As a people group with a horrific history of discrimination, Jewish groups in Athens have explained why pursuing issues of social justice are paramount to their religious identity and urgent after the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
Ellie Reingold, a junior interdisciplinary theater and animation major at the University of Georgia, is an active member of the Tzedek Committee at UGA Hillel, a prominent Jewish student group in Athens. Tzedek means justice in Hebrew, and the Tzedek committee aims to take action against social injustices such as racism and minority oppression, especially in a time where these issues are widely discussed in our current culture.
“We’re taught to ‘care for the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt,’” said Reingold, quoting the Torah, the Jewish religious text.
Though Reingold wrestles with the spiritual side of Judaism, two core tenets drive her vibrant activism in this ethno-religious community: tzedek, tzedek tirdof, or justice, justice we shall pursue, and tikkun olam, translated, to repair the world.
If religion isn’t about making the world a better place, what is it about?” Reingold said.
“Religion is supposed to help you be a better person and, you know, how else to do that than engaging social justice and trying to make the world around you and the society around you a better place for everyone,” Reingold said.
Reingold feels the long history of oppression interwoven into Jewish heritage allows Jewish people to empathize with other oppressed minorities, while also taking responsibility to actively uplift them.
“Most of us here are white passing, so we benefit from white privilege and therefore we have a responsibility to speak to our fellow white people and try to dismantle the system of racial oppression,” Reingold said.
Recently, Reingold helped organize a fundraiser benefiting three Black organizations in response to the death of George Floyd to show Jewish solidarity with the Black community. Since then, the committee has also organized a racial speaker series within the organization.
At Congregation Children of Israel, Rabbi Eric Linder agrees that justice is a prominent doctrine of the Jewish faith. The Reformed congregation is the only member-based synagogue in Athens and has an active social justice committee.
“We want our actions to be one of goodness and healing and blessing,” Linder said. A foundational principle in the Reform congregation is not only to do good for the sake of Jews, but for the community as a whole.
The rabbi proudly affirms the connection between the congregation and the Athens community is strong.
“One of the things I am most proud of is our relationship to the greater Athens community, both in terms with myself with other clergy personally, and the congregation communally, I think it’s very positive,” Linder said.
Last year, Linder served as the president of the Interfaith Clergy Partnership of Greater Athens, which he said formed from a diverse group of clergy friends sharing a meal around a table.
Now the Interfaith Clergy Partnership of Athens consists of more than 30 religious leaders, all holding different spiritual beliefs. After the death of George Floyd, the group took part in a Black Lives Matter vigil outside City Hall in Athens to support social justice actions as a united front.
While engaging in issues of diversity has always been a personal priority for Linder, he said the idea of tikkun olam influences many of his sermons, prayers and teachings as well as how some Jews, including members of his congregation, relate to the religion.
“There are a lot of Jews in our congregation where if you ask them … what most connects them to Judaism or the congregation, their answers would not necessarily be about belief in God or any sort of theology … but it would be about the ethical dimension of Judaism, mainly the importance of engaging the world in tikkun olam,” Linder said.
Like many of the members of Linder’s congregation, Reingold’s primary connection to Judaism, apart from her heritage, also comes from its ethical dimension, which motivates her urgency to pursue justice and sense of duty to repair the world.
We are a minority, but still part of a majority that we need to try to influence and change,” Reingold said.
Caroline Head is a senior majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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