Tzedakah is about justice

Happy Jewish Social Action Month.

That’s what we’re celebrating from Oct. 28 to Nov. 26, which corresponds to the Hebrew month of Cheshvan: a global initiative honoring volunteerism and tikkun olam, the work of repairing the world.

In one sense, setting aside a month for Jewish social action is kind of like designating a Jewish Book Month, which this year officially begins in mid-November — as if the People of the Book need a calendar to remind them of their devotion to the printed page. Are Jews not similarly drawn to creating a better world by their very DNA?

Perhaps. But it’s not a bad idea to highlight that commitment.

This week, as per usual, the pages of j. are filled with stories of Jews doing good.

There’s Hunger Shabbat, an American Jewish World Service campaign to heighten awareness of food deprivation. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is holding its first “day of philanthropy,” while a Piedmont family has sold its home and created a charitable trust managed by the Jewish Community Foundation of the East Bay. There’s a story about passing on the Jewish philanthropic tradition to the next generation, and another about the 25-year-old son of billionaire George Soros, Alexander Soros, a U.C. Berkeley Ph.D. candidate and a big giver in his own right.

In Judaism, tzedakah is not charity — it’s a commandment, and it means to restore justice, or balance, to the world.

There are different ways to pursue that imperative. One can give money. One can volunteer. One can also take to the streets.

This week, a Jewish tent canopy went up at Occupy Oakland, the gathering outside City Hall that’s part of a national movement of Americans who are protesting wealth inequality and calling for — yes — a better world.

Whether or not one agrees with the movement’s tactics, or its left-leaning political stances, the basic vision of a just and equitable society that animates these large-scale protests is very much in line with Jewish values. The Occupy movement is saying that those who don’t have enough should have enough, and those who can give more should give more.

Sounds like tzedakah.

Last week, at a benefit for Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said that the Occupy movement “had already won.”

What he meant was that the camps that have sprung up in hundreds of cities have moved the conversation about poverty and social justice to the forefront of the national consciousness. The Occupy movement has tapped into something very mainstream: the American belief in the fundamental equality of all people, and their rights to liberty and happiness.

In a nation with 14 million unemployed workers, and millions more losing their homes, these rights seem far too elusive.

Judaism demands we do something about it.