Globalizing Social Justice

Social justice causes are rarely constrained by geographic boundaries. While the pursuit of societal fairness may be surprisingly similar in focus across generations, the geographic limitations of such efforts seem to be diminishing. In the age of the Internet and international travel, social justice has become increasingly globalized. This shift has become noteworthy within the Jewish community and the many social justice causes it espouses.

To take an example that is on many of our minds today, the organization Women of the Wall has taken its cause worldwide. In some ways this may seem ironic. Women of the Wall is a group pursuing equal rights for men and women praying at the Kotel, the sacred Wailing Wall in the heart of Jerusalem — a site that is most specific geographically.

Yet the accessibility of that wall to all who seek to pray impacts not only Jerusalem locals but Jews around the world. In an era of international travel, a Jew in Los Angeles may pray at the Kotel as often as one living in Tiberius.

That a holy site would be overseen by an administrator from one Jewish denomination, advancing his own orientation to prayer, is anathema to the aspirations of our polythetic religious community. It undermines justice not only for Jerusalem residents or Israelis, but Jews worldwide.

Capitalizing on this understanding, Women of the Wall has engaged Jewish communities globally (with a particular emphasis on the United States) in rallies and gatherings, as well as prayer services in support of the ones that the organization facilitates at the start of each month at the Kotel itself.

A most geographically specific cause has taken on global proportions and involved Jews from around the world. It is one that is near to their hearts, even if focused on the policies of a far away place. While significant change has yet to come to the Kotel, it has already come to the way justice is pursued at our tradition’s most holy site.

One need not look far to see similar phenomena burgeoning within the environmental movement, interfaith movement, and other social justice causes. Many of them, by virtue of their areas of focus, have long stretched across geographic boundaries. Yet it is striking to see just how much they can marshal support globally with keen use Internet-based tools. One viral video or spicy article, one Facebook meme or re-tweet by a celebrity, can rapidly raise the profile of an effort or cause.

At an event last month at the Jewish Theological Seminary, social justice visionaries from across religious traditions shared their impressions of change and continuity within their work.

Evident in the discussion was the extent to which many have come to engage causes that stretch across the world. While youth, as “digital natives,” may be especially adept at harnessing online tools, fewer causes are now seen solely as local.

The panelists, when listing the causes they thought were most pressing today, named women’s rights, the proliferation of unconventional weapons, global warming, and the disparity of wealth. None of these issues can truly be seen as local or even national. While they can be addressed at the local level, they are bound up in far larger international challenges.

The social, spiritual, and textual basis for pursuing justice may remain constant. But the scope and methodology for addressing particular causes have shifted profoundly. Like so many other areas of our lives, social justice has become globalized, bringing to international attention ostensibly local issues and international issues to local communities and social justice leaders.

Justice is transcendent, even as the way we pursue it continues to change.

“Justice Tzedek Sadaqah: Pursuing Social Justice in Multifaith Communities,” the program whose video appears in this article, was brought to you by the Nelson Mandela Center at the Museum for African Art and is in part made possible by a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The event was hosted by leaders of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which also provided the video for this article.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.