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by Lawrence Bush
NEW JEWISH AGENDA, the transformative, progressive Jewish membership organization of the 1980s and early 1990s, is going to be briefly revived for a weekend reunion during Memorial Day weekend, 2016 — thirty-six years after NJA’s launch in 1980, at a founding conference that was attended by more than 1,000 people. I’ve been helping to organize this reunion, and I hope that a large contingent of Jewish Currents and Jewdayo readers will be there.
In its twelve years of life, 1980-1992, NJA grew into fifty chapters and served as a dynamic catalyst for some of the most compelling and enduring progressive efforts in the American Jewish community: to win gay and lesbian inclusion, and to bring women’s leadership to the fore in synagogues and Jewish organizations; to promote the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support the Israeli peace movement; to end the apartheid system in South Africa and contend with ongoing racism in the U.S.; to confront anti-Semitism on the American and international left; to oppose the heightened fears of nuclear war in the 1980s, and extend the global perspective in Jewish life to matters of the environment; to maintain an American spirit of refuge and openness to immigrants.
NJA was also a unique incubator for many young Jewish activists of the baby-boom generation, who went on to innovate in the realms of Jewish theology and liturgy, to enter the rabbinate, and to become the artists, writers, musicians, performers, editors, philanthropists, and community-builders who have broadly renewed progressive Jewish life during the past three decades. Agenda provided many of us with a Jewish “home” that reflected our most basic values, a Jewish vocabulary with which to express those values, and an enhanced understanding of Jewish cultural and religious diversity, of internalized oppression, and of the dynamics of power within Jewish life. The richness of our experiences and relationships within NJA inspired many of us to remain actively committed to working within the Jewish community and cultivating our own depth as Jews.
Agenda was also a grand experiment in national, grassroots, democratic, multi-issue progressive Jewish organizing, an experiment that has not yet been replicated. Our chapters, which were rich in Jewish diversity, hosted shabes dinners, Passover seders, and other holiday observances in which members could meld their politics and their Jewish identities. We celebrated, demonstrated, and organized together in local coalitions — and also created a stunningly vibrant series of national conferences, including in 1985, in Ann Arbor, at the site where our reunion will be held.
Despite the enduring influence of much of the work that NJA did, however, little of its own organizational history was documented or analyzed for some twenty years, until Ezra Berkley Nepon, a young writer and activist, undertook the research to create a short history of New Jewish Agenda, Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue, in 2012. “[Young] people’s eyes light up as they learn about Agenda,” noted Nepon in an interview in our magazine. “People are excited to think about the theoretical questions Agenda was immersed in: multi- vs. single-issue organizing, the place of identity within organizing, the diversity of tactics, the intersection of issues... Many of the qualities Agenda was known for could today inform the way we build organizations and the way our organizations can align with each other.” You can read more about NJA at Ezra’s site.
With our Memorial Day reunion, we seek to create opportunities for NJA’s own veterans to reflect with each other on what we learned and experienced in Agenda — and to enable younger activists to learn from our experience and weigh in with their own.
There’s more information and registration materials here.