In my observation, many see social justice and environmentalism as two separate things — but that is not the case at Aytzim. For us, caring about the Earth means caring about all of its inhabitants, and that includes us humans. For us, being an environmental organization requires us to be a social-justice organization. And while seeds for solutions may be nested in problems, when it comes to environmental issues we humans tend to be part of both the problems as well as the solutions. Pursuing justice — tzedek — is crucial to our work. We pursue justice for our fellow people, our fellow animals and our fellow residents, those who can speak and those who cannot, on our shared and sacred Earth.
Certainly Jews — mostly young Jews — are attracted to our organization because they see their Jewish values reflected in our Jewish work. Anecdotally we know that Jews have found their Jewish connection through our work in a way that they did not find through mainstream Jewish organizational institutions such as synagogues, schools and Federations. In a way, therefore, support of our work enables support for Jewish continuity. While we recognize that is happening, we do not value that outcome. It is an unintended side effect that is valued by mainstream Jewish organizational life. Our interest is in doing good work that is informed by our Jewish values. It just so happens that our efforts also lead to strengthening Jewish identity.
It is because our pursuit of justice is informed by our Jewish values that, for us, tzedek and wisdom — chochma — are tied together in a way that really cannot be separated. Jewishly, we find that to pursue justice both requires wisdom for its execution as well as its inspiration. In that sense, we cannot do one without the other.
While we have been unable to separate chochma from tzedek, we have been able to work in tzedek-inspired chochma without the tzedek. This may be a good time to explain what I see as a key difference in the nature of these two terms. I see chochma as thought and tzedek as action. So at Aytzim, all of our actions are driven by our thought, but we also distribute thought without direct action (although we hope that the thought leads to action) through our educational materials.
A category that I see as missing from the rubric presented in Megatrends — and one with which Aytzim largely does not work — is the commodification and commercialization of Jewish culture. I would argue that both the development of community-supported-agriculture programs (CSAs) at synagogues and the rise of JDate would fall under this trend to how we literally consume Judaism. While we Millenials and Gen Xers may not be willing to donate money to Jewish nonprofits the way that our parents and grandparents did, we are collectively more than happy to participate in the commercial enterprise of Jewish consumption — buying Jewish food (the rise of Jewish CSAs), Jewish dates (JDate), music (Shemspeed). The value proposition of nonprofits does not quite hold as strong a pull as being able to buy a coffee mug with a basketball-dunking hasid above the slogan, “Just Jew It.”
I would argue that the missing megatrend — the commodification of our culture — has been the biggest megatrend of all. Many of the newer Jewish initiatives that have done well have done so through the selling of products and services — be they Jewish food, Jewish dates, or Jewish service-oriented trips and fellowships. This is not intended as a criticism of those groups participating in the commodification — indeed, I have great respect for many of them — but rather to note that while it used to be enough for a Jewish initiative to succeed with a good mission and a well-considered theory of change, today those two factors are not enough. Rather, Jewish initiatives today need good business plans. Nonprofits still need donations of course, but cannot be solely reliant on them. If a study were conducted on percentages of Jewish-nonprofit revenues that come from selling products and services, I suspect that the percentages would increase dramatically over time and that newer Jewish nonprofits in particular would have higher percentages of their revenues coming from the sale of products and services.
It is precisely this largest megatrend from which Aytzim largely abstains. We have no business plan. We sell nothing. Our work is nearly entirely financed through donations. And that, in turn, means microscopic revenues. Because the most important thing for Jewish initiatives today may not be whether or not one advances justice, wisdom, community and/or sacred purpose, but whether one’s work can be packaged and sold.
David Krantz is the co-founder and president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism and serves on the board of directors of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate as well as Arizona Interfaith Power & Light. He is a National Science Foundation IGERT doctoral researcher and Wrigley Fellow at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.