“These two parallel movements share some history that is worth noting. The Jewish community that once supported the labor movement in both word and deed—“praying with our legs,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously called it—remains a vital force for justice. The group Interfaith Worker Justice has posted statements of support from groups like the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations for specific workers’ rights issues like living wages and the right to bargain collectively. Given their historical relationship, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the independent Jewish communities—like Ikar in Los Angeles—vocally support, if not specific labor rights, then the rights of immigrants and solutions for poverty and inequality.
Both alt-labor and alt-congregations (or “professionally-run emerging Jewish communities,” as Akchin terms them) are explicitly welcoming of LGBT, interfaith, and immigrant groups/newcomers; this inclusivity makes their commitment to justice part of their fabric rather than an afterthought. Similarly, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers includes equity for immigrants, women, and people of color working in the restaurant industry as one of its guiding principles.
These newer groups also communicate with members and interested newcomers in a different way than the old guard did. Instead of mailing out printed newsletters to members’ homes, the Jewish spiritual communities and alt-labor groups broadcast their messages more widely. The internet allows for cheap public broadcasting about events, either two-way (as with Facebook and Twitter where people can leave messages for the group or tweet about events to their own followers) or one-way (as with a website). Jews, who become comfortable from birth with the idea of diaspora, and immigrant workers, who deal with living far from homelands and relatives, are perhaps better than ever before at communicating from afar. They—more than their forebears, who needed brick-and-mortar union halls and synagogues—may place their trust in the power of small groups acting in tandem around the country.
So, if they are so fragmented and distributed that one never knows who will show up at the next workers’ meeting or Shabbat service, what is it that ties together the participants in these emerging movements? The answer is a dual commitment to faith and justice. In both the independent Jewish communities and the alt-labor groups, newcomers are more comfortable with the languages of faith and justice than their predecessors.
One might ask where all this newness leads, and what is to become of the aging institutions. There is an age-old concern about continuity in the Jewish faith, alongside a concern about forgetting or eliding the largely unwritten history of organized labor.
Who will be the future stewards of institutional memory in the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as in the labor movement? The concern isn’t about making these institutions survive for their own sakes; it’s more about preserving the memories and the unwritten histories of local unions, local congregations. This concern seems well-founded, given the disappearance of union newspapers, for instance—papers that used to land in union members’ mailboxes filled with the stories of working Americans. But the key to preserving any movement’s history must rest with its heirs, and engaging those heirs on their own terms seems like a good exercise for the old guard. The elders should embrace, not reject, the new branches of their movements. They are the best hope for continuity, whatever form that takes.”