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.