Rabbi Michael Feinberg finds religious socialists offer affirmation of the loving, nurturing message of all major faith communities

By Fran Quigley, Commonweal Magazine, December 22, 2020

Michael Feinberg never felt more like a Bundist rabbi than when he was marching down the streets of Manhattan toward City Hall, shoulder-to-shoulder with Evangelical Christian ministers, Muslim imams, and Catholic priests. It was 2011 and the clergy had come together to support a landmark New York City living-wage campaign. All told, over one hundred and fifty faith leaders spoke at mass meetings, took part in silent prayer vigils, signed petitions, or buttonholed city officials. Some accompanied fast-food workers as they staged one-day strikes. Feinberg, the longtime director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, helped bring them together.  It was no easy task. Many of them held fundamentally different views on many issues, including LGBTQ rights and abortion. They weren’t used to working with each other. But in the fight for fair wages for food-service workers, janitors, laborers, and retail clerks, the faith community held firm. 

It turned out that every Roman collar, robe, kippah, habit, and stole was needed. The living-wage proposal was bitterly opposed by an array of high-powered New Yorkers, including then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the editors of the influential New York Post, and much of the business community. But the moral voice of the religious leaders helped build strong majority support among voters, leading to the passage of the 2012 Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, one of the strongest living-wage bills in the United States. “That was the single most important faith-led campaign I’ve been a part of,” Feinberg says. “There was a union providing resources and direction, and without that we would not have been successful. But the campaign was led by faith leaders, and that is what gave it its power.” Having felt the weight of their power, the coalition of faith leaders has kept a grip on it. They continue to meet regularly and have come together to support local campaigns on affordable housing, policing, and economic and racial justice. 

This organized pursuit of justice is both Michael Feinberg’s work and his passion. And it is why he calls himself a Bundist rabbi. The Jewish Labor Bund of Russia and Poland was a socialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Bund was a response to the rapid rise of industrial capitalism that abruptly threw tens of thousands of Jews out of their roles as artisans and small shopkeepers and into low-wage, tenuous factory work. The Bund fought for economic rights for all workers while also defending the cultural and civil rights of the Jewish community targeted by anti-Semitism. Founded in 1897, the Bund quickly grew to include forty thousand members. By 1906, it had become the largest socialist organization in the Russian empire, which then included Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, and much of modern-day Poland.

The Jewish Labor Bund fought for economic rights for all workers while also defending the cultural and civil rights of the Jewish community targeted by anti-Semitism.

The Bund played a leading role in the 1905 Russian Revolution, organizing multiple strikes and demonstrations. Its demands included a democratic political system, civil rights for Jews, and improvements to the dismal conditions of their workplaces and tenement housing. But the Russian Bund’s support for democracy clashed with Vladimir Lenin’s agenda, and it was dissolved by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution. For a few more decades, the Polish Bund remained an active force defending Jewish culture and education, until losing most of its members in the Holocaust.

Some Bund members were able to emigrate, including to England, where a young Michael Feinberg met a group of then-elderly Bundists during Jewish socialist group meetings in the 1970s. Although the Bund was mostly secular, Feinberg says it is the lineage he identifies most with. “The material conditions for it don’t exist anymore—we don’t have a mass Jewish proletariat—but the Bund’s ideas are just as relevant,” he says. “We can learn from what they did right and apply it to our organizing now.” 

During Sunday school sessions in his Reform synagogue in the New Jersey suburbs, Feinberg never heard about the Bund. But he did have a role model for Jewish activism sitting at his dinner table. Feinberg’s father, Bill, was a lawyer who devoted countless hours of pro bono work to the early environmental-protection movement, including the fight to preserve Jersey beachfront from capture by private interests. “He believed in the commons, and in public institutions and strong taxation,” Feinberg says. “It all pointed in a socialist direction, but he was a liberal Democrat and the label socialist didn’t resonate with him. But the values did, and those are what I try to live up to.”

As a freshman at Cornell in the mid-1970s, Feinberg was already active in the campus anti-apartheid and anti-racism campaigns when Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) founder Michael Harrington arrived to speak. Harrington, a former Catholic Worker and the author of the landmark poverty exposé The Other America, had broken with the Socialist Party to create the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, the predecessor of today’s DSA. The DSOC’s goal was to work within the Democratic Party to push progressive policies. Harrington himself had moved away from the Catholicism of his youth, but the DSOC included several devoutly religious members. From the beginning, it had rejected Marxist atheistic and authoritarian tenets even as it embraced Marx’s critiques of capitalism. 

That evening in Ithaca, Harrington pulled together the lessons of Bill Feinberg’s example, the communitarian foundations of Judaism, and the exhilarating movement culture Feinberg was newly embracing. “I immediately resonated with Harrington’s formula for the ‘left wing of the possible,’” he says. “Cultish groups that are waiting for a 1917-style revolution tomorrow never held any appeal for me. For me, the goal is to move closer and closer to socialism, but the daily work has to include improving people’s lives.”

After college, Feinberg joined the Brandywine Peace Community in Pennsylvania, a group committed to nonviolent activism. He took part in a multi-faith sanctuary movement for refugees from U.S.-funded wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Many of his allies in this activism were Christians, including the legendary Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan. These were the days when the Berrigans and a half dozen others were busily forming the legendary Plowshares Eight, a name derived from Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” On September 9, 1980, the Eight broke into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, pounded with hammers on the nose cones of two Mark 12A warheads, and poured their own blood on documents. As they waited to be arrested, they offered prayers for peace. Feinberg was part of the Plowshares Eight support group. “If Dan Berrigan had not been the priest that he was, I would not have become the rabbi that I am,” he says.

During these years, Feinberg was also deeply influenced by the feminist rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who in 1981 became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal movement. He met the activist and devout Catholic César Chávez. He learned from rabbis like Arthur Waskow, who demonstrated against wars and in favor of environmental causes, and Everett Gendler, whose scholarship connected Judaism and nonviolence. “I’ve been blessed to meet the right people at the right moments in my life,” he says. “Berrigan used the term, ‘walking-around saints.’ We don’t have saints in Judaism, but these were people who were all about creating a better world for others.” 

As Feinberg saw it, his studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania were preparation for him to follow in their footsteps. “It was never my intention to be a ‘pulpit rabbi,’” he says. “I wanted to be an organizer for social-justice movements. I knew being a rabbi was a way to do that within the Jewish community and in multi-faith groups.” 

As he studied the Jewish tradition, Feinberg found plenty of justification for his chosen path. “I wouldn’t say Hebrew Scripture is a socialist blueprint. It was written three thousand years ago in an ancient Near Eastern agricultural society, so you can’t just transfer that over to our present conditions,” he says. “But the principles are key: the communalism, the concern for the most marginalized and most vulnerable in society—the widow, the orphan, the stranger—the need to cancel debt. The insistence on dignity for all people who are created in the divine image. That ethical framework is the core of Judaism, and I think all of those are deeply socialist principles.”  

In the same neighborhoods where Feinberg does his work today, his belief in the shared foundations of Judaism and socialism was once the strong consensus. Millions of Eastern European Jews migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century, and their top destination was New York and its fast-growing garment industry. By 1914, 1.4 million Jews lived in New York City, most of them families struggling with low wages, brutal working conditions, and crowded, unsanitary slum housing. As early as the 1880s, many New York Jews were coming together in socialist meetings and creating socialist institutions like the Arbeiter Ring (the Workmen’s Circle) and newspapers like the Forverts—the Jewish Daily Forward.

Abraham Cahan, an immigrant from Lithuania who would eventually become the editor of the Forward, is credited with being the first socialist labor organizer to recognize the importance of speaking and writing in Yiddish. It was already the language of the native New York Jewish working class, and it would serve as both the touchstone of Jewish solidarity and the medium for the politicized Eastern European arrivals to connect with American Jews struggling to survive. After the turn of the century, many of the immigrants were members of the Russian Bund, and they added their passion and experience to the growing socialist movement. Most of the Yiddish socialist leaders were secular, but many of the rank and file were more observant.

In the same neighborhoods where Feinberg does his work today, his belief in the shared foundations of Judaism and socialism was once the strong consensus.

By the 1910s, the socialist-led United Hebrew Trades and International Ladies Garment Workers unions had more than three hundred thousand members between them, and they leveraged their power to launch dramatic strikes and create cooperative housing projects and other social programs. Almost sixty thousand people belonged to the Workmen’s Circle, and the Forward’s circulation of two hundred thousand made it the most read foreign-language newspaper in the United States. The Socialist Party won elections for the city board of aldermen, the state assembly, and in 1914 sent labor lawyer Meyer London to Congress. “Socialists were the ones who defined the mainstream,” writes Tony Michels in A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialism in New York.

During the 1920s, the numbers of U.S. Jewish socialists began to decline. European immigration to the United States slowed, and World War I and the Bolshevik revolution both triggered considerable backlash against socialism. Some of the more radical U.S. socialists were attracted to the Communist Party, while many moderates found common cause with New Deal–era Democrats. In 1936, the Forward endorsed Franklin Roosevelt for president, breaking a three-decade string of loyalty to the Socialist Party.

But Jewish institutions with socialist roots still exist, including the Forward and the Workman’s (now Worker’s) Circle, and they retain their commitment to social and economic justice. Many historians credit the Yiddish socialist era with influencing the overall liberal political beliefs of American Jews. “Socialism was not a one-generation phenomenon,” Michels concludes. “It was a formative experience in the history of the world’s largest Jewish community.”

Feinberg’s daily work advocating for living wages and racial justice has included a key role in the multi-decade push for justice for migrant farmworkers in New York state, which culminated in the 2019 passage of the Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. That legislation remedied a historic injustice by finally including farmworkers within the protection of New York’s labor laws. Like his other work, this cause fit comfortably within the spectrum of a liberal Jewish Democrat agenda. Feinberg knows he could easily adopt that label, and he realizes it may make his faith-labor coalition work easier.

But he sees it as important that he present himself publicly as a socialist. He is determined to include in his advocacy the prophetic work of building the U.S. socialist movement. “Michael Harrington (quoting Irving Howe and Lewis Coser) said, ‘Socialism is the name of our desire,’ and I think it is important to hold that desire up,” he says. “We have a vision for what a transformed society would look like, and not all progressives or faith groups do.” 

There is no strong socialist political party in the United States, which leads Feinberg to conclude that the only way to realize the vision is by working to transform existing institutions. Which, he worries, poses a particular challenge for Americans. “Most everywhere else in the world, they have social movements. In the U.S., we have 501(c)(3) organizations that have professional staff and boards and have to worry about what funders think, and that is a hard way to build political power.” So Feinberg has remained a member of the DSA for a quarter-century of organizational peaks and valleys, and devotes himself to nurturing the better angels of the U.S. labor movement. “I don’t need to plant my own flag,” he says. “I’m happy to be a foot soldier.”

That soldierly commitment begins with being a loyal member of an institutionalized religion. As a young man, Feinberg studied the role of faith communities in the civil-rights and labor movements, and he witnessed firsthand the power of faith-motivated activism in the anti-apartheid and peace campaigns. He concluded then that being a rabbi would provide a place for effective advocacy. And he hasn’t changed his mind. “A big percentage of Americans consider themselves to be affiliated with a religious faith, so religious language resonates with them,” he says. “Faith can be transformative—I’ve seen it happen.” Both faith and socialism can also provide much-needed community, he says, along with the prophetic vision of a better world.

Of course, both socialism and religion struggle with image problems. Feinberg believes that religious socialists can help. For those suspicious of socialism, particularly in the United States, faith-grounded socialists underscore the humanity of the system, and offer a democratic refutation of the godless, violent images associated with some forms of doctrinaire Marxism. For Americans wary of the reactionary tenor that characterizes much of religion’s political influence in the United States, religious socialists offer affirmation of the loving, nurturing message of all major faith communities. 

A majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-four prefer socialism over capitalism.

Feinberg’s labor and socialism work is multifaith to its core. But he admits most of the groups he is involved with are heavily Christian. And he still finds himself in settings where the public prayers are ones that he and other Jews cannot join. Yet he works with Sikh and Hindu communities in supporting New York taxi drivers. Pentecostal preachers were leaders of the living-wage campaign that affected their congregants. The blog and podcast of the Religion and Socialism Working Group of the DSA, of which Feinberg is an active member, feature a mosaic of Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian voices. (I am also a member.) “When we are open to working with all people, we can create models that maybe did not exist in the past,” he says.

Those new models, he insists, must provide a welcoming home for the many young Americans who are open to socialist policies to an extent not seen in more than a century. A majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-four prefer socialism over capitalism, and their support helped Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign win more votes than any socialist candidate in the nation’s history. The DSA’s membership has swelled from five thousand members in 2015 to over 80,000 now.

At the same time, most of these young people are not flocking to traditional religious congregations. Even among the young who do accept the tenets of a religious faith, many describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” or are creating their own religious communities that may not be clergy-led. Feinberg is fine with all of it. “They are blazing a path that we are going to need to learn from, and we religious socialists need to be in partnership with them,” he says.

But Feinberg won’t settle for easy optimism. The lessons from the Bund, the U.S. Yiddish socialists, and from nearly half a century of activism include a mixture of progress and failure. Feinberg has watched the United States slide into increased inequality over the past thirty years, and he is not sure whether the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to positive reforms or a step backward. “But we have to keep meeting people where they are: Can you afford health care? What about your rent? Do you need to work three jobs to cover your expenses? I have a faith I feel in my bones, almost as deeply as a religious faith, of the possibility of a socialist society that really cares about all its members, and is constructed around collective welfare and not greed or profit or private ownership. I don’t know if I will live to see that goal achieved. But I never lose track of it. That is what keeps me bumping along.” 

Published in the January 2021 issue: 

Fran Quigley directs the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. 

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