Progressive Jewish Activism in the 1980s

Historical Essay
By Tiana Marisol Cherbosque

Progressive Bay Area Jewish activism in the 1980s holds dynamic traditions of faith-based resistance and social action. New traditions of engagement, located in Jewish culture and religion, emerged in the 1980s to support feminist, LGBTQ, nuclear disarmament, Central American solidarity, and Israel/Palestine social movements.
"Progressive Jewishness is about that strand of Jewish tradition which heads towards justice. It must include all the other liberation struggles. Its root is compassion; its assumption, that domination is not only wrong but unnecessary. Progressive Jewishness approaches the world with an ethical imperative and a Marxist slant on constant transformation. Always something needs doing. The world is not a fixed entity but constantly changing, and as progressive Jewish our work is to help shape these changes."[1]


The 1980s witnessed an efflorescence of Bay Area activism embedded in Jewish spaces and spiritual contexts. Leading up to the 1980s, the African-American led Civil Rights Movement inspired a wider range of ethnic pride based movements. This included the New Jewish Left to organizing its own ethnic movement. In the Bay Area, UC Berkeley students formed the Radical Jewish Union (RJU) and founded the Jewish Radical, the only Jewish student newspaper of the 1960s.[2] Rich connections were made between religion and social action that located new methods of progressive activism in faith-based contexts. These connections informed new traditions of Bay Area Jewish activism that would emerge in the 1980s.

New Jewish Agenda

Against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and emerging conservatism in the United States, progressive Jews created New Jewish Agenda (NJA) in the 1980s, which began as a politically progressive multi-issue membership organization.[3] Its five national task forces included Middle East Peace, Worldwide Nuclear Disarmament, Economic and Social Justice, Peace in Central America, and Jewish Feminist Task force, which also incorporated an AIDS Working Group. New Jewish Agenda organized its work on a national and local level, including a vibrant Bay Area New Jewish Agenda chapter. Assessing the history and work of New Jewish Agenda reveals much about the contours, issues, and debates that largely reflect progressive Bay Area Jewish activism in the 1980s.

Jewish Feminism

From the late 1960s into the 1980s, Jewish feminist and lesbian-feminist movements had already taken full force. Members of the New Jewish Agenda’s Feminist Taskforce, who engaged in many other campaigns such as anti-racist organizing and Middle-East peace initiatives, were largely inspired by the work of many feminist women of color who had been pushing back against a white dominated feminist movement. The Taskforce employed intersectional frameworks in which to discuss issues pertaining to overlapping identities.[4] A New Jewish Agenda Taskforce Member, Elly Bulkin, articulates these ideas in her 1984 book Yours in Struggle:

“Much as the women’s movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies had its roots in the earlier civil rights struggle and the New Left, both the increasing number of women who define ourselves as Jewish feminists and our growing activism against anti-Semitism within and outside the women’s community owe a significant debt as well to the mergence in the last decade of a broad-base Third World feminist movement in this country. Women of color, especially lesbians, have been in the forefront of creating theory and practice that insists on the important of differences among women and on the positive aspects of cultures and identities. With ‘identity politics’ as a basis, feminist of color have been able to link analysis with day-to-day political activism, as the lay out a range of ways in which individual and institutional oppression works.”[5]

In the 1980s, Jewish feminists and Jewish lesbian feminists took their lived experience to the printed page. This decade sees a rise in lesbian and feminist literature. The publication of Nice Jewish Girls, the first anthology to depict Jewish lesbian experience, created Jewish feminist energy that mobilized the movement.[6] Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and our Friends, birthed from Gesher, New Jewish Agenda’s Feminist Taskforce original Newsletter, provided a unique space in the Jewish community that challenged the dominant narrative of heterosexual, middle/upper class identity prevalent in the Jewish community. It promoted dialogue and allyship across sexuality and class difference and explored how people experience their identity through complex intersections.

Since the early 1980s, “Dyke Shabbos,” brought lesbian and bisexual Jewish women together for a monthly Sabbath service in the San Francisco Bay Area. This group also produced feminized liturgy. Berkeley resident Pat Cohn, member of “Dkye Shabbos” says that “[Dyke Shabbos] reworked things… to give women more participation and an equal voice.”[7] However, not all who participated in “Dyke Shabbat” were satisfied with the reconstruction of Jewish ritual into progressive consciousness. Miryam Kabakov, an Orthodox participant of “Dyke Shabbat,” did not fully resonate with the group’s merging of Judaism and lesbianism and alluded to stigmatizations of traditional religious practice. “These women knew more about dyke than Shabbos… and I like Shabbos and I wanted to keep having it in the form I was used to,” she wrote in her anthology about traditionally observant lesbian, bisexual, and trangender Jewish women.[8] Seeking to reform Jewish practice to incorporate feminist and queer activism, “Dyke Shabbos” created new opportunities for progressive Jewish engagement. It also, however, presented limitations for queer Jews who sought to preserve traditional Jewish practice.

LGBTQ Activism
Coming Out, Coming Home' Pamphlet
Photo: New Jewish Agenda Publication

San Francisco, since the 1970s, has housed many queer congregations such as Sha’ar Zahav, which produced the Jewish Gaily Forward and Ahavat Shalom, which authored the newsletter Ha’Yonah. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the Congregation of the Golden Gate, exemplified another congregation devoted to LGBTQ outreach that embodied the progressive posture of Bay Area synagogues. When Harvey Milk, a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s Board of Supervisors and the only openly gay public official in the country, was murdered by Dan White in San Francisco’s City Hall in 1978, he became a modern Jewish hero for the queer Jewish community: his death mobilized the community to assume a more aggressive stance in demanding political power. With a deepened commitment, the congregation at Sha’ar Zahav mobilized during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco. Their commitment to providing relief for the AIDS patients extended beyond the walls of their synagogue. They created “Kaiser Brunches,” to bring bagels, lox, and human company to the AIDS floor at Kaiser Permanente. This brunch ritual lasted several years, until AIDS treatment was transferred from the hospital to home care.[9]

Rabbi Robert Kirschner of Congregation Emanu-El was another influential actor that mobilized his entire community on the issue. However, he did not always hold progressive views on homosexuality. In the spring of 1984 Kirschner gave a Sabbath sermon regarding homosexuality in which he supported civil rights for gay individuals, but indicated that Judaism does not consider homosexuality as the divinely intended embodiment of sexual expression.[10]

However, after Kirschner visited AIDS patients in San Francisco, he cultivated a different viewpoint. In his 1985 sermon, he recounts his experience visiting a young Jew dying from AIDS. In his sermon he rejects the edict of Leviticus that punishes homosexuality by death. He says, “Reform Judaism departs from the Torah on occasion… Each of us, in our unique being, is the work of [God’s] hands and the bearer of His image; each of us. Even someone with AIDS.”[11] During a time of heightened anti-gay sentiment, Kirschner galvanized people to respond to the AIDS crisis. Kirschner’s evolution of perspective mirrors a tradition of malleability in Reform Judaism that creates space for new awareness and understanding. Further, it demonstrates the power in using religious space to create a call for action.

Other Jewish spaces organized around the issue in addition to synagogues. Avi Rose, an active member in New Jewish Agenda’s Bay Area chapter, pioneered the first AIDS program at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. Rose tried to enhance AIDS visibility in the Jewish community by working with family members of individuals with AIDS and speaking at congregations with HIV positive Jews. He sought to personalize the issue by bringing Jewish people with AIDS to speak at synagogues in order to have someone people could identify with.[12] In 1986, The New Jewish Agenda instituted the Gay/Lesbian Working Group and the AIDS Work Group, nationally. In 1991, New Jewish Agenda produced and distributed an influential pamphlet called, “Coming Out/Coming Home” spreading awareness about homophobia and gay rights in the Jewish community. This pamphlet made ties between homophobia and anti-Semitism and warned about the dangers of remaining silent.[13]

Nuclear Disarmament
Sukkat Shalom: Jews Seek End to Nuclear Arms Race
Photo: New Jewish Agenda Publication

In 1982, 500,000 people gathered in Central Park to march against nuclear arms. Members of the San Francisco New Jewish Agenda chapter attended this demonstration, the largest anti-nuclear protest in history. Some of these members also participated in a peace service celebration, led by Rabbi Lyn Gottleib, which included a puppet show on nuclear power.

In another nuclear disarmament demonstration in 1984, called “Sukkat Shalom, Shelter for Peace,” several hundreds of protesters gathered in front of a sukkah across from the White House in Lafayayette Park. The creators of the demonstration characterized the sukkah as “the opposite of a bomb shelter.”[14] Participant Barbara Sarah stated “This is the first time in the history of our country that Jews have gathered in Washington to bring from the teachings of our traditions and the history of our experience a message of peace to the world.” Further, national co-chairs of New Jewish Agenda underscored how Jews were discontent about social issues and that the funds for arms were detracting from funds for the needy.

Meanwhile in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area’s Livermore Action Group created mass demonstrations to shut down Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which generated nuclear weapons and was connected to the University of California. Drawing many people willing to be arrested over the issue of nuclear arms, protesters blocked the road in front of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Bay Area Jews had a large presence in Livermore Action Group. In 1984, during Passover, many of these Jews organized a demonstration in front of the Livermore gates in which the protesters, before partaking in civil disobedience, read from a revised Passover haggadah.[15] This illustrates the emergence of new religious and cultural traditions rooted in progressive values and direct action.

Central America
Jews and Central America: The Need To Act
Photo: New Jewish Agenda Publication

New Jewish Agenda authored a pamphlet in 1983 titled, “Jews and Central America: The Need to Act” which detailed the political situation in Central America. Further, it urged American progressive Jews to provide sanctuary for refugees, lobby the United States government, and educate the community through political forums, open discussion, and cross-cultural events. During this time, David Cooper, an organizer of Kehilah Synagogue in Berkeley that blends spirituality and social activism, created a call for Jews to come to the aid of people in Central America. In this call, he drew connections between Jewish helplessness in Nazi Germany and Central American helplessness in the face of political violence and trauma. Embedding this call to action in Jewish history, Cooper suggests that Jews have an obligatory role in social movements to fight against injustice.


During the mid 1980s, the Kehilla community in Berkeley was among the first synagogues to advocate for a two state solution, a particularly polemical stance in the American Jewish community at the time. Other progressive rabbis and Bay Area synagogues indicated opposition to violence that ensued in the region as well. Rabbi Martin Weiner of Sherith Israel in San Francisco, who sat on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, delivered a Yom Kippur sermon in which he criticized Israel following the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. However, many Jewish spiritual leaders, even those of the progressive Bay Area Jewish community, would exhibit reservations and limitations to its critique of Israel. By doing so, contradictions were embedded in their statements and actions. This was modeled by Rabbi Robert Kirschner of Congregation Emanu-El, who endorsed a petition that condemned Israel for its ‘iron fist’ response to young stone throwers in the West Bank and Gaza and further accompanied the organizers of the petition to present it at the Israeli consulate office, but would not sign it, himself. Leaders like Kirschner justified this neutrality by claiming that demoralizing Israel would only contribute to the Jewish state’s increased vulnerability. In another example, Kirschner became a charter member of Tikkun Magazine, established in Oakland by Rabbi Michael Lerner in 1986, which traditionally assumed a critical position of Israel. Tikkun Magazine sought to counter Jewish American neoconservative thought of the 1980s with the voice of Jewish activism centered in the Bay Area. Kirschner resigned after two years remarking that the journal defined its political stances more “stridently” than he preferred.[16]

The International Jewish Peace Union, the Kehilla Community Synagogue, A Traveling Jewish Theater, and the local chapter of New Jewish Agenda picked the Israeli Consulate on January 25th, 1988 in San Francisco. Together, they collectively delivered a letter to Consul General Yaacov Sella that called for the return of deported Palestinians, an end to curfews in Palestinian refugee camps, and an international peace conference that involved the PLO.[17] The consul responded by finding fault in the letter’s public release. Professor William Brinner, a professor in the Near Eastern Studies department at the UC Berkeley reacted by stating, “messages conveyed privately are not enough to effect change in the Israeli government. Only going public has that impact.”[18] Many in the Bay Area progressive Jewish community would continue this work of “going public” by participating in public demonstrations and actions. This would stir heated debate within the progressive Jewish community, testing boundaries confined by the larger American Jewish community of the 1980s.

New Jewish Agenda exemplified these tensions organizationally. Heated debates took place in NJA’s Middle East Task Force regarding whether to oppose US financial and military aid to Israel, particularly against the backdrop of the 1987 Intifada. Further, the Bay Area local chapter of NJA received a letter by the national organization reprimanding it for calling for the withdrawal of aid to Israel until it agreed to withdraw from the Occupied Territories. The event led to a mediation, which resulted in revoked membership for many members of the Bay Area chapter. This contention demonstrated how progressive politics served as both an ideological opportunity and an organizational challenge.


The unfolding of these Israel/Palestine politics inspires dialectical thinking that necessitates multiple perspectives in order to consider seemingly contradictory postures in the progressive Jewish movement. Challenges that emerge from different progressive cultures and beliefs would foreshadow future decades that continue to wrestle with these ideas. The geopolitics of the Bay Area, coupled with Bay Area Jews’ commitment to Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, foreshadows the continuation of this work in progressive Bay Area Jewish communities.


[1] Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz. The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. Aunt Lute, (1992), 136.
[2] For further reading regarding Jewish activism in the 1960s and 1970s, refer to Marc Dollinger’s chapter on the Jewish activist counterculture in California Jews (2011) and Fred Rosenbaum’s Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area (2009).
[3] Norman L. Friedman. Social Movement Legacies: The American Jewish Counterculture, 1973-1988. Jewish Social Studies 50, no. 3/4 (1988), 127-46.
[4] Ezra Berkley Nepon. Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: A History of the New Jewish Agenda. Philadelphia, PA: Thread Makes Blanket Press: (2012).
[5] Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith. 1984. Yours in struggle: three feminist perspectives on anti-Semitism and racism. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Long Haul Press), 98.
[6] Faith Rogow. Why Is This Decade Different from All Other Decades?: A Look at the Rise of Jewish Lesbian Feminism. Bridges, vol. 1, no. 1, (1990), 67–79.
[7] Jewish feminists mull the past and eye the future. Jewish feminists mull the past and eye the future. | J. (the Jewish news weekly of Northern California). Accessed December 16, 2016.
[8]Miryam Kabakov. Keep your wives away from them: Orthodox women, unorthodox desires: an anthology. (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010).
[9] How AIDS battered one S.F. synagogue: A 25-year retrospective. How AIDS battered one S.F. synagogue: A 25-year retrospective | J. Accessed December 16, 2016.
[10] Fred Rosenbaum, Visions of Reform: Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco, 1849-1999, Berkeley: Judah Magnes Museum, 2000), 306.
[11] Ibid, 308.
[12] Avi Rose, Interview by Ezra Berkley Nepon. Phone interview. January 18, 2006.
[13] Coming Out/Coming Home, New Jewish Agenda, 1985.
[14] David Friedman, Sukkat Shalom: Jews seek end to nuclear arms race, (Philadelphia: The Jewish Exponent, October 19, 1984).
[15] Haggadah is a Jewish text that is read during the Passover Seder; Barbara Epstein, Political protest and cultural revolution: Nonviolent direct action in the 1970s and 1980s, (University of California Press, 1991), 134.
[16] Visions of Reform, 322.
[17] Andrea Barron, Focus on Jews and Israel. (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 1988).
[18] Ibid.