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Social Change, Every Which Way

I recently returned from a whirlwind, thirty-two hour tour of LA, during which I spoke with students and faculty of Hebrew Union College and of the American Jewish University, with alumni of the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s Jeremiah Fellows program, and with a number of other community members.  Using my book as a starting point, we ventured into wide-ranging conversations about Judaism, social justice, power, the role of rabbis and other community leaders in justice work, and the most effective means of social change.

The question that arose most frequently concerned the most effective means of making change. Many of us have experience primarily with one mode of action: we may volunteer in a local service project, give money to tzedakah, write letters about policy issues, participate in an organizing effort, or speak publicly about issues close to our heart.

Even those of us who may take part in multiple means of social change often find ourselves debating the relative merits of various modes of change: people devoted to organizing and advocacy look down at those doing service for focusing only on the immediate need, without trying to solve the problem in the long run; people who do service dismiss organizing as too slow to address current issues; those who do hands-on work find check-writing too passive; those who focus on tzedakah point out that most organizations need money more than volunteers. And on and on.

There is, of course, no answer to this endless debate. Without organizing, the most passionate speeches will do little good; without these passionate speeches, few will feel moved to action. Without policy change, we will never end hunger, homelessness, or exploitatio; without direct service, people will go hungry and without shelter until policies change.

I decided to name my book There Shall be No Needy because I wanted a name that was aspirational. I wanted to push us, as a community, to think broadly about our responsibility to create a world without poverty or other forms of suffering. But those who recognize the biblical reference will remember that, in the book of Deuteronomy, God makes this promise–that there will be no needy in the land, and almost immediately follows up with a warning to give tzedakah when asked, as the poor will never disappear. 

I read this apparent contradiction as a challenge to maintain our focus both on the long-term goal, and on the short-term alleviation of suffering. If we put all of our efforts toward policy change, people will starve while we negotiate politics. If we put all of our efforts toward meeting immediate needs, we will never achieve a more just world. 

A friend of mine, also a rabbi, tells the story of taking a group of high school students to volunteer at a homeless shelter. At the end of the evening, one of the students turned to him and said, "this was such a fantastic experience! Every kid should get to volunteer at a homeless shelter." 

When we become so focused on either meeting the immediate needs of a homeless person, or on our own feeling of self-fulfillment through teh volunteer experience, we have lost sight of the promise that "there shall be no needy" and of the obligation to work toward this ideal. On the other hand, when we turn down our noses at service as providing only a band-aid solution, we ignore the second part of the biblical text, which reminds us to care for each and every person who asks for help.

What’s the best way to create social change? An impossible question to answer–we might have to start by doing everything.

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