(Written in 2005)
I’m a queer feminist Jewish activist of the generation born in the (late) 1970s. I first learned about New Jewish Agenda in lesbian-feminist Jewish books and magazines including Bridges Journal and the writings of women like Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, Irena Klepfisz, and Elly Bulkin. I learned that from 1980-1992, New Jewish Agenda was a national, multi-issue, and grassroots organization, a rare format for progressive Jewish organizing. Moved by that teaser about my community’s political history, I looked for a book or a good long article about New Jewish Agenda. Jews tend to value history and storytelling so highly that you can usually find multiple Jewish opinions about everything under the sun, so I assumed that I’d be able to savor a wealth of resources. Not so! I found almost nothing, and my curiosity was further sparked by the strange lack of record.
I’m working to document New Jewish Agenda’s history because I want to learn from the history of activists who came before me, because I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and because I want the benefit of their strategic experiments. In a more personal way, my excitement for the interviews and research about this group comes from a place of hunger for a community like the one that NJA created. Digging through archive boxes, listening to the interviews I’ve done, and reaching out to others who were involved in the group makes me feel part of something exciting that I didn’t get a chance to join in the 1980s. I’m researching NJA for the same reasons many became members: the opportunity to feel less isolated as a progressive Jew, to connect with a more diverse community of Jewish activists, to gain insight into strategies for activism infused with spiritual meaning, to feel part of a powerful legacy and hopeful future.
While I’ve been researching, I’ve had countless experiences of drawing from NJA’s history to inform my current activist work. For the first two years of my research, I was Program Director of The Shalom Center, an organization that spun off of NJA’s Disarmament and environmental activism in 1986. At a conference called Tzedek Yalin Bah: Justice Shall Dwell There I organized a spontaneous intergenerational discussion about NJA’s work. None of the people my age had heard of NJA’s work, but all of us could draw connections to our current struggles. I offered a workshop for my own Philadelphia activist community (and one New Yorker!) about NJA, as a way to get peer feedback on my research. It was a mixed-crowd (Jewish and non-Jewish) and I heard from many non-Jewish attendees that it was the first time they really got the chilling impact of the Israel-Palestine conflict on Jewish activism on other issues. For many of the Jewish attendees, one ally’s comments that night were the first time we had heard a non-Jewish activist clearly express understanding of the complicated and damaging ways anti-Semitism works. At a conference on Anti-Semitism on the Left, I co-facilitated a panel on anti-Semitism in the Peace movement, informed in part by my education about the history of the 1970s-1990s and in part by my own experiences.
NJA’s history and impact are easy for me to identify in my own community, but it’s also clear that every generation has its own work to do. To quote my friend April Rosenblum, author of “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All of Our Movements,
There is a new generation of young social justice activists who are realizing how much our Jewishness means to us, and we are reaching for ways to bring who we are as Jews into the activist lives we’ve built. But many of us are slamming against an unforeseen wall. The more conscious we become of our Jewish identities, the more we can tell that progressive movements have not come very far in understanding and resisting anti-Semitism. For us to maintain both our dignity as Jews and our commitments to the causes that matter, we need to speak out, educate our movements, and change the way activists today respond to anti-Semitism.
I hope NJA “alumni” (as I call them) will look at this site and share their stories to increase the power of this resource. I hope Jewish activists of my generation will use this site as a resource for learning about our recent history, for inspiration, and for asking questions and adding feedback and analysis. I hope that non-Jewish activists will look at this site and find education about the complicated and passionate work of Jews on the Left, and gain understanding of how and why Jewish liberation is a crucial part of the Movement.