We talk with computer programmer Edan Schwartz about his efforts to connect the Jewish community to issues around criminal justice reform. Edan works for a weather forecast company and lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.
How did you get started in social justice work?
I volunteered for Jewish Community Action when I was a student at the University of Minnesota, in 2008. Rabbi Morris Allen at Beth Jacob and other rabbis spearheaded an attempt to create a new set of guidelines for kosher food, so it would have a label saying that it was made in an ethical way. The scandal in Postville, Iowa, and the questions around the treatment of workers and animals, inspired people to think there should be more to kosher than just an OU on the label.
I learned more about what was going on with agriprocessors and that sparked my interest. Then I interned with JCA.
How did you get involved in the current campaign to reform criminal justice?
I started with the Tikkun Olam committee at Shir Tikvah. Somehow, after my first meeting, I ended up being the co-chair.
After the successful defeat of the marriage amendment, we were trying to find our next project or issue. The JCA was doing a series of house parties on economic justice issues and they were trying to figure out a campaign that synagogues could work on at a community level.
When the house parties ended, I served on a JCA committee that evaluated each of the ideas. We met with community organizations that could ally with us and we looked at whether our community could contribute.
I had heard a little about private prisons and criminal justice but it was not an issue I knew a whole ton about. I felt it was an issue where I had a lot of room to learn and the community had room to learn and grow.
I spoke about criminal justice at the JCA summit in August and that was the issue the participants chose.
How has Shir Tikvah addressed criminal justice reform?
We had a series of house parties where people talked about criminal justice reform and the prison system. These are very complex issues and people have different entry points, so we wanted an informal, small group setting and not a lecture. We hope to plan more house parties this summer.
We also hosted an event with a member of the ACLU who presented “Picking Up the Pieces.” This study looked at racial discrimination and policing in Minneapolis and it found that black people are nine times as likely as white people to be arrested for low-level offenses. A speaker from the organization One Family, One Community spoke about the group’s efforts to help people find housing after they get out of prison.
How does this work relate to your Jewish beliefs and practices?
I went to Talmud Torah St. Paul for day school and then went to the evening classes in high school. At a certain point we talked about the prophetic texts and the ways in which prophets spoke about social justice and economic equality issues. It was clear to me that part of what it means to be a Jew is to be active and engaged in these issues.
You can look at an issue as complex as criminal justice reform and get caught up in a lot of policy questions, but for me, this is a basic place to start. Every one of us is created in the image of God and we are all connected because of that. Does the current system reflect our values? If people are struggling with mental health and poverty is prison a good place for them? Does this reflect our values as a community? I would say no.
If readers want to learn about criminal justice, what would be a good place to start?
My primer for this issue was The New Jim Crow (by Michelle Alexander). It is a very heavy book but it presents a cogent picture, specifically how the drug war is a continuation of the policies of Jim Crow. It is a compelling read and for me it forms the basis of what I am working on.
What is your favorite Jewish holiday?
Passover, because it is a big thing in our family. We have maybe 50 people at our dinner each night and family comes in from out of town. There’s lots of boisterous singing and banging on tables and eating, drinking and merriment.
Passover re-centers me on what it means to be Jewish. We were once slaves in Egypt and that is our identity. Moses was the first community organizer.Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!