Moving Inward - Introductory Essay

by Judith Rosenbaum, Jewish Women's Archive

Throughout history, people working for the liberation of one group have begun to notice ways in which other communities (often ones the activists were a part of) suffered from oppression. Inspired by the model of one liberation movement, they have applied the experience and lessons learned in that movement to create a new liberation movement. For example, white women working in the 19th century antislavery movement became aware of the irony of working for citizenship rights – such as the right to vote – for African American men that they themselves did not have.

This Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century likewise spurred and/or energized several other movements, such as the antiwar movement, the women's movement, the Soviet Jewry movement, and a host of other movements in which other oppressed ethnic and racial groups, such as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, focused on building their own power and pride.

This is not to say that the Civil Rights Movement was entirely responsible for the origination of these other movements; rather, some of these movements had histories before the Civil Rights Movement, but were re-invigorated by activists who had cut their teeth on civil rights. In the case of the women's movement, for example, several parts of what has come to be known as Second Wave Feminism (as distinct from the First Wave, which was the suffrage movement), grew concurrently with the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. But a younger, more radical group of activists developed a feminist consciousness in large part because of their experiences working as civil rights activists in the South, where – no matter how educated, articulate, or skilled as organizers – they were often relegated to administrative or domestic roles, such as typing or making coffee, or were used sexually by men to prove their status and power in the community. They brought this newfound consciousness, as well as their organizing skills, to the women's movement in the late 1960s.

Similarly, women (like Ellen Willis, whose "Letter to the New Left" is included in this lesson plan) who had been active in the New Left (a movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, led primarily by students who challenged the prevailing authority structures and dedicated themselves to pursuing participatory democracy, civil rights, university reform, and an end to the Vietnam War) grew tired of the exploitation of women and began to argue for a separate movement to focus on patriarchy and women's liberation.

These movements were also influenced by the rise of Black Power, a new thrust within the African American community that promoted racial pride and demanded black self-determination in the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans pointed out that they could not achieve true freedom unless they lead the movement themselves; otherwise, whites retained a degree of power and authority over them. Supporters of Black Power emphasized the need for black self-sufficiency, as well as black pride (e.g. "Black is Beautiful"), and encouraged white activists to work on their own issues (and in some cases, expelled white leaders from their organizations). Taking that lesson to heart, some white men began to focus on anti-war activism (which affected them in particular through the draft); some white women began to focus on women's liberation.

The model of Black Power also prompted some Jews to think about their own experiences of cultural oppression – ways in which Jewish culture had been erased or devalued and Jews pressured to assimilate in order to gain respect and power. They began to cultivate a particular Jewish ethnic pride, building Jewish institutions – such as university Jewish Studies programs and adult education programs – that would help Jews learn about their own roots.

One aspect of growing Jewish pride revolved around Israel and Zionism. After Israel's surprising triumph in the Six Day War in June 1967, many American Jews experienced a surge of pride in Israel, an underdog nation that had succeeded in becoming a power to be reckoned with. This led to a newfound interest in Israeli culture, Hebrew, and Zionism. Many Jews traveled to Israel to see the State firsthand; many got involved in Zionist summer camps or youth groups or campus groups.

At the same time, other progressive movements, including the Civil Rights Movement, began to develop a more critical approach to Israel, identifying with the Palestinians as an oppressed group seeking self-determination, and castigating Zionism as a colonial, racist movement. This led to increased tension between some Jews and African Americans, and some Jews and other Left-identified activists. Some Jews on the Left developed their own progressive Zionist organizations, such as Breira (founded 1973), that combined a love of Israel with a recognition of the national aspirations of the Palestinians.

Jews who were involved in other movements, such as feminism, also began to bring their demands for equality into the Jewish community itself. In the case of feminism, young, educated women who had fought for their equality within the secular world chafed against some of the remaining limitations on women's involvement and leadership in the traditional Jewish community. Why couldn't women be rabbis, or be called to the Torah, or count in a minyan? Why should Jewish women's role be limited to domestic responsibilities and not include public institutional and ritual leadership? Thus, Jewish feminism was born, leading to changes in clergy (the first female Reform rabbi was ordained in 1972, the first female Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974, and the first female Conservative rabbi in 1985), ritual practice, and theology in the liberal denominations.

Similarly, Jews who were part of the counterculture also sought a Jewish expression of their beliefs and practices. Just as they had worked to break down hierarchies and cultural norms in the secular community around organizational structures, food, fashion, sexuality, etc., so, too, did they build new countercultural Jewish communities that were based on values of egalitarianism, spiritual practice, experimentation, and communitarianism. The Jewish counterculture flourished in Havurot, intentional communities of Jews (mostly young) who prayed, studied, did activism, and, in some cases, lived together. The Jewish counterculture also produced its own "Do It Yourself" guide, The Jewish Catalogue, created as a Jewish version of the popular Whole Earth Catalogue and a guide for creating a meaningful, self-directed Jewish life.

Another movement that brought the lessons and values of the Civil Rights Movement into the Jewish community was the movement to free Soviet Jewry, who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain, limited in their freedom to practice Judaism, educate themselves and their children Jewishly, or emigrate. When American Jews began to learn about the conditions that Soviet Jews experienced, they began an international campaign to free them. As the Soviet Union responded to the demand for greater freedom of religion for Jews by refusing to grant them exit visas, and in some cases, jailing them, American Jews raised the rally cry, "Let my people go!" The Soviet Jewry movement became a prominent cause in the American Jewish community in the 1970s and 1980s, from grassroots campaigns to raise awareness, to advocacy of federal embargoes on the Soviet Union. Jewish institutions organized trips to the Soviet Union to visit "refuseniks" – Jews who had been refused an exit visa – and to bring Jews "contraband" such as Hebrew books, ritual objects, as well as other items unavailable, and therefore valuable, in the East (like jeans). These travelers also bore witness to the conditions in which Jews were living – and suffering – behind the Iron Curtain. The movement was successful in granting the release of many prominent refuseniks, such as Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, and ultimately helped to undermine the Soviet Union. The movement was appealing to Jews for several reasons: the cause was morally unambiguous, the movement identified a specifically Jewish application for many civil rights values, and as a Jewish movement, it was, to some, (especially more observant Jews), safer and more "kosher."

Through all of these movements, Jews used the insights they had gleaned from the Civil Rights Movement and other liberation movements to continue to repair the world around them and to transform the Jewish community itself.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Moving Inward - Introductory Essay." (Viewed on December 3, 2023) <>.


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