Judaism and Campaigning for Social Justice

By Russell, Lucie | European Judaism, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview
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Judaism and Campaigning for Social Justice


Russell, Lucie, European Judaism


What was it that led me to spending the last twenty years of my life committed to and passionate about the cause of social justice? Obviously there was interplay between a number of factors, but my religion has played a major part. My family were originally members of St John's Wood Synagogue and when I was eleven we moved to Surrey and became members of the North West Surrey Synagogue at the time when Tony Bayfield was rabbi. I remember our pre-barmitzvah classes, which were held in a small group discussion format. Using examples from Jewish history, we covered many of the major issues that plague humanity: oppression, racism, genocide, inequality and discrimination. Tony's sermons in synagogue were also a source for much soul-searching on my part, even in my teenage years. My batmitzvah was a really creative experience for me: I was able to add my own contributions from literature, including two poems by Leonard Cohen. This period of my Jewish education was a formative part of not only my spiritual identity but of my commitment and passion to tackling injustice.

After going to university, where I studied sociology, which added a political dimension to my understanding of the world, I became a youth worker in south London. During this time I began to see clearly the disadvantage suffered by many at the bottom of the class spectrum. But what also struck me was how if you gave these young people access to resources and opportunities they really flourished. I then trained as a social worker and, after qualifying, spent two years working with young people with psychiatric problems in a therapeutic community. This work developed my understanding of the fragility of those with mental health problems and the challenge of providing care and support to those with challenging behaviour.

I then moved on to working in child protection but found this problematic because all the families I worked with had major poverty issues and here I was, a middle class social worker, making decisions about their future lives with or without their children. I felt strongly that unless I was doing something about structural inequality I felt uncomfortable in this role.

It was then that I heard about a new initiative for homeless people. By 1991, this country had experienced twelve years of a Tory government and one consequence was the increased visibility of young homeless people on the streets of Britain. Out of this came the Big Issue, a magazine sold by the homeless as an alternative to begging. The initiative was a business response to a social crisis: a deliberate move away from the dependency culture created by many charities. It was a hand up, not a handout, an opportunity for homeless people to stand on their own two feet and make their own income.

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