American Jews are the richest, freest and most politically influential that the Diaspora has ever known, Alan van Capelle says.
So what are we doing with all those resources and all that clout? Probably not enough to help other Americans who are not as fortunate, according to van Capelle, the CEO of the newest national organization on the Jewish social justice scene, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.
It’s a result of last year’s merger of two organizations, Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice, and bills itself as the only national Jewish organization working to address exclusively domestic issues – everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to benefits for domestic and home care workers to affordable housing. (Visit www.bendthearc.us)
The name comes from a famous quotation – “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” -- that many attribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. but that was actually written in a slightly different form by Theodore Parker, a 19th-century abolitionist minister speaking out against slavery.
Van Capelle says President Barack Obama had the quotation sewn into the carpet in the Oval Office. That’s appropriate, he says, because when the president was a community organizer in Chicago one of the first grants he received was from Jewish Funds of Justice.
In fact, van Capelle says, the new organization has strong Chicago ties. Its co-chair is Chicago labor union activist Amy Dean, and it has worked closely on a number of initiatives with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, whose goals and methods are similar to its own, he says.
Just what are those goals? Van Capelle says they’re twofold. First, “to make sure every American has the same opportunities to succeed” as many in the American Jewish community have had. Secondly, “to literally build a movement of Jewish activists who believe it is part of our tradition to not sit on the sidelines but to actually participate in the democratic process.”
“Being Jewish is not a passive experience, it’s an activist experience,” he continues. “Jewish continuity is not just about lighting Shabbat candles. It’s about continuing to lead on domestic issues. We’re looking to build an army of Jewish social justice activists to come together and both work on big national issues and work locally.”
Van Capelle is a former deputy comptroller for the city of New York, former CEO of Empire State Pride Agenda and a veteran of a number of social justice organizations dealing with issues from the labor movement to LGBT civil rights and marriage equality. Working with those organizations, he says, he came to realize that, while American Jews are often involved in social justice issues, they mainly do it through secular organizations.
“I came to realize that the Jewish community has an incredible amount of influence and is no less active today than 40 years ago, but we are doing it from a secular place,” he says. “But if you care about those issues you can have more of an impact if you do it from a Jewish perspective. We vote, we are active in political fund-raising, we have done a very good job of building a level of clout, influence and power that is disproportionate to our numbers. I feel we’ve inherited this positional power.”
Being involved in social justice issues “is a part of who we are, it is in our DNA,” he says. “This is not new for us. We were leaders in the abolitionist movement, suffrage, labor, civil rights. Will we resume that role in the country today?” Most elected officials think the Jewish community is only concerned with one issue, Israel, he says.
“There needs to be a national Jewish voice grounded in domestic work that extends beyond religious affiliations,” he says.
Among the organization’s projects have been a summer “If I Were a Rich Man’ tour during which a group of young Jews traveled to eight states – plus the Republican and Democratic national conventions – talking about an equitable tax system. In California, Bend the Arc members worked on passing a domestic workers bill of rights (the bill was vetoed but efforts on the issue continue) and is working nationally on securing labor protections for home care workers.
During Rosh Hashanah, members visited key senators in an initiative called “blowing the shofar for justice” to push for more rights for home care workers, one of the labor market’s fastest-growing segments.
Before the fiscal cliff agreement, the group organized more than 300 rabbis, including 11 from Illinois, to send letters to every member of Congress supporting a rollback of the Bush tax cuts for Americans making more than $250,000.
Another project, a community investment program, makes loans for affordable housing. In New Orleans, a loan from the organization was used to buy and demolish a number of blighted vacant houses and replace them with new, affordable homes.
“We believe the challenges are great but there is no one particular way to meet those challenges – community involvement, community organizing, lobbying a legislator, voting, those are all ways you can bend the arc,” van Capelle says. “Our job is giving as many Jews as possible a way to do this work in a Jewish context.”
The organization includes Jews from all corners of the spectrum, van Capelle says, including many who are unaffiliated. “We want to create enough on-ramps for Jews to participate as Jews on the issues they care about.”