Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, said the activist work he engages in “was always part of how I understood Judaism, and I knew it would always be part of my work.”
A native of New York’s Hudson Valley and a child of the Reform movement, Kimelman-Block received his rabbinic ordination from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003. He was formerly director of the PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, and today he advocates for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice on national issues in Washington, DC.
Kimelman-Block spoke with NJJN in advance of his Thursday, Nov. 17, appearance in Princeton on promoting social, racial, and economic justice after the 2016 elections.
NJJN: What is Bend the Arc’s mission and how is that mission realized through your work?
Kimelman-Block: We are a national Jewish organization organizing Jews from all walks of life — from religious to secular, highly affiliated to less affiliated — around raising a distinctly Jewish voice on making American society a more just and equal and vibrant society.
[As an example, he pointed out that opponents of comprehensive immigration reform often argue that immigrants today are different from those in the past — “my grandparents immigrated in the right way; immigrants today immigrated in the wrong way,” Kimelman-Block said he often hears. Bend the Arc put together a web-based resource through which people could enter their family’s immigration experience and be told whether they would have been eligible to immigrate under current laws.]
What they found was that for the vast majority the answer was no. We had prominent Americans and members of Congress who began to realize — my own story wouldn’t be possible if the country was operating on the system that we have today.
NJJN: How does Bend the Arc do its work?
Kimelman-Block: One mode is raising a public voice, in the press and on-line. The second is in organizing — having chapters and grassroots leaders around the country who are working in their local communities, interfacing with leaders on issues where they live. The third is working on national issues and federal issues in Washington. We also have a sister organization that explicitly does political work.
NJJN: Why the name ‘Bend the Arc’?
Kimelman-Block: We thought that the idea that the original statement [by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker], “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is something that resonates with progressive Americans. We thought that making it an active verb was important, making it more Jewish. The arc doesn’t bend on its own; it’s part of our job as Jews to do the work to make the world better. It is a statement that is steeped in American political culture, and we are deeply an American-Jewish organization.
NJJN: How do you choose your campaigns?
Kimelman-Block: On a national level, in Washington, we have a range of issues that we are continuously working on: voting rights, immigration reform, economic justice, racial justice, including criminal justice reform…. On the local level…there