At the White House

Posted on: Monday August 1, 2011

By Daniel Burg

Originally posted on The Urban Rabbi

The strangest thing about our Friday Jewish Social Justice Roundtable gathering at the White House is that most of us never set foot in the White House.  For several hours during the afternoon, we sat in an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as various Administration representatives and dignitaries shuttled back and forth through underground tunnels between our room and the house that is actually white.

But no matter.  Each official - Valarie Jarrett, Michael Strautmanis, Cecilia Munoz, Jon Carson - began his/her remarks with the words: "Welcome the White House!"  In all honesty, it was pretty remarkable that the White House staff could find time for us at all.  Friday saw another intense round of fruitless negotiations over the impending debt crisis and most of the top brass, including of the president himself, were tied up trying to inject some sanity into a situation that seemed to be spinning out of control. 

And yet, there we were: 170 leaders from across the Jewish spectrum and around the country, each of us committed to the advancement of social justice and engaged in a day-long conversation with some of the top power-brokers in America about our key issue-areas.  One participant told a story about his grandmother who had labored in an early twentieth century sweat-shop.  How unfathomable such a gathering would have seemed to her!

Three things occur to me upon reflection:

  1. Just to have a chance to spend the day with the leaders of 21 terrific Jewish organizations from around the country, to hear their stories and compare notes, was a distinct privilege.  One of the central tenets of community organizing is the notion of "building power."  Those of us who care about Israel have rallied such power.  It was refreshing, though, to remind the Obama Administration that the Jewish community is no one-trick pony.  We care plenty about domestic issues like housing, healthcare and food justice.  There was a lot of power in that room. 
  2. Having grown up in the Reform Movement, I am distinctly aware of its strong social action pedigree, and there is no denying the effectiveness of an organization like the RAC (Religious Action Center).  But the Conservative movement, too, has a long history of commitment to social justice from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. King in Selma to Hekhsher Tzedek in our day.  My allegiance has always been first to Judaism over any particular movement, but too often I find my own stream of Judaism inaccurately depicted as conservative (small "c") while the truth is that there are many of us deeply committed to progressive values and enlightened social policies.  
  3. Would that all community leaders could travel to our nation's capital to tell stories and share victories as I was able to do about my community in Reservoir Hill, Baltimore.  Tip O'Neill reminded us that "all politics is local." Jewish tradition reminds us that each life has infinite value.  Each requires that anyone whose job it is to look at the big picture must be reminded constantly of the myriad details, the countless individuals and communities, as well.