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National Holidays: Social Justice Guide

A Social Justice Program Guide for National Holidays

Throughout our history, the Jewish people has celebrated and commemorated the holy days of our ancestors. We have joyously lit our chanukiyot and spun the dreidel during Chanukah, ate matzah and retold the story of Egyptian slavery during Pesach and personally reflected upon our transgressions during Yom Kippur. Now, as modern North American Jews, our Jewish heritage has begun to share space with our American and Canadian identities as well. We eat turkey during Thanksgiving, watch fireworks boom above our heads on Independence Day and honor our parents during Mother’s and Father’s Day. Our identities have become as American or Canadian as they are Jewish.

Just as we have adopted many of these American and Canadian customs as our own, we also have the ability to bring our Jewish values and rituals into our secular holiday observances. As our Jewish identity becomes integrated with our national identity, we consider the ways we might celebrate our national holidays in uniquely Jewish ways and incorporate Jewish values and rituals.

Over the past few years, the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism has compiled numerous social justice program guides for the Jewish holidays. They have enabled thousands of American Jews to celebrate Jewish holidays not only in traditional ways, but also through the additional lens of social justice, considering ways to celebrate our holidays by working to fulfill the ideal of tikkun olam.

This online and printable program guide provides resources for North American Jews to celebrate national holidays through a Jewish lens. Not only will we continue to have picnics, fireworks, and exchange cards like our fellow citizens, but we also can bring a unique Jewish flavor to our celebrations as we make a difference in the world through g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). By combining our Jewish heritage and American culture, we will integrate our religious and national identities and further our efforts to repair the world.

In addition, national holidays provide special opportunities to build relationships with other faith and ethnic groups. Through interfaith gatherings, dialogues and social justice initiatives, we can work hand in hand to build a better world during these days of common observance.

For each holiday described here, there are Jewish texts and programs for synagogues, individuals and communities to address social justice issues. These programs can take place during the specific holiday, or the holiday can be used as a jumping off point for a more extensive program. Our hope is that by building relationships with others, we can bring justice to our communities and improve the world around us.

Study Leads to Action

Throughout our history, Judaism has stressed the importance of Jewish study and we are affectionately known as “The People of the Book.” But our tradition also emphasizes the importance of action. We are even commanded to fulfill 613 mitzvot (commandments)! Although study and action can work in tandem, often in Jewish history groups have only focused on one idea or the other. This debate can be witnessed through a discussion which is found in the Babylonian Talmud:

Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were reclining in the upper chamber of Nitzah’s house in Lod. This question was raised before them: “What is more important, the study of Torah or the practice of mitzvot?” Rabbi Tarfon answered: “The practice of mitzvot is more important.” Rabbi Akiba answered, “The study of Torah is greater.” Then all of them spoke up and said, “The study of Torah is more important because the study of Torah brings one to the practice of mitzvot!” (BT Kedushin 40b)

Although the action of our hands is extremely important, we realize that study enables us to learn about an issue, to frame it in a Jewish context, and to further our calling to action. That is why the mitzvah of talmud Torah (the study of Torah) has always been a serious focus in Jewish tradition. As Reform Jews, we continue to follow this commandment through lifelong Jewish learning.

Throughout this guide, we have included various texts from the Torah, Talmud, midrash, medieval and modern sources. These texts can be used to begin discussion and to further our call to tikkun olam. The texts can be used for board meetings, social action committee meetings, home study, adult education courses, or to aid in the writing of a d’var Torah. By beginning with study of Jewish texts and values, we show commitment to Jewish learning, which creates an ethical foundation for our daily action and inspires us to make the world whole.

Text study should enable discussion among the various participants at a meeting. Traditionally in a yeshivah, study occurred in chevruta (group study) in which two or three participants would work together to examine a piece of text. Chevruta study is important, so that different views and ideas can be shared with one another. In addition to reading the texts, various questions might be utilized to facilitate discussion such as:

  1. What values does this text address? What does the writer wish to change about the society in which he/she is living?
  2. What connections can be made between these values and the holiday we are celebrating?
  3. What actions can I take to fulfill the dreams of the writer of this text?
  4. How can we live these values as we observe this holiday? How can we help others make these same connections?