What Happened When I Went On Sabbatical

After ten years as Executive Director of JOIN for Justice and twenty-five years in the work world without a break, I had the rare opportunity to have a sabbatical last year.

When I tell most people about having had a sabbatical, they don’t know what to make of it. They imagine the academic model – did you write a book? they ask. (While having written a book is something I’d like to have said I’ve done in this life, I’m not sure I actually want to spend any time writing it. But I digress.) This sabbatical wasn’t like that. It was paid, it was three months and I didn’t have any “work” required for it. Basically, after daydreaming about the idea for three years, I finally went to the board and said “I’ve been working really hard for a decade plus, while raising a family and dealing with an illness and now my house has burnt down (true story, but I digress again). I need to build up some reserves to do my best work going forward.” They said, without stopping a beat, let’s make it happen. I was fully supported to make the dream happen, and for that, I am forever grateful.

The word sabbatical comes from the word sabbath, and most plainly means “a break”. It is related to the shmita, a rest from the harvest. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein points out that the full mitzvah of shabbat in the Torah is “six days you should work and the seventh you should rest.” Work and rest are inextricably linked in the mitzvah. For twenty plus years I had been harvesting – a family, a leadership development organization, a Jewish social justice field. Truth be told, I was burnt out, even if I didn’t see it back then. But I had enough perspective to know this: my fields needed a rest.

After a ton of research and organizational planning to make it happen well (see my other yet to be written article on how to get a sabbatical) I had arrived at the time in my calendar which had more white space than it ever had before. I’d spent my life getting good at juggling too much and marking my success by checking off item by item, so I started my sabbatical armed with my productivity skills in one hand, and a list of all the things I had the “time” to do in the other. There was a lot, including the “meaningful” (go on a solo silent retreat, visit long lost friends), the regular (take the kids to and from school, make dinners) and not urgent/not important (organize all those cell phone photos into something).

I needed a plan to make it all happen, and I know how to make a plan! But instead of feeling excited by the free time and opportunities, I looked at said list day after day, and arbitrarily completed some items, but mostly didn’t and then felt guilty. Somehow, I again had too much to do in too little time. I felt no compulsion to start that list. I was extremely disoriented. How can “rest” also feel so stressful? I’m doing something wrong.

After a few weeks of the uncomfortable yet familiar feeling of anxiousness, I surprised myself. Instead of forcing myself to “make the most of the time” and “being productive” I put the whole damn thing down. The list. For the first time in my adult life, I just lived in the moment.

It was a strange thing, and a lot emerged that I couldn’t have planned. It was like trying on a new style of clothing; a lot of “huh” and “why not?” I started meditating on a whim, and found I loved it. I embraced a new therapist (not literally). I began walking a lot because I was gifted a fitbit. I spent time with friends and family by encouraging them to visit when they could be in town. I read or listened to books that crossed my path, and joined a book club when asked. I binged on Glow and loved it.

And then things started to change in ways I hadn’t planned. Most notably, my inner world shifted. I stopped thinking that the only thing that mattered was how much I could accomplish, and started questioning the whole paradigm of productivity as a value. I realized I was listening to my kids in a different, more patient way. I stopped the constant telling myself how hard it was to balance everything and started being grateful about all the opportunities my life had provided me. A window opened that I hadn’t even realized had closed and air flowed in. The opportunities of my future life, and of my work, again felt endless, even if I didn’t take them. I could make little changes. In fact, I could be different. Hope, as a real feeling, returned. I stopped counting down to the end of my sabbatical and rather, started thinking about how I would live differently after the sabbatical. Not what I would do, but who I wanted to be.

The sabbatical came to an end quickly, but not as quickly as I feared when I took it. I looked back at my original to do list, and found I had actually done more than I thought I had. But I let life pull me along instead of pushing myself. And it took me exactly where I needed to go. I don’t understand why this happened, and I don’t have tips for you about how others can make it happen. The only part I think I learned firsthand is the magic of fallow ground. New things grow when given space. Planned then unplanned, intended yet not labored on, the sabbatical worked. I saw again with new eyes. I had breathed and been refreshed.

And now, six months later, I am proud to formally announce that luckily for me, I returned to a community of others embracing a new path. JOIN for Justice itself, is also going through a period of deep breath and renewal. Our new strategic plan began with 2019, and it marks a shift in our own understanding of who we truly are and who we want to become. Following a 9 month period engaging 100+ members of our community of leaders, funders, and partners, we created a plan that strives to live out our values. Our new mission is to build a powerful field of Jewish leaders capable of effectively organizing for justice, both inside and outside Jewish communities in the US. We organize because, in the words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free”—our destinies are bound up as one.

One plank of our strategic plan demonstrates that JOIN has been on a similar voyage of discovery as I have. Slowing down to develop a strategic plan, we were able to listen to our colleagues who have cautioned us that leaders will be much more equipped to transform the world if they also are transformed themselves. They’ve told us something we already knew – that if leaders organize great victories for justice, but then burn out and fall apart, they won’t be able to defend those victories, much less bring vitality to their communities and move on to further struggles. While we already knew that, though, it was hard for us to figure out how to incorporate it into our training. Everything felt – and was – so urgent; in the couple last years especially, but, truly, always. Just as I did, JOIN has let itself be pulled, and has learned how important it is that we incorporate into our work further training to support Jewish leaders to dig into Jewish wisdom to learn how to be resilient and stay in the work – and be fed by the work – over time. If more of our leaders can learn these habits of self-care that took me 25 years to grasp, the time we took to do it will render us even more powerful, even more a force to be reckoned with.

We will be sharing more in the months to come. There will be many opportunities to lead, to connect, to learn. Please reach out if you’d like to be more involved. New things are indeed growing.

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Apply to Become a Placement Organization

JOIN is currently seeking dynamic social justice organizations to partner with us by hosting a Jewish Organizing Fellow in the 2019-2020 academic year. Past and current partners include unions, issue-based organizations, Community Development Corporations, neighborhood organizations, and broad-based or interfaith organizations.

Deadline to apply to be a Placement Organization is April 8, 2019.

This year, we have two exciting new opportunities for prospective Placement organizations:

  1. This year we are launching the Empower Fellowship, a new track within the Jewish Organizing Fellowship for Jews with disabilities and their employers. In addition to the general fellowship programming, they will also participate in trainings to support their leadership as Jewish organizers with disabilities. Empower Fellows’ placements may include organizations both within and beyond the disability community.
  2. We also have more funding available this year to support Placements in hiring fellows, ranging from $1,000-20,000, to make the opportunity to host a fellow more accessible to organizations. You can learn more about the funding here and in the application.  

Why host a Jewish Organizing Fellow? The Rev. Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, has partnered with JOIN for Justice for 9 years and counting, hiring Jewish Organizing Fellows and alumni as community organizers. Hear about her experience working with JOIN Organizing Fellows in the video above.

If you may be hiring for a position that uses community organizing skills in the next 6 or so months, this partnership can support you in identifying and developing talented leaders for your organization. Please be in touch with Tali Smookler if you are interested in exploring this opportunity further. You can reach her by email at tsmookler@joinforjustice.org or at 617-350-9994 ext. 203, and learn more here.

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Strong Leadership and Courageous Action

Simon Greer discussing what he learned from an experiment in dialogue across difference.

When the phone began to ring off the hook after the November 2016 election with calls from rabbis and cantors, trained by JOIN, looking to strategize, it became evident that our rabbinic and cantorial alumni would need particular and different types of support and training to help them organize and lead in this political moment.  This month, we held our first clergy gathering since 2012, designed to address the particular questions that our alumni said they needed the most help grappling with.

Rabbis David Jaffe and Noah Farkas

Over 60 rabbis and cantors from around the country came together to learn from leading trainers and thinkers as they asked questions such as: How do we understand, and teach our members about anti-semitism, white nationalism, and white supremacy?; How do we navigate the current tension between Jewish and other communities, and within our own community, over issues such as the Women’s March?; What can white clergy learn from working respectfully with Jews of Color and non-Jewish clergy of color?; In politically diverse synagogues, how do I challenge those ready to organize for justice while still engaging and respecting those who disagree?; What can happen – for ourselves and the country – if Jews engage with other communities who disagree with us politically?; How will our theology of organizing shift in this moment?; and, how do we sustain our own leadership and nurture our souls while doing this vital work?

Eric Ward presenting on anti-semitism in white nationalism and movement spaces.

Eric Ward, author of “Skin in the Game,” presented on anti-semitism in white nationalism and movement spaces, and challenged rabbis and cantors to not shrink from engaging it publicly.  April Baskin of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable delivered an eye-opening presentation on how to close the widening gap between Jews of Color and white Jewish leadership. She offered us a set of tools to help clergy interpret how different people react to varying degrees of oppression and how to navigate one’s way through them.

April Baskin breaking down her oppression hypothesis.

Tru’ah’s Rabbi Jill Jacobs spoke to the question of clergy having a clear, moral voice in times of political turmoil.  She said we should rely on our own personal insight when crafting our own moral voices. Rabbi David Jaffe honed in on the use of Mussar, and other spiritual technologies, such as spontaneous prayer, visualization, and meditations that can be used to cope in times of crisis and spiritual struggle.

Additional speakers included Megan Black and Rabbi Amy Eilberg of Faith in Action; Simon Greer, a thought leader on common good politics and founder of Cambridge Health Ventures; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, founder of the Social Justice Organizing program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Shuli Passow, Director of Community Engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City; and members of our current Clergy Fellowship program and other alumni of JOIN’s training.

We were able to capture some brilliant reflections from the attendees, and we’ve compiled them below in this playlist. Check it out. 

  1. Rabbi Joel Abraham
  2. Rabbi Aaron Alexander
  3. Rabbi Elan Babchuck
  4. Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein
  5. Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz
  6. Rabbi Aderet Drucker
  7. Rabbi Corey Helfand
  8. Rabbi Lauren Henderson
  9. Rabbi Esther Lederman
  10. Rabbi Joseph Robinson
  11. Rabbi Elliot Tepperman


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When Two Fellows Come Together, A National Campaign Emerges

JOIN Fellows Bar and Carly share how they collaborated together on a deportation defense that became a national campaign.

Bar: I met Carly during match day for JOIN when we sat at the same table waiting anxiously to interview with different organizations. The first group I interviewed with was Episcopal City Mission, an organization that builds power for racial and economic justice by bridging faith communities and grassroots movements. The last group of the day was St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, an organization that promotes equity in Boston through long-term relationships with young people and their families. Carly ended up at ECM and me at SSYP.

We took walks and talked together about the different kinds of work we were doing and making connections between it. It was during the mid-year retreat for our JOIN fellowship that we had an opportunity to work together, facilitating an afternoon activity for Shabbat exploring different modes of resonance and storytelling. It was a breakthrough in our cohort. What made it so powerful was the trust the two of us built both through the walks we took and the work we did to plan the session. I trusted Carly to hold her role, and she trusted me.

A week after the mid-year retreat, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center put out a call for a national day of action to #FreeEduardo. Eduardo Samaniego is a national immigrant rights organizer and a student leader in western Massachusetts who was arrested in Georgia after forgetting his wallet and being unable to pay a taxi fare. He was transferred to ICE detention and spent three weeks in solitary confinement due to his identity as an activist.

Eduardo is also a friend from Hampshire College who I met during my first semester of school when we were in the same tutorial (a class where the professor serves as an advisor to all the students and where our advisor ordered us the good pizza). He is an incredible leader who has organized and spoken at rallies, marches and all sorts of events— first for the Dreamers movement and later for the permanent protection of all immigrants living in the United States.  

Carly: Bar called me on Monday morning as soon as she saw the national call to action. She asked me for ECM’s support in organizing the Boston solidarity actions for Eduardo. We had to organize a petition delivery and a vigil for Wednesday.

Bar and I sprung into action, connecting with the national organizers at Pioneer Valley Workers Center and local Episcopal leaders through ECM’s network to host an interfaith vigil at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Boston Common, as Eduardo awaited a decision on whether he would be offered bond or ordered deported. The vigil at St. Paul’s was one of over twenty solidarity actions across the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Washington, DC. (Media coverage: Boston Globe)

Pioneer Valley Workers Center led the national campaign to #FreeEduardo with incredible love. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for them and watch them model community care — defending Eduardo as well as two community members in Sanctuary — alongside structure-based worker organizing. In our JOIN trainings, we studied the concept of “Movement Ecology” that comes out of the Ayni Institute in East Boston; this is the idea that there are multiple theories of change that need to operate together for the health of a movement. Bar modeled this approach, and I feel transformed by the experience of generating urgent response to a friend and movement leader’s deportation while holding a larger commitment to abolishing ICE and prisons.

On February 1, Eduardo was deported to Mexico after being forced to agree to a “voluntary departure” order by Immigration Judge William A. Cassidy on January 25. In a letter written prior to his release, Eduardo wrote:

“My dreams and hopes – that took years to form fighting in the streets for universal healthcare, access to education, and amnesty for all immigrants – are still inside and they burn with a passion.”

May we continue to tell Eduardo’s story and amplify the voices of undocumented leaders as we work to end mass incarceration and the targeting of immigrants, especially immigrants of color, by all levels of our government.


To support Eduardo and his family, please continue to share his story and donate to his emergency fund at https://www.gofundme.com/emergency-fund-for-eduardo. If you would like to be involved in immigrant justice accompaniment or advocacy in the Boston area, contact Carly@episcopalcitymission.org.

Speak up about the human rights violations at Irwin County Detention Center, where Eduardo was detained, and other private prisons. (Media coverage: Rolling Stone)

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New Jersey Rabbis Demand Gun Action During Hanukkah

This past December, rabbis from the New Jersey cohort of the Clergy Fellowship partnered with Jersey City Together on a major call to action which brought more than 500 people, including Jersey City’s Mayor Steven M. Fulp, to a Baptist church.

Jersey City Together, a nonpartisan organization consisting of 35 religious congregations and nonprofits, coordinated the interfaith action which took place at New Missionary Baptist Church and sought to urge elected officials to move quickly on finding solutions to the lack of affordable housing and gun violence in the city and around the state.

The action also created an opportunity for many to speak about the immediate and long term challenges facing city residents. Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, a current Clergy Fellow, spoke on strategies for addressing gun violence and about what happens when our leaders fail to show up.

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman proclaimed, “Congress is not the only path to change. We have our own leverage. When we started the Do Not Stand By Idly campaign we discovered that forty percent of the guns sold in America are bought with our tax dollars.”

Do Not Stand By Idly is an interfaith network of individuals and groups working for social change. Their work also revealed that the US military buys about 25% of the guns with law enforcement participating in another 15% of the purchases.

“With New Jersey Together taking the lead,” Rabbi Elliott continued, “we gathered 130 mayors from across this country and we said we are going to demand accountability from the gunmakers, and together we demanded simple things like investing in gun safety, smart gun technology, and refusing to distribute guns to gun shops whose guns are disproportionately used in crimes. These are small measures, and with or without Congress they will save thousands of lives per year.”

Listen to Rabbi Elliot’s entire call to action here.

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, also a Clergy Fellow, closed the meeting with prayer as participants ignited electric candles to signify the hope that comes with organizing for change, and to commemorate the last night of Hanukkah. The rabbis brought 25 members of their congregations with them.  Before the action, JOIN trained the congregants to understand the distinction between the action and rallies that they were more used to. Simply put, actions demand specific changes on a specific issue while rallies make a statement and focus on changing the narrative in the public sphere. 

Since the action, Jersey City Together, Christian leaders, and JOIN’s New Jersey rabbinic cohort met earlier this month with Governor Philip Dunton Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal to press them to release state data that reveals which brands of illegal guns are mostly used in violent crimes. This information will be key to working side-by-side with the interfaith coalition to hold gun manufacturers accountable for irresponsible distribution practices.

The meeting with Attorney General Grewel would not have been possible if Rabbi Jen Schlosberg — who learned how to organize through her involvement in the JOIN Clergy Fellowship — did not take the Attorney General up on his offer to meet, following her vigil for the Pittsburgh tragedy in November of last year. Rabbi Jen nimbly led the pursuit and was responsible for securing the meeting between the Attorney General and Jersey City Together.  

We are so proud of the work our Clergy Fellows are doing to lift up social justice in prayer and in reality.

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