situation, my colleagues in the Conservative movement created a special prayer for victims. Hillels in Houston opened their doors to all Hurricane victims, while students from The Bronfman Center at NYU traveled down to Texas to give their time. At Hillel headquarters a donation campaign began, as well as a call to all Hillels to serve as centers that any displaced students and families--Jewish or non-Jewish--could turn to for assistance. As I write, one of our directors is pairing up students who want to help communities that will need volunteers over Thanksgiving and winter breaks.
Most of these student volunteers do not know anyone personally affected by Hurricane Katrina. They are not going to help only Jewish survivors of the hurricane, but all survivors. They will be working side-by-side with non-Jewish volunteers, and nobody will ask them--"Is your mother Jewish?" They are volunteering because they are rooted in their Jewish values and they believe they are working to repair the world.
As I continue on my journey our community is my inspiration. I keep Judaism in my heart and politics in my soul. Wherever I journey next, I'll be rooted in those social justice values that have shaped who I've become.