It can be isolating to be a progressive Jew in North Carolina. In a state where just 1% of the population identifies as Jewish, it can be tough just to find a religious community, let alone a politically active one. Although older Jews who may have been activists in the civil rights movement of the 20th century still live there, it appears their coordinated work for justice ended along with that era. There is no sustaining, Jewish-identified organizational infrastructure that today’s generation of younger North Carolina Jews could revive and harness for today’s fights.
But recently one Raleigh-based Jewish group has tapped into a wellspring of political passion among Jews, and is mobilizing them across the state to challenge the Republican takeover of the legislature. Through building coalitions with other faith and community-based groups, turning Jews out to the Moral Mondays rallies at the state capitol, and organizing laypeople and rabbis to take action, the members of Carolina Jews for Justice (CJJ) are speaking up for the political changes they want to see in North Carolina.
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein describes the loose but committed network of grassroots volunteers that maintains this activity. “There are eight or ten of us that keep the day-to day work going, 20 of us that come all the time, and 100 that come out to a rally,” she says. Goldstein adds that while CJJ’s regular meetings are held in Raleigh and Durham, it claims members from all over the state, including the metro regions of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Asheville, and Greensboro.
Faith in Action
Max Socol, CJJ’s 27-year-old co-founder, grew up in Greensboro and now lives and works in Raleigh as principal of a temple-based school. His organizing pedigree, though, dates back to his living and working in Israel in 2008-2009 with Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI). From there, he moved to Washington, DC, where there were plenty of opportunities to work for social justice but no consensus among those who were doing the work. “There were two moments,” he says, “that crystallized for me the idea that it would be useful to advocate for justice from a Jewish perspective.”
The first such moment, he says, was at the Occupy DC encampment, where Socol attended meetings and tried to make his voice heard. “My overall experience with that movement was, ‘Gee, I’ve never met so many people who have similar political opinions, but have such a hard time communicating with each other,” Socol says. “All of us wanted to address economic inequality in a public, hands-on way; but despite that, we couldn’t get through a single organizing meeting! We didn’t have a single touchstone with which to communicate.” Socol says that this prompted him to re-examine how a shared commitment to Jewish ritual and practice might become such a touchstone.
Socol became active in the DC Jewish community, attending Shabbat dinners where people discussed how to support the Occupy movement. “I’m actually getting more done,” he remembers thinking to himself. “Organizing within the Jewish community allows me to leapfrog these communication barriers because we understand each other.”
Socol’s second moment of clarity came when he approached a mentor about using Torah as the foundation for taking action and organizing others to work for social justice. He was apprehensive, he told his mentor, about being so bold as to “politicize the texts” – in other words, to interpret and apply Torah to modern struggles for economic and social justice. “She laughed in my face,” he says. “She said, ‘Have you ever even read the book of Jeremiah?’” Socol saw what she meant and decided to embrace a social-justice interpretation of Torah. “I’m not going to pretend,” he adds, “that Jeremiah is only speaking metaphorically when he says a society that fails to care for the poor is doomed.”
Socol’s faith-driven activism found some willing partners in the Jewish community when he moved back to Raleigh in 2012. As liaison for his congregation’s social action committee, Socol says he couldn’t sit by as the committee organized simple acts of charity while hard-right Republicans swept to power at the statehouse. The new state majority, backed by wealthy North Carolina businessman Art Pope, began passing tax cuts for the wealthy and moved right along to gutting voters’ rights. Socol asked the committee to consider taking a political stance. “I said, ‘It’s great that we send ten volunteers down to serve at the food pantry every month, but there’s a reason that there’s greater need at the food pantry. Are we in any way going to express unhappiness with the new tax plan?’”
CJJ president Debbie Goldstein had had a similar moment a few years ago when it became clear that Jews in her state needed to speak out. “The debate over immigration reform was to me very disturbing in North Carolina,” she says. “It just seemed like candidates were fighting over who could be more anti-immigrant. It shocked me.” Goldstein says she began attending regular events with Jewish social activists in Raleigh, and met some others who wanted to become politically engaged. “There was a proposal two years ago to have a constitutional amendment that would limit the right of gay people to marry. That also bothered me,” she says. “It pushed many Jews to take a political position where they had never taken a position before.”
In 2012, along with a few people from his own congregation who were interested in doing political work, Socol began reaching out to social action committees at area congregations, and a group formed that became the executive board of CJJ.
A Growing Movement