Expanding "Never Again": Jewish Angelenos respond to genocide

Jewish Angelenos respond to genocide1

Brie Loskota, Jennifer A. Thompson, and Tobin Belzer


Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis sounded the call for Jews to engage with the issue of genocide in Darfur during his 2004 High Holy Day sermon, a time when American public awareness of the genocide in Darfur was beginning to grow. Schulweis, the senior rabbi at the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in the San Fernando Valley, had been a member of the clergy' since the 1970s. He was a nationally recognized social justice pioneer and theologian, a prominent figure in the Los Angeles Jewish community, and one of the best-known pulpit rabbis in the United States.

By including Darfur in his sermon, he profoundly reimagined the notion of “never again,” a phrase that had become shorthand among American Jews to affirm their ongoing commitment to remembering the Holocaust.2 Schulweis expanded “never again” beyond the idea that Jews should never again face the horrors of genocide, re-envisioning the phrase as a call for Jews to stand up to any genocide, regardless of where it was perpetrated or whom it targeted. He reminded his congregants that tens of genocides had been committed during the 65 years that Jews had been saying “never again.” In the months and years that followed, he frequently asserted that Jews are obligated to fight for all victims of genocide, regardless of their religion, saying: “It’s not because they are Jews, it’s because we are Jews.”

Schulweis first began to put his words into action by calling on a member of his congregation - Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a respected lawyer, feminist, and Jewish communal leader - to help him start a new initiative. “One hundred thousand people have been killed in Darfur and I want to know what you and I are going to do about it,” he said to her (Pressberg 2012). Kamenir-Reznik recalled her response:

I had this dramatic realization as a Jew that I had never thought about these other genocides as really connected to me. ... Somehow, I thought that we had our Holocaust and other people had their genocides. And that’s a ridiculous notion, because if everybody thinks that way, there’s just going to be more genocide.

(Pressberg 2012)

In 2004, the two co-founded Jewish World Watch (JWW), an organization dedicated to raising both awareness and funds to prevent genocide and other mass atrocities. The organization has since raised approximately 19 million dollars and currently works with 47 member synagogues to create opportunities for trans-denominational and multi-faith cooperation through its funding of education, advocacy, and refugee relief projects in five countries (Jewish World Watch n.d.).

JWW was established at a time when the structure of American Jewish philanthropic culture was changing. Jewish philanthropy was becoming increasingly decentralized because of the rise of family foundations. These foundations stood independent of the Jewish federation system, which had centralized the raising and distribution of funds for Jewish organizations in major cities for decades (Wertheimer 2011). In that system, federation leaders unilaterally decided which organizations and projects to fund. Family foundations, with their own money to distribute, began pursuing their own projects in Jewish communities, regardless of federations’ interests. This change was part of a broader trend occurring in the philanthropic sector at the national level. Of the roughly 31,000 new philanthropic organizations founded between 1997 and 2007, close to 90% were independent foundations (Lawrence and Reina 2009). In the Jewish communal sector, this shift meant the federation system could no longer unilaterally set the agenda for the American Jewish community’ (Wertheimer 2018, 8).

With the founding of JWW, Schulweis and Kamenir-Reznik provided individuals and congregations with an intimately' and painfully familiar starting point from which to confront the universal problem of genocide. In both mission and structure, the organization exemplifies a cosmopolitan ethos, which cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah describes as balancing of two ideals: “universal concern for others alongside respect for legitimate differences” (Appiah 2007, xv). As an organization, JWW encompasses many' of the qualities that make the Jewish community' in Los Angeles unique. This chapter examines the development and success of JWW as a starting point to explore some of the distinctive qualities of the Los Angeles Jewish community' and to understand how JWW is a product of the culture from which it emerged.

JWW’s organizational characteristics illustrate the particularities of local history', culture, and organizational infrastructure. First, its founders created a theological and philosophical imperative that blended the particularism ofjewish tradition and history' with a twenty-first century' cosmopolitan ethos. In the Jewish philanthropic climate of 2004, which privileged Jewish continuity' and peoplehood, JWW was distinctive for its outward-facing, single-minded agenda: the organization’s founding mission focused on a genocide involving Muslims in a country thousands of miles away.3

Second, while the organization gained prominence on the shoulders of a charismatic pulpit rabbi, the organizational structure was quickly expanded to include a broad collection of Southern California synagogues. And finally, JWW was both intensely relational - relying heavily on personal, voluntary networks and social capital - and highly individualistic, allowing each allied synagogue and each individual volunteer to tailor their involvement based on their interests, assets, and needs.

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