Jewish communal organizer looks to next challenge

Rabbi Steve Gutow addresses the crowd Sunday at the 2015 JCPA Jewish Community Town Hall.Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Rabbi Steve Gutow addresses the crowd Sunday at the 2015 JCPA Jewish Community Town Hall.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

Rabbi Steve Gutow paused, his eyes tearing, as he attempted to pinpoint which social justice issue mattered most to him during his 10-year role as president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

But in the end, the Reconstructionist rabbi chose not to talk about his struggles to end poverty, curb gun violence, improve race relations, help the environment, increase civility in discussions about Israel or help the people of Darfur.

Instead, Gutow, who will leave the JCPA in December, spoke of his “belief that there is this God out there.” What motivates and matters most to Gutow is his “belief in something bigger than ourselves.”

Gutow, whose replacement has yet to be named, has every intention of continuing to help others. He recently was named by President Barack Obama to the Advisory Council on Faith Based and Community Partnerships and is in talks with a university, which he declined to name, to create an interfaith institute. If that doesn’t come to fruition, Gutow said he will find another way to be involved in interfaith work.

Interfaith work speaks to him, he said in an interview with Washington Jewish Week. He sees the good in certain areas of other religions, admiring in particular how Christians speak about “caring for the least among us” and how Muslims believe in a “personal need to help someone.”

“Interfaith is the way to go,” he said. “We can bring God into the fray.”

The Dallas native traces his deep-seated concern for others back to the age of 8, when he went with his mother to register voters in a housing project. Suddenly, he realized he didn’t know where his mother was and grew concerned. Then he heard laughter coming from a nearby courtyard and headed over.

“There was my mom with about 15 black women, sitting around, laughing, drinking tea,” he said. That scene has stayed with him ever since.

As a rabbi, lawyer and political organizer, Gutow is often visible on the front lines of protest marches and rallies. For the past four years, he has participated in the Food Stamp Challenge, living on lentils and soup for a week, spending only as much on groceries as the average food assistant recipient.

Gutow, who has been chosen as one of the 50 most-influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, believes people should “walk as forcefully as we can,” while always “trying to push the envelope.”

He is a frequent visitor to the White House and has spoken “seven or eight times” with Obama. On Capitol Hill, together with MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, JCPA gathers anti-poverty and leaders and members of the government to hold an annual national hunger seder.

William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, called Gutow “a great partner of mine.”

“He will be missed as he begins the next chapter of his life,” said Daroff, crediting Gutow with organizing the Jewish community to become “more vocal, more engaged.” “Steve is someone who has been an incredible success in moving forward the Jewish communal agenda.”

Under Gutow’s leadership, JCPA grew from an email list of 6,000 names to its current list of more than 100,000 names.

Susan Turnbull, JCPA chair, praised Gutow’s dedication and commitment to social justice, noting that he “put JCPA on the map” with his work on poverty and civility. “Steve brought to this organization a commitment to tikkun olam that can’t be duplicated,” she said.

So, with all his efforts, does Gutow believe he has made a dent in the world’s suffering?

The number of people living in poverty has decreased around the world, he said, but there are still 850 million people living in poverty. They include 15 percent of the Jewish people.

He pointed to Deuteronomy, chapter 15, which instructs people to help out when they see a poor person. However, Gutow said, the text also notes that there will always be poor among us.

“You don’t have to do real big things,” he explained, pointing to a successful day cutting cucumbers at a soup kitchen.

“We have done much, but there is much to do.”

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