Tikkun Olam in 2018: The Washington Hebrew Congregation and Social Justice

By: May Teng

July 26, 2018

Background

Established as Washington’s first Jewish congregation in 1852, the Washington Hebrew Congregation has been a member of its surrounding community in Washington, D.C., for over 160 years, with President Harry S. Truman laying the cornerstone for its current building and President Dwight D. Eisenhower dedicating the building in 1955. The congregation has grown to become the D.C. area’s largest Jewish congregation with approximately 3,000 families, making the Washington Hebrew Congregation among the largest congregations practicing Reformed Judaism in the world.

The Washington Hebrew Congregation places a strong emphasis on social justice, both working with community partners and developing independent programs pertaining to a wide range of social justice initiatives. Through its Tikkun Olam Values (TOV) Committee, the Washington Hebrew Congregation distributes up to $100,000 a year to funding local social action initiatives. The congregation also hosts a variety of large-scale service events throughout the year, in which both congregants and surrounding community members can volunteer their services to projects from meal packaging to clothing donations.

Apart from these events, the Washington Hebrew Congregation is also involved in long-term initiatives. Among them are programs like the Minds Matter Initiative and the Good Neighbors Initiative. The Mind Matters initiative offers non-profit organizations a channel to seek advising for programs or business plans. Meanwhile, as a member of the Good Neighbors Initiative, the congregation plays a role in helping refugee families settle in the D.C. area.

Programs such as the Good Neighbors Initiative necessitate cooperation and partnership with surrounding religious institutions from diverse theological backgrounds. The Washington Hebrew Congregation actively engages with surrounding members from different religious communities in its service initiatives, interacting with long-term partners such as the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) and Lutheran Social Services. 

In this way, service work allows the Washington Hebrew Congregation to foster and maintain interfaith connections throughout the D.C. area and beyond. While this interfaith involvement involves service work, it also extends to encouraging interfaith dialogue and theological discussion. On February 9, 2018, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah made his first ever appearance at a Jewish synagogue during a special Shabbat service at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Such events are indicative of the Washington Hebrew Congregation’s open stance towards embracing and working with different religions, both as they pertain to social justice work and beyond. 

Religious Lens

Engagement in social justice is deeply ingrained into the congregation’s religious ethos. “We need to keep in mind why we are [engaging in social justice work] as Jews,” said Naomi Abselon Gohn, current director of programs and director of the TOV center at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. “If we’re not adding the component of what our faith teaches us, then we’re missing a huge aspect of this.” Gohn’s personal convictions in Judaism are closely linked to social justice. “What made me want to become involved in the Jewish community was the connection I saw between Judaism and social justice,” Gohn said. “Part of being Jewish is being engaged in the community around you and fighting for Jewish values.” Gohn’s convictions are also influenced by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rabbi Herschel announced that participating in the march for civil rights was a form of “praying with my feet.” For both Rabbi Herschel and Ms. Gohn, social work and activism are integral to their religious beliefs and serve as a means to bring their convictions to life.

Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig affirmed this idea, stating that congregants view social justice work as a means to show their honor of God. “I can say ‘I love you,’” Lustig said, “but if I don’t show you that love—if it’s not demonstrable in some fashion—then it may not have much force in the world.” Lustig holds to this conviction closely, with a scripture emblazoned on his money clip to serve as a reminder throughout the day. One side of the clip reads “I believe with absolute faith,” while the other reads “The righteous one eats to satiate his soul.” Lustig explained that, while the former scripture teaches him to hold onto his faith, the latter reminds him that he must also “eat”—that is, he must truly engage in the world and taste its proverbial flavors—in order to experience it. For Lustig, the money clip serves as a metaphor that allows him to contemplate where he distributes his most valued resource—not money, but time.

Lustig provided multiple Talmudic scriptures and stories to illustrate a Hebraic foundation for service work. Among these was the scripture “sedih sedih tirdof” [1], a phrase often taught to younger members of the congregation that implies a command to implement justice. The story of the Passover Haggadah also informs the Jewish identity as one of a liberated people freed from oppression by their God. “Having had that background,” Lustig said, “the idea of seeking freedom becomes paradigmatic, whether that’s personal freedom, freedom from bigotry, hatred, or any of those things.” Rabbi Lustig continued to list numerous examples of Talmudic scripture, from the V’ahavta prayer to the parting of the Red Sea, that provide a Jewish foundation for advocacy and social justice. Each leads towards a greater implication: Judaism is embodied not only through scriptural understanding, but through its implementation in the community.

Between Social Justice and Interfaith Engagement

As such a long-established institution in the Washington, D.C. area, the Washington Hebrew Congregation has been an involved member of the community since its formation in the nineteenth century. A major type of involvement for the congregation takes place amongst various other religious institutions. The congregation works closely with its longstanding partners from a variety of religious backgrounds to promote shared social causes. Events hosted by the congregation, such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, gather community members from all religious backgrounds to contribute to various initiatives. Participants are divided into separate tables, each working on individual projects such as food packing, sandwich making, and school supply assembly.

At one given table this past spring, individuals from Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and agnostic faith backgrounds gathered to tie blankets for homeless members of the Washington, D.C. community, openly sharing their religious beliefs with each other as they worked. As the MLK Day event affirms, there is no religious prerequisite to becoming involved in service at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Service events often become a space for community members of different faiths to comfortably discuss the commonalities and differences in their faith traditions.

For Rabbi Lustig, the significance to interfaith interactions can be found in the community fostered as a result. An example of this can be found in Sheikh Bin-Bayyah’s visit to the Washington Hebrew Congregation this past spring. Though Lustig emphasized that Bin-Bayyah’s visit was a significant event, he recounted an anecdote that he viewed as an even more important ramification. During the service, children from the Washington Hebrew Congregation and from ADAMS participated in a joint choir and ate dinner together afterwards. Lustig recalls seeing two young girls from the Jewish and Muslim communities discussing the service and proceeding to compare and contrast their religious texts. “Often, you have to pay attention not to the stone that drops in the pond but the wake that it makes,” Lustig said. “Bin Bayyah’s visit was a great event. But the greater event took place when those kids ate and sang together, and the pride that they had in singing Hebrew, Arabic, and English songs to this great leader. Those kids now have a model of harmony and cooperation.”

The Washington Hebrew Congregation makes constant efforts to set a positive model of cooperation with its interfaith partners, even having a room set aside within the temple for Muslim community members to pray. “It’s important to have dialogue, and to understand other religions and cultures, but when you’re able to roll up your sleeves and take action in your shared communities, that is where you build really strong relationships,” Ms. Gohn said. The process of mutual understanding and cooperation is not always straightforward, and Gohn notes that there have been obstacles. When trying to purchase mats for the Muslim prayer room, for example, Gohn confesses, “I have no idea where to buy prayer mats!” However, after contacting the congregation’s partners at the ADAMS center, Gohn explains that she learned how to better cater to the needs of Muslim community members.

Though the congregation has been able to maintain meaningful relationships with its interfaith partners, Lustig noted that it has often been more difficult to avoid intrafaith tensions—that is, tensions within different sects of Judaism itself. “Some of your most intense fights are going to be with your own family; if your family differs in certain things, that’s a greater threat to your identity,” Lustig said. He added that he has to “work very hard” to prevent any innate prejudices regarding other Jewish values from hindering cooperation.

Context and Community

For Jews and non-Jews alike, the Washington Hebrew Congregation has both impacted and been impacted by its longstanding presence in Washington, D.C. Located in an area saturated with political and religious presence, the congregation stands just down the street from the National Cathedral and other significant religious buildings. This location certainly lends the congregation a level of influence in the surrounding community that it might otherwise not achieve, but also leads to a greater level of responsibility. Every year, the congregation participates in the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington’s Unity Walk, where over a thousand members of various faiths gather to demonstrate their unity and solidarity for religious and cultural diversity. “We take the responsibility of being a legacy congregation very seriously,” said Gohn. “We need to be a part of making this community what we want it to be; it’s a driving force for us.”

The political climate of Washington, D.C., particularly in recent years, has also been an influencing factor in the congregation’s priorities. Associate Rabbi Aaron Miller observed that “I see a lot of commitment to making the world a better place, and with a lot of passion that I frankly did not see before 2016. There has always been a drive in the Jewish community to make the world a better place, but I think that given the condition of national politics right now in a city like Washington, that has really been put into hyperdrive.” As such, more and more young members of the congregation have recently found a renewed energy with which to pursue social causes. “We’re seeing a lot more Jews passionate about social justice, tikkun olam, and building a just world.” The energy of youthful activism in Washington, D.C., has thus permeated religious organizations such as the Washington Hebrew Congregation and led to a surge in social justice participation. 

Conclusion

The most immediately distinctive feature of the Washington Hebrew Congregation is its ability to seamlessly integrate social justice and community involvement into its theological teachings. Each member of the congregation interviewed for this case study was quick to emphasize the role of community building and social work in Judaism, and for individuals like Gohn, it is this very feature of Judaism—the idea of tikkun olam, of creating a better future—that makes Judaism so compelling. Though members of the congregation are quick to point out that they are not immune to obstacles and challenges in fostering a unified interreligious community, they also demonstrate a strong willingness to better understand members of the community and take action towards community building.

The sheer scope of projects endorsed by the Washington Hebrew Congregation not only displays a commitment to service work, but also allows congregants and community members to participate in a selection of projects, contributing whatever various skills they may have. From one-day projects to long-term consultations and partnerships, the Washington Hebrew Congregation strives to “go beyond the sandwich” by providing a range of services that will last longer, and span wider, than a single packed meal. Rather, the Washington Hebrew Congregation uses its Hebraic foundation and its influential religious platform in order to take strides towards a more socially conscious and unified world.

[1] Deuteronomy 16:20—“Justice, justice, you shall pursue."

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Tikkun Olam in 2018: The Washington Hebrew Congregation and Social Justice