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How Jews Brought America to the Tipping Point on Marriage Equality: Lessons for the Next Social Justice Issues

In a few short years, same-sex marriage went from being an untouchable political hot potato to a broadly accepted civil right. Jews, and their social justice organizations, helped make that happen.

In a few short years, same-sex marriage went from being an untouchable political hot potato to a broadly accepted civil right in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. Jews, and their social justice organizations, helped make that happen. In fact, this magazine was a prophetic voice of marriage equality, supporting same-sex unions in the early 1990s and helping to lay the groundwork for the current wave of victories.

Bend The Arc members participate in the SF Gay Pride Parade. Credit: Bend The Arc.
The story of Jews’ contributions has continuing political relevance. The campaign for marriage equality offers valuable lessons for how to break through public resistance on other issues that Jewish groups are now addressing, including economic justice initiatives like paid sick leave, rights for domestic workers, and raising the minimum wage.

A forward-thinking strategy, combined with local and regional organizing, could be key to helping Jewish activists win victories on other issues that may seem unwinnable today, either because of intransigence in Congress or because they don’t yet have popular support. For example, Congress is nowhere near passing the $15 minimum wage that has become the clarion call of several campaigns for workers’ rights. It may seem equally farfetched to imagine that all workers could earn and receive paid sick time, or paid family leave, or that domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers could enjoy the same rights to livable wages and safe workplaces that workers in other industries receive.

Yet these are several policy issues for which activists—among them Jewish social justice groups—have already begun to stitch together a region-by-region patchwork of victories. For instance, Jewish social justice groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and Bend the Arc were early supporters of the domestic workers’ rights movement. Moreover, San Francisco, Albuquerque, San Jose, SeaTac, and Santa Fe have all passed citywide minimum wage increases; and legislatures in Washington, DC, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Dakota, Alaska, and several other states are considering raising their state minimum wages. To chart a way forward on these issues, it is worth examining how Jewish activists gathered enough force to help push the state-by-state dominoes over to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage has won, but its triumph was not preordained. Now that eighteen states have passed laws giving the full legal rights and tax benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, it is difficult to imagine a time when this achievement seemed impossible. But such a time did exist, and not long ago. In 2009, for example, the broader political climate—especially broad swaths of the Christian community—was hostile to same-sex marriage. That year, large religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church) arrayed themselves against it; leaders from these and other Christian groups signed a document that year called the Manhattan Declaration, that which claimed the Bible prohibits same-sex unions. (Over half a million people have since signed the Manhattan Declaration, although many others say it misinterprets Biblical teachings.)

Around that time, even mainstream liberals, such as President Obama, resisted fully embracing gay and lesbian marriages, preferring to offer lesbian and gay couples the separate-but-equal legal category of civil unions. “A lot of people, five years ago, would have said ‘Well, I support civil unions. We don’t need to call it marriage, because that’s a certain thing, but it would be the same legal rights,” says Hadar Susskind, director of the national Jewish grassroots political organization Bend the Arc Action and Bend the Arc PAC. “And I say we, because that was me at some point. We had to believe that that was sort of the progressive position.”

The victories in the states around marriage equality owed much to local and national Jewish social justice groups who looked beyond the political consensus of the time. Even five years ago, many of these groups stood behind same-sex couples who wished to marry. National Jewish social justice organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Bend the Arc (on whose board I currently serve as co-chair) helped to galvanize the American Jewish community to support pro-marriage equality bills in the states. In fact, Jews can claim a fair share of the credit for bringing Americans to a tipping point of accepting marriage equality.

If Jewish social justice organizations can bring the lessons from their victories on marriage equality to their work on the minimum wage and other economic justice issues, there may be more victories ahead.

First Lesson—Take a Clear Moral Stance

By coming out early with a clear moral position rooted in religious values and coordinating their message at the national and state levels, Jewish leaders helped reassure voters who may have been unsure about the religious implications of voting for marriage equality.

As early as 2007, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We have reached a point in American society where the obvious is clear: neither my marriage nor anyone else’s is threatened by two loving individuals of the same sex. And it is increasingly difficult for religious leaders to envision that the loving God of the Universe does not welcome such faithful relationships.”

The shift in attitudes is a deep one, according to a recent poll cited in a report in The Atlantic this past summer: “Even among the most conservative Christian group in America, 51 percent of white evangelicals aged 18 to 34 now support gay marriage”. And polls say Jews themselves now support marriage equality to the tune of over 80 percent. Susskind suggests it is no accident that Jews embraced same-sex marriage. “As the narrative on marriage equality in the country has moved,” he says, “Jews—as people who value equality, value civil rights, and have a long historical understanding of what it means to be discriminated against—are consistently at the front of that.”

This tactic of taking a moral, religion-based position on the treatment of one’s fellow humans is already proving useful in winning on economic justice issues.

Jewish leaders like Saperstein understand that there is often a disconnect between political conversations in Washington, DC, and what the public actually believes, and that this creates a space to push the conversation forward. The religion-based approach also helps Jewish leaders frame the message to congregations around economic justice issues like paid sick days and a higher minimum wage. Taking a similar step in the fight to raise the minimum wage, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved a legal opinion written by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in 2008 saying that employees of Jewish-owned businesses should be paid a living wage. “Raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklovitz, co-founder of New York orthodox social justice group Uri L’tzedek, wrote recently in a reasoned argument for raising the wage. “It is crucial that Jews fall out on the right side of this national debate as advocates for systemic change for the poor.”

In the DC region, at least seven shuls participated in a “Labor in the Bimah” campaign for Labor Day 2013, with rabbis communicating to their congregations about the need for raising the minimum wage. Jews United For Justice (JUFJ), a group based in Washington, DC, helped the shuls coordinate the event, telling Washington Jewish Week the action was based on their reading of Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute worker, whether you’re kin or a stranger in one of the communities of the land.” JUFJ organizer Rebecca Ennen said, “We had a campaign launch at a local synagogue, where elected leaders and rabbis and regular Jewish folks talked together about the importance of raising the minimum wage and decent worker protections in the Jewish tradition.” On December 17, the DC City Council voted unanimously to pass a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage to $11.50 an hour over three years.

Noting the recent Pew poll that showed that 70 percent of Jews vote and 56 percent say that being Jewish means working for justice, Abby Levine, director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable wrote in a November 22 op-ed in Zeek magazine that she sees a rise in Jewish involvement in “projects dealing with economic justice, women’s rights and community organizing.” Jewish social justice organizations are primed to train and mobilize even more faith-based activists to take on this next wave of struggles.

“We [Jews] bring a different paradigm than the typical paradigm of the policy marketplace, which is a paradigm of morals,” says Susan Lubeck of Bend the Arc’s Bay Area office in California. “Of what’s fair and right and good, and not just what is politically appetizing.”

Of course, a message alone cannot win without a localized grassroots organizing drive. That leads to another lesson for future campaigns:

Out-organize the Right Locally

Jewish activists and leaders at both the national and local/regional levels spearheaded the recent wave of victories for marriage equality (such as state-by-state legalizing of same-sex marriage and the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act). “We did it in a variety of smaller ways,” says Susskind. “[We had to] get rabbis signed on, get other community leaders signed on, do calling drives, get people engaged with their state legislators.” Susskind cites the work of regional Jewish groups as key to winning in several states; these include Jewish Community Action (JCA) in Minnesota, Jews United for Justice in Maryland, and Bend the Arc’s regional offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area in California.

State Senator Scott Dibble of Minnesota said the work of JCA was “very important” in two major recent fights there: defeating a 2012 amendment to the state’s constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage, and the subsequent passage of a state law that legalized it. “They provided lots of organizational support.” Dibble said. “The support came in many forms, a lot of it very practical and tangible. JCA arranged for meeting space in several different synagogues as we were getting underway.” Beyond providing such material assistance, Dibble said JCA was “also just a real key force and driver in the aspect of the campaign that relied on bringing the faith voice to the forefront.”

In California, the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is now part of Bend the Arc, joined a local coalition of progressive Jewish faith groups. Called Kol Tzedek, the coalition came together in 2008 to support San Francisco’s then-mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to start marrying gay and lesbian couples in open defiance of supporters of Proposition 8, the ballot measure that later passed outlawing same-sex marriage. Lubeck said Newsom’s move “was one of the key sparks” that pushed Bay Area Jews to become more vocal in their support of marriage equality. Lubeck recalls that PJA and other coalition members “came up [to City Hall] with a ketubah, and a big kind of posterboard and a chuppah to create a Jewish imprimatur for these weddings that were starting to happen, for anybody who was Jewish who wanted to have it connected to Jewish tradition, and for creating that street theater context.” Lubeck said PJA also organized forums on marriage equality, recruited clergymembers to speak publicly, and got voters out to the polls to vote against Proposition 8.

An Activist Legacy

Jews working in the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1960s approached their activism as activists first; that is, they were Jews who joined up with mainstream secular activist groups in the movement. Today’s crop of Jewish social justice activists are participating as Jews; that is, they form their own Jewish-identified organizations, and they bring their commitment to faith and ritual with them into the field of activism. This is a new model, one that preserves and holds the dual commitment within a single organization: the commitment to faith alongside the commitment to the cause.

Individual activists of the previous era who were sent to struggling communities, like CORE members Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, could be viewed as precursors to the AVODAH graduates staffing city-based community organizations today. (Schwerner and Goodman were both killed by the KKK during a voter registration drive in Mississippi.) One major difference for today’s young activists is that they bring with them into the field a faith-based organizational framework that can sustain and support them throughout their field experience. This adds a layer of security and personal support that the previous generations did not have.

The waning strength of unions has necessitated a leaner, louder approach for much of today’s economic justice activism. Much of the current wave of low-wage worker organizing adopts a performative style that both reflects aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and signals a departure from it. Much like the CORE sit-ins of the early movement, the fast food protests and paid sick days actions are conducted by a small group of activists to publicize issues rather than force change. As the sit-ins were public spectacles, so are today’s demonstrations.

But today’s Jewish activists for economic justice display little of the militancy that labor and civil rights activists and Jewish supporters expressed then. Instead, Jewish activists today seem to reserve their militancy for other liberal causes like immigration reform and marriage equality. Whereas, during the civil rights movement, a sanitation workers’ union could unite all citizens as a symbol of black power and exploitation, labor unions are no longer the locus of meaning for social-justice-minded Jews. Instead, Jewish activists and their organizations today commit themselves to the larger struggle—for a livable wage, fully-funded public schools, and so forth.

Looking Ahead

The drives for economic justice issues like minimum wage, paid sick days and domestic workers’ rights have also begun to notch local victories. But Jewish activists for these causes cannot yet claim to have hit a tipping point in the political zeitgeist similar to that of marriage equality. The minimum wage issue has sparked national arguments over whether employers can afford to pay more: when the city of SeaTac tried to pass a ballot initiative raising the minimum wage there to $15 an hour, the vote was a squeaker. The measure passed by just seventy-seven votes, and the business community may yet demand a recount.

In the Washington, DC, region, JUFJ worked alongside workers’ rights groups to pressure the city council into scheduling the December 17 vote to pass an $11.50 an hour minimum wage. DC councilmember Tommy Wells, who is currently running for mayor on a progressive platform, said, “Right off the bat, I was impressed” by JUFJ’s organizing on paid sick days and the minimum wage. “They held some events that I went to. And they met with me. I appreciated how clear they were on exactly what they wanted to happen.”

What they wanted to happen was for the city council to bring DC’s minimum wage into alignment with the surrounding Maryland region of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. There, the county councils in November passed the same increase—to $11.50 by 2017—following intense organizing by JUFJ and other groups. “We organized a lot of ways for Jewish people to contact their representatives,” said Ennen. “Jews, like anybody else, don’t necessarily participate that much in local politics. Jews do tend to be pretty hooked into progressive politics nationally, or national issue campaigns, but lots of people who are involved in JUFJ had never called their actual county representative. It turns out,” she went on, “that county elected leaders aren’t used to the level of lobbying that Congress is. So it doesn’t take hundreds of phone calls and thousands of petition signatures. They’re receptive to hearing from their constituents. So we did a lot of work to mobilize people to have those meetings and make those calls. That was one of the ways that we were able to win in Montgomery County.”

Similarly, the campaign for paid sick days, despite being backed by a broad coalition of workers’ rights groups, labor unions and public health professionals in some cities and states, has yet to break through some major employers’ resistance. And the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which a national coalition has been pushing with the help of Bend the Arc and even employers’ associations, has so far passed in only two states: New York and Hawaii—victories that Jews again helped to win. In New York, for instance, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) helped to convince families who hired domestic workers to care for their loved ones that having basic workplace protections would be good for their loved ones too. Now that New York has the Bill of Rights, JFREJ still helps to organize monthly meetings for employers, caregivers, and seniors to discuss how to implement it. Citing “the recognition that our groups’ respective values and vision are much the same—to enable both our elders and their caregivers to live safely with dignity and respect,” JFREJ wrote in its fall 2013 newsletter that “the rights of workers should not be put at odds with the needs of elders seeking care and support.”

As Jews across the country take part in conversations around such issues related to economic inequality, Lubeck, who has both a religious commitment to justice and an organizer’s tendency to afflict the comfortable, offers a series of questions: “Is it really okay that one family has a level of wealth which is the same as 42 percent of the population combined? Is it really okay that the people who make all other work possible can’t keep mind and body together? Is it okay to externalize these costs on to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger? Is that really all right?”

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