Sidney Schwarz — Politics & Religion

Who says religion and politics don’t mix?

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz believes that a grounding in Jewish ethical values helps people make better political decisions. The organization he founded, the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year and has become a part of the Washington Jewish political establishment through his determined effort to show Jews of all denominations that the sacred texts and Jewish scholars of yesterday can teach us how to think about and solve contemporary problems.

Our interview is conducted over lunch in between sessions of one of the Institute’s programs. Just before, I listened to day school students who had come from New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan and Maryland debating the “Jewish position” on affirmative action in the context of commentaries by scholars like the Ramban. Another group of students was in another room discussing what Jewish sources can teach us about the question of whether to support or oppose the building of a low-income housing project in a neighborhood adjacent to the Jewish community. Not surprisingly, views are mixed and passions sometimes heated. It’s exactly the type of intense engagement Schwarz hopes to stimulate.

Schwarz does not come across as a political activist or radical. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful. He wasn’t raised in a particularly political household, but was bitten by the political bug in high school in a special program called the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans, which would be a prototype for the program he later developed.

Schwarz describes his religious upbringing as “conservadox.” He became active in USY in Long Island and worked his way through college as a counselor at USY camps. He also became active in Israel-related activities, particularly the Soviet Jewry movement after going to Russia. Rather than go into politics directly, however, he took the unusual step of entering the rabbinate. He didn’t have much interest in a pulpit, but thought he had other valuable skills, in particular the ability to reach kids, which he’d discovered working at camps. “I thought it would be a good calling card to other things,” he says.

Schwarz chose the Reconstructionist seminary because that was where his heart was; he agreed with Mordecai Kaplan’s view that being Jewish in a democratic society meant more than ritual practices. Despite himself, Schwarz fell into congregation work. During rabbinical school, students had to work in the community and he landed in a shul that needed a rabbi in Media, Pennsylvania. He spent four years there while he was finishing his studies and then four more after he graduated. “It was a community that was interested in radical ideas and was a great laboratory.”

Schwarz decided the synagogue was too confining and moved to Washington, D.C. where he became the director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, D.C. After four years, however, “I realized I traded one partial view of the Jewish world for another. I wanted the CRC to be more Jewish, but people thought I tried to be too much of a rabbi and thought politics and Judaism were separate.”

Frustrated by this limited vision, he returned to the pulpit founding the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD. He also set out to create a think tank that would marry Jewish thought, social service and politics.

Like many good ideas, it wasn’t easy to translate into financial support. “I funded the original budget for six months and worked out of my house. I had a two-year-old and another baby on the way. My wife was very supportive. She said, ‘Go ahead and try.’ I started calling bureaus of Jewish education and Jewish community centers.”

Finally, in November 1988, after nearly a year of preparation, a group of students from Connecticut came to Washington for the first Panim el Panim (“face to face”) session. “The leader of the first group asked how many times I’d done the program before. I said this is the first time. She said you didn’t tell me that. I said you never asked.”

Since then, more than 90 communities have sent more than 4,000 students to the four-day Panim el Panim workshops. The day I sat in on a workshop, the group was composed of high school yeshiva students. This was atypical. Schwarz says most of the groups come from more liberal backgrounds and are conversant with the political issues, but don’t see the Jewish angle. They’re interested in politics, but see their Bar/Bat Mitzvah as the end of Judaism.”

The more observant students have a different problem; they sometimes have little interest in non-Jews. Schwarz recalls one workshop with day school students in which he brought in a child from El Salvador who told a story about how he was arrested and tortured for protesting against the lack of water in school, and how his friends disappeared. One of the participants asked if the kid was Jewish and when he learned that the Salvadoran was not, didn’t see what the story had to do with him.

“Our purpose isn’t to push kids to be liberal or conservative,” explains Schwarz. “The most vexing issues today are moral ones and we come from a tradition of morality.” Over the years, he began to come to an understanding of how politics and Torah overlapped. “My definition of politics is the process through which you can change the world for the better. The Torah offers an approach to life informed by the teaching of Judaism to make the work in harmony with the messianic ideal.” As the Institute’s literature says, “not only is Panim el Panim a vehicle to attract otherwise marginal Jewish youth to a program stressing Jewish identity and involvement, but it provides a way to broaden the horizons of students who do benefit from quality formal Jewish education.”

The Rabbi also believes his program fosters greater tolerance, which is much needed because “kids today are getting messages from movements that invalidate each other.”

Discussing morality and public policy is stimulating, but Judaism is a religion of deeds and Schwarz has developed a year-long Jewish civics initiative to apply Jewish texts to contemporary issues in 13 high schools around the country, and combine the classroom learning with community service. The Institute has also published a curriculum entitled Jewish Civics: A Tikkun Olam/World Repair Manual for the program. “Our concept is to identify community problems and find solutions. We’ve also found that kids learn better Jewish lessons by trying to affect change in non-Jewish settings. We need to get kids to reach across differences.”

While it may seem like a difficult enough task to build tolerance among Jews, Schwarz believes this is not the only goal. “Religion is one of the primary sources of division in the United States. The more committed to faith someone is, seemingly the less tolerant they are of others. Our challenge is to get people to become more interested in their own faith and reach out to others.” Toward that end, the Institute sponsored in 1997 the first E Pluribus Unum Conference, which brought together 20 Jewish, Protestant and Catholic entering college freshmen from around the country. The group discussed religion, social activism and the common good. It was so successful, Schwarz hopes to make the conference an annual event.

After 10 years, Schwarz is beginning to see the fruits of his labors. Today, the Institute is on a stable financial footing. It’s received major grants from the major foundations like the Lily Endowment, Nathan Cummings and Covenant. The organization now employs eight people and has a budget of more than $1 million. More important, he’s seeing the difference he’s made in students’ lives. Students always leave his sessions fired up to change the world, but you don’t know how long the enthusiasm will last. Now, he’s also seeing his alumni taking leadership positions.

Schwarz also acknowledges that if other faiths aren’t providing similar training, he might be setting kids up for failure and disenchantment. He remains fundamentally optimistic, however, despite the low regard most Americans hold for politics. “Cynicism is poisonous and corrosive. I believe politics is a noble enterprise. There are always crooks, but most policy people have tremendous commitment. Public service doesn’t deserve the disrepute that it has.”

Pluralism is a good thing in Schwarz’s world-view. “People ask if I think it’s a shame to have so many division. Why be afraid? We’re enriched by variety, it brings creativity to our heritage.”

Though it required a long struggle to establish the Institute, Schwarz has found it gratifying.

‘The greatest experience for an educator is to see students learn. I’m keenly aware how difficult it is for people to live out their dreams and make it happen.”

Like another man who combined politics and Judaism, Theodore Herzl, Rabbi Sidney Schwarz’s dream has come true.