Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips
A quarter-century has now passed since I was first introduced to the vital Jewish principles known as “ways of peace” (darkhei shalom) during a five-year sojourn in Israel. Having emerged from the 1991 Gulf War during that sojourn, I found the practical orientation of “ways of peace” both compelling and timeless. Here were 1800 years of spiritual guidance for cooperation across many lines of diversity and potential conflict—between different kinds of Jews, as well as between Jews and other peoples:
“In cities of diversity…we organize ourselves and our money…and sustain the poor…and visit the sick…and bury the dead…and console the bereaved…for these are ways of peace.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Gitin)
WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources was created in August 2012 to advance these transformative priorities—which represent the core cultural challenges of money and death, respectively. As such, our work is aligned with all four propositions identified by Rabbi Schwarz in Jewish Megatrends.
Wisdom / Chochma: The hevra kadisha (sacred burial fellowship) embodies deep, practical wisdom for facing death that can be found across world cultures—as highlighted by today’s nonsectarian “green burial” movement. Similarly, the wisdom of tzedakah as “just-giving” through the ancient sh’mita (release) cycle corresponds to global spiritual principles of proportional sharing, and brings distributive financial power into our own hands—regardless of how much or how little we may earn.
Social Justice/Tzedek: In a world struggling with climate change and extreme financial inequality, Jewish practices of simple, participatory burial and “just-giving” are vital tzedek actions. Bringing together concern for the poor and vulnerable with concern for the earth, WAYS OF PEACE reclaims these practices of fairness and sustainability. And given the diverse and sometimes conflicting definitions of social justice within our Jewish communities as noted by Rabbi Schwarz, “just-giving” offers an ongoing process of action/reflection that can transcend ideological impasses.
Community/Kehillah: We are taught that the world stands on a tripod of study, worship, and caring actions (Avot 1:2). When our Jewish communities run on the two business-as-usual legs of study and worship, the third leg of caring actions is usually shortened for efficiency. Yet this third leg is the only one that can support us reliably “on one foot” (BT Shabbat 31a). WAYS OF PEACE advocates a paradigm shift from tripod to tricycle—inspiring our Jewish communities to move forward with caring actions as the leading wheel, while the wheels of study and worship move back to supporting roles.
Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedusha: Rabbi Schwarz is especially perspicacious in his call for engagement of the capitalist marketplace in the service of kedusha. This, indeed, is the founding premise of WAYS OF PEACE as a social microenterprise—administratively frugal, holistically committed—in which at least 10 percent of all net staff compensation is shared forward with other organizations that uphold our core values of justice and kindness across lines of diversity.
The transformation of our cultural attitudes toward money and death is a profound, incremental process—as challenging to measure as to market. Even so, WAYS OF PEACE program service revenues have brought in about 70% of our growing budget over the past two years, despite the absence of established institutional funding since inception. Now we seek modest grant support for our work on the broader challenges of cultural transformation, so that we can increase the demand for our fee-for-service programs without being unnecessarily restricted from functioning in their absence.
In addition to the four propositions above, WAYS OF PEACE upholds the multigenerational dialogue that is essential for learning the lessons of history—and for healing the wounds of ageism, perhaps the most neglected of intersectional concerns. As Rabbi Schwarz indicates, those who “believe we invented the generation gap”—known academically as age segregation, often revealing invidious comparisons between old and young—may still not have clarity about the limitations of a youth-centric approach to Jewish community renewal. Nor are the blind spots limited to particular generations.
Relationships among generations can be only partially defined by historical epoch. As a Jew born in 1959, I am as close in age to the oldest Generation X members as I am to Rabbi Schwarz. Although I am classified as a boomer, I came of age in the 1970’s, not the 1960’s. Similarly, the oldest millennials are biologically old enough to be parents of the youngest millennials.
Healing the wounds of ageism fosters a shared acknowledgement that there is no future without a past. Knowingly or not, today’s Jewish giving circles follow in the footsteps of tzedakah collectives such as those of the Highland Park Minyan and Fabrangen; the latter has collected and disbursed more than $2 million dollars over four decades of egalitarian, participatory, grassroots funding.
More broadly, these havurot and other alternative organizations that have long engaged Jews in study, prayer, and social action are the forerunners of many of today’s Jewish innovations. Pardes Institute—the egalitarian prototype for Mechon Hadar—was established in 1972, and the National Havurah Committee has been organizing pluralistic, multigenerational Jewish gatherings since 1979.
As with every ecosystem, the ecosystem of Jewish ideas and institutions involves a continuous life cycle of birth, growth, disintegration, death and rebirth. Each ecosystem component impacts and influences all the others. Where certain components are in ascendancy, others will characteristically show decline—as when potentially divisive tzedek issues are deferred for the sake of greater unity in kehillah, or when the boundaries of kehillah are more narrowly drawn for purposes of a particular approach to kedusha. And, as Rabbi Schwarz demonstrates in his penetrating analysis of Birthright Israel, the timing and scope of financial arrangements are often the determining factors.
WAYS OF PEACE bears witness to these ecosystem paradoxes, and engages them for optimal sustainability, spirituality, and social justice.
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH is the founding executive director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources, the editor of Generous Justice: Jewish Wisdom for Just-Giving, and author of Counting Days: From Liberation to Revelation for Jews in Recovery. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Forward, Tablet Magazine, The Jewish Week, and Newsday.