By Michael Chaskes
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” — Pirkei Avot, 2:21.
During the first 47 years of my life, I could have counted my brief number of excursions into political advocacy on one hand and still had a few fingers remaining. But in the last two years, I’ve spent countless hours canvassing and phone-banking for causes and candidates; marching and singing in numerous peaceful protests; calling my elected representatives about important issues and topics; and helping to organize others to do the same. Through it all, the one constant in all of my activist endeavors has been the influence of Jewish teachings and traditions, and my own lived experiences as an American Jew.
My earliest foray into activism came during my senior year of high school, in a small town in southern New Jersey. I attended a contentious school board meeting and spoke out against a school-sponsored Christian baccalaureate service — to my mind, a trespass on the separation of Church and State. (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” — Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14.). Growing up as part of a nearly imperceptible minority in a mostly Italian-Catholic community had exposed me to the quintessential experience of Jews throughout history — living within a place but not necessarily being of it. This instilled in me a deep-seated empathy for all people who suffer injustice, which has informed my political viewpoint ever since.
Nonetheless, activism didn’t become a major part of my life, although I followed politics avidly and tried to vote thoughtfully in every election. As an undergraduate, I joined in one or two campus protests urging divestment from apartheid South Africa. In 1994, I knocked doors for a few hours urging people to vote “No” on California’s notorious Proposition 187, which barred undocumented residents from receiving health or educational services, among other draconian provisions. (“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens… for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” — Leviticus 19:34.)
But that was about it until 2016, when University Synagogue’s Tikkun Olam (Social Justice) Committee decided to advocate for Measure HHH, a Los Angeles County ballot initiative to raise revenue for tackling the homelessness crisis. As an increasingly involved member of the Committee, I assisted JCJ’s own Rabbi Joel Simonds and Julie Bank, among others, with the Committee’s efforts. (“This is the fast I desire… to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.”— Isaiah, 58:6-7.)
The passage of Measure HHH in November 2016 was one bright spot in a sea of election results that, overall, left me shaken and dismayed. The platforms upon which many successful candidates campaigned ran counter to nearly all my core values, such as help for the poor and disadvantaged; religious tolerance; and compassionate treatment of “strangers in the land.”
Following the election, activism no longer felt like an option to be selected or ignored, but rather an inescapable obligation. I began with peaceful protest. (“Whoever can protest to his household and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” — Talmud, Shabbat 54b.)
One Friday in early January 2017, I took off from work and marched with thousands through the rain in downtown Los Angeles. The following day, along with my family, I marched with some 500,000 fellow Angelenos — and, in spirit, some 5 MILLION Americans nationwide — in support of our shared values.
Over the next two years, I marched to protest gun violence (“Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” — Leviticus 19:16), policies that worsen income inequality (“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer.” — Deuteronomy 24:14-15), and rejection of science (“If you do not know what there is on earth, do you expect to know what there is in heaven?” — Talmud, Sanhedrin).
I also began pursuing other efforts to further the values for which Judaism demands that we fight. (“Justice, justice shall you pursue.” — Deuteronomy 16: 20.) As part of our Tikkun Olam Committee, I’ve continued to advocate for measures to alleviate homelessness, such as the City of Los Angeles’ Measure H. I’ve become more involved with state legislative advocacy, via the Union for Reform Judaism’s California Religious Action Center, and have begun attending the RAC’s biennial national gathering, the Consultation on Conscience. I also spent many hours and days making phone calls and knocking on doors to speak with voters about the choices facing them in the midterm elections.
Even though a particular set of events inspired me to become more deeply involved, I don’t see myself dropping out of this fight anytime soon. I’ve come to realize that, regardless of who may be holding office at any given time, our active efforts as involved citizens are vital to our progress in becoming a truly just society… and that our Jewish faith requires and informs these efforts.
“Take away from Me the noise of your songs and let Me not hear the melody of your stringed instruments, but let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” — Amos 5:23, 24.
Michael Chaskes is a Jew by birth, an Angeleno by choice, and an activist by necessity. When not marching in the streets, he can usually be found editing television shows or at home with his family.