East Coast Tour Report-Back!

Hello All!

I’m halfway through my summer booktour and wanted to give a little update. Events in Boston, DC, Baltimore, and NYC – plus an earlier event in Philadelphia – have been spectacular. Here’s some highlights:

BOSTON

This event was held at the Workmen’s Circle Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice. Leah Madsen, Program and Member Organizer, showed me around the center before the event and shared some of the history of the local Arbeiter Ring. I was thrilled to learn that a screening of the documentary Young, Jewish, and Left had been part of a revival of younger activists’ involvement in the center – Leah reported that 100 people turned out for the screening!  The center has a great library and I loved seeing the work of the Shule classes around the room we met in.

Boston was one of the biggest NJA chapters, pre-dated by organizing including Boston Committee to Challenge Anti-Semitism, and active through till the end of the national organization.  This book event had a dozen folks and the conversation was rich and engaged with the group split evenly between former NJA-niks and people of my own generation (give or take a little). Gordie Fellman joined me and spoke about his experiences in NJA, reflecting on how Breira’s ending amidst intense attacks really contributed to the idea of creating NJA as a multi-issue organization, and how the 1982 Lebanon invasion was a formative moment in NJA’s work, and led to his own involvement in the local chapter and eventually becoming national co-chair of the Middle East Task Force.  Gordie talked about how much things have changed, how a two-state solution is now a relatively moderate position, but at NJA’s time it was heresy.  He also talked with great humor about the three rabbis who excommunicated all NJA members in a Tewksbury, MA Holiday Inn.

The stories of the former-NJA people at this event really lend to a snapshot of how people came from many activist streams to their work in NJA. Todd Kaplan, who met his wife Rivkah Lapidus in NJA, shared about his experience in the Central American Solidarity work of NJA. Todd mentioned that he wasn’t able to get involved in early NJA work because of his involvement with Ploughshares. Ellen Stone recalled that she was living in the Southwest when she learned about NJA, and when she moved to Boston the first thing she did was get involved in the chapter – she was drawn not just to the politics but to the space to make Jewish culture together, an alternative Jewish community. Freddie, a “red-diaper baby with lavender stripes!”, remembered that she missed the NJA founding convention because she was active in lesbian separatist politics, at the time but later got involved with the Feminist Taskforce of NJA. She recalled a major moment in her own life was seeing Ronnie Gilbert of The Weavers sing at an LGBT march on Washington (I think this was the 1987 march) that NJA turned out members to attend as a group – for Freddie it was a powerful moment of merging her Jewish, Lesbian, and radical political worlds –  and there weren’t many spaces for that at the time. That march shows up in the NJA history on this site here, because it was also a key moment of AIDS activism.

One comment that really hit me came up in a conversation about how Jewish activism on the Left as Jews is different than just having lots of Jews in Left organizing. Freddie talked about how the Communist Party was so Jewish, so culturally Jewish and known as a Jewish political center and indeed repressed around that identifiable Jewishness in so many ways (blacklisting, the Rosenberg trial, etc) … and yet it was never an explicitly “Jewish organization”. Todd wondered if New Jewish Agenda was, on a national level, a big “coming out” moment for Jews on the Left. While I’m sure there are many explicitly Jewish progressive organizations that came before NJA, I think this is true – the visibility of NJA among progressive movements in the 1980s was a groundbreaking cultural event. Agree? Disagree?

One more thing that came up that I want to link out to: NJA’s fact-finding mission that dispelled Reagan’s accusations of anti-semitism against the Sandanistas. Oh, and Freddie recommended that everyone read The Tribe of Dina, a groundbreaking collection of Jewish feminist essays edited by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz — and I agree!

WASHINGTON, DC

This event at the grand and gorgeous DCJCC was co-sponsored by Jews United For Justice and GLOE, an organization for GLBT Jews at the JCC. Rabbi Gerry Serotta and Reena Bernards joined me for the presentation and shared stories from their time in NJA.  A number of other NJA-members also shared stories and reflections, and Gerry brought a big poster from the 1984 Sukkat Shalom action – click for an article with more info about that story.

This event was attended by a full-house of about 35 people, a mix of activist-generations. Questions ranged from how to make our work sustainable, how to build intergenerational organizational culture and whether it’s most effective for people to organize within age-cohorts, wrestling with how to do anti-racist work within mostly white organizations/spaces, and how to learn from the lessons of NJA’s lesbian and gay leadership. Two NJA pamphlets that came up are scanned and linked out from the Feminist Taskforce section of this site, both from 1985:

Thanks so much to Rebecca and Halley for organizing and hosting this event!

BALTIMORE

This event was at Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse and I showed up early and ate treats from the cafe and read about Baltimore Occupy organizing in the radical newspapers. Though I didn’t have relationships with local NJA’ers, the day before the event Annie Kaufman had shown the book to Becky Pepkowitz – who, it turns out, used to host NJA meetings at her house! Becky spread the word and talked to lots of local NJA people and showed up with amazing stories about the local organizing. In Baltimore, NJA’s motto was “Every issue is a Jewish Issue!” and Becky told tales of  picketing the Argentinian Tall Ship to draw attention to the Disappeared, picketing the Rusty Scupper restaurant during the major Nestle boycott, and a fierce story about Becky standing up to Jewish Defense League’s (racist hate-mongering) founder Meir Kahane in a 1985 public speaking event and challenging him to a debate. He never showed up for the debate, but they got lots of visibility for opposing him!

Becky also gave me a copy of the Baltimore NJA Third-Night Haggadah that she wrote with Joyce Wolpert and others, and she reports that Joyce has a video of the event! One audience member asked “why not revive New Jewish Agenda now?”, and I basically said that while many of the qualities of NJA would be great now, we’re in a different time and need a different organizing model. Becky disagreed – she thinks the NJA model is needed now!

Rabbi Liz Bolton also shared stories of her NJA experiences in Toronto (in an un-official chapter since NJA couldn’t figure out what to do with the border) and how they led her to become a rabbi, and she brought a stack of NJA folders from her basement! A few more people in the group shared NJA stories as well, and reflections on the roots of Jewish activism.

At the end of the event, which had a great crowd of about 25 people, Annie and Mark Gunnery talked about the work-in-progress organizing to host an Alternative Jewish Assembly (AJA) in Baltimore this Fall and invited others to get involved. After the event, attendees agreed to hold an old-fashioned NJA potluck to plan for the AJA.

NEW YORK

This was a spectacular event! Jews for Racial and Economic Justice organized and spread the word for this event, and we had a packed house of about sixty people at Bluestockings Bookstore. Despite the hot night turning the store into a sauna, people stayed all night and listened attentively while contributors Rachel Mattson and Daniel Rosza Lang/Levitsky read from their afterwords essays, Nan Rubin spoke about the Denver chapter, and Jenny Levison spoke about the Portland chapter. For those that couldn’t make it to the event, you can hear some of Nan’s great stories about Denver in this Beyond the Pale Radio Interview (on the JFREJ show on WBAI). Our interview about New Jewish Agenda is the last 20-ish minutes of the show.

A lively conversation followed, including discussion of the damaging impact of New Alliance Party attempted infiltration of NJA and the controversial impact of Re-Evaluation Counseling (aka co-counseling) on NJA. To learn more about NAP’s activities, there’s some info in this section about why NJA shut down and here’s a great resource by Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates. I’ve written about the interaction between NJA and co-counseling in this section of the website, and here’s the letter to NJA about RC that I mentioned at the event. Other conversations ranged from discussing how the Jewish community is and isn’t different now than in NJA’s time, and how NJA managed to get traction in some mainstream Jewish spaces where other progressive Jewish groups continue to struggle. Yehudit talked about the children of New Jewish Agenda, and Shelly Weiss spoke about being queer in New Jewish Agenda. As in all of these report-backs, I know I’m missing a ton (maybe I’ll start taking notes during the conversations!), but suffice to say it was a great and engaged discussion.

Here’s a great video clipof me introducing the event and you’ll also see people in the audience saying what chapter/taskforce they were in -thanks to Rachel Mattson for getting that on video. If you’re on facebook, check out these great photos that JFREJ posted, too.

Thanks to everyone who has helped organize these events, hosted me on couches, and shared stories and questions!  My West Coast tour dates start July 11th in San Francisco and include stops in Portland, Olympia, and Seattle. Spread the word! More info here: West Coast Tour!

(Please Note — I’m not mentioning all of the people who attend and share stories at events by name, but I have done so where it seems relevant. If anyone wants to add to these report-backs or request that their name be added or removed, please do so! I’ll leave the comments open for this post so you can speak to it directly, or you can contact me here)

Great crowd at the NYC event at Bluestockings!
Rachel Mattson reads from her afterwards essay at Bluestockings