America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis of 2016

An Inside Look

JOIN for Justice was proud to learn that six alumni of our clergy training programs were listed in The Jewish Daily Forward’s list of 32 of America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis of 2016. The six alumni are: Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Rabbi Avram Mlotek, Rabbi Rachel Bregman, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, and Rabbi Justin Goldstein.

We reached out to our alumni to ask: How did your trainings and learning with JOIN’s Seminary Leadership Project and other JOIN clergy programs impact the inspiring work you’re doing as a rabbi? We’re excited to share several of their answers below. Click on their names to learn more about their work!

lauren holtzblattRabbi Lauren Holtzblatt: “I have loved being a part of the JOIN rabbinic cohort. Jeannie and Meir have helped me think and act on power differently, cultivate and support lay leaders and pay attention to where I spend the most time. This year has been critical for my development as a rabbi.”

From The Forward: “Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is one of the most important and inspiring reasons why Adas Israel has evolved in so many positive, meaningful ways over the past several years…Rabbi Lauren isn’t just about doing. She is also very much about being. She is so able to access and share her knowledge of Jewish and secular life and thought — in one-on-one discussions, committee meetings and services for hundreds people.”

farkasRabbi Noah Zvi Farkas: “JOIN for Justice is the organization that is uniquely situated for the Jewish landscape of the 21st Century.  Contemporary Jews want to know that their Judaism has immediate relevancy to them and to the world of around them.  JOIN takes a bottom-up approach placing stories of real people and their experiences at the center of changing the world for the better. JOIN’s training enabled me to have a greater impact in my rabbinate by creating partnerships with my community members to make lasting social change. All of Judaism is relational by nature.  The very idea of covenant means to be in an accountable relationship.  JOIN for Justice taught how to activate the covenant we have with each others as Jews to lift each other up, lean into our own power, and change the world for better.  I could not be the effective rabbi and activist today without JOIN’s training and mentorship. I can draw a straight line from JOIN’s training and programs to our work to end homelessness. Through story telling, relational conversations, and analyzing political power, JOIN gave me and my congregation the skills to leverage billions of dollars to fight homelessness in California.”

From The Forward: “In 2013, Rabbi Farkas gave a High Holiday sermon asking us to look around our community and take stock of the overwhelming number of homeless people living on the streets in southern California… Through his inspiring, loving and humanistic approach to life, Rabbi Farkas has made a difference in the lives of his congregants by helping us understand that we improve our own circumstances by reaching out to the world around us.”

RachaelBregmanRabbi Rachael Bregman: “I learned many powerful skills through JOIN like relationship building, finding and naming the shared narrative of a community and leadership cultivation. These days I am most drawn to multifaith work and creating relationships among people of different faiths but one home. We have so many shared values and concerns and we are so much more powerful together.”

From The Forward: “When Rabbi Rachael came, the synagogue became alive with people and ruach…Her services are inspiring and her Torah study on Shabbat mornings is spiritual and fun..She is truly a rabbi ‘of the people.’…She has created a community where only a shadow of one existed before. She’s a rabbinic delight. She embodies what an inspirational clergy person should be.”

Justin GoldsteinRabbi Justin Goldstein: “I first participated in the Seminary Leadership Program as a rabbinical student around 2007. At the time, I had imagined pursuing  a rabbinical career as an organizer or, at the very least, in non-profit work; little did I know that I would one day be serving as a pulpit rabbi. Having had a good grounding in cause-based activism and organizing for many years prior to entering rabbinical school or JOIN’s program, learning specifically about Congregational Broad Based Organizing through JOIN was an exciting experience that has since provided incredible value for my rabbinate beyond what I could understand at the time. Even when not necessarily pursuing justice in the greater community, I find myself utilizing the theories and principles of broad based organizing in building community in my synagogue – in finding common ground and connection points with my congregants and helping others find common ground with one another. The JOIN for Justice training I participated in years ago has proven to be invaluable in influencing both my congregational and political organizing. Further, it has influenced how I relate to others in a very significant manner. I do not mean it lightly when I say that this training was completely transformative in many ways.”

From The Forward: “For the first time in my life, and in the nine years of my Jewish professional life, I find myself yearning to go to shul. Rabbi Justin has figured out how to encourage Jewish learning in a way that is relevant and important, while also being accessible for the ‘lay learner.’…Our shul is stronger, the greater Jewish community is stronger and my personal Jewish identity is stronger — all because of Rabbi Justin.”

 

 

Photo Sources (in order): Adas IsraelValley Beth ShalomTemple Beth TefillohBeth Israel Congregation

 

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Siyyum Graduation 2016: One Voice

On June 20th, more than 150 people gathered to celebrate with the 10 Fellows at JOIN for Justice’s Siyyum Graduation.  The evening was an incredible gathering to support our graduating 2016 Jewish Organizing Fellows.

JOIN-Siyyam-81 (2)(Pictured above: the Jewish Organizing Fellows sing the song, “One Voice,” to open the evening.)

“Our collective voice is built out of our individual stories, and stitched together by the relationships we’ve constructed. These bonds allow us to merge our voices together and call for justice b’kol echad, in one voice.”

~extract from our Siyyum Program book

 

It was an evening of inspiration and love, and one which demonstrated how this graduating class has made powerful changes through their work this year. And as the crowd listened to their stories, they demonstrated that there is a community standing behind these powerful young leaders as they work for justice in Boston and beyond.

If you weren’t able to join us at Siyyum, you can watch their stories below and get a taste of their experiences as Jewish Organizing Fellows, and check out our photos from the evening. Prepare to be moved, inspired, fired up, hopeful…and most of all ready to join them in transforming the world as it is into the world as it should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After Orlando, LGBTQ Jews seek more than ‘solidarity’

This piece by Idit Klein (alum of our Jewish Organizing Fellowship’s first class in 1999, and JOIN for Justice board member)  was originally published in Jewish Telegraph Agency.  (Idit Klein is the Executive Director of Keshet.)

BOSTON (JTA) — In the wake of the Orlando shooting, statements of solidarity with the LGBTQ community quickly tumbled forth. Some expressions of support came from unlikely sources such as the Orthodox Union and the Catholic Church. But what does a statement of solidarity mean in response to a crisis when it is not expressed in ordinary times?

Surely there were LGBTQ Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and Muslims who were moved to hear their faith community leaders condemn the attack. For many of these faith leaders, it may have felt momentous and bold, risky even, to express empathy with the LGBTQ community.

I appreciate the progress represented by these expressions of support, but as a lesbian, I do not actually feel supported by them. The Orthodox Union issued a statement saying “it is clear that those people who were murdered … were targeted because of their identification with the LGBT community. … No American should be assailed due to his or her personal identity.” Yet this same group lobbied against marriage equality and supports religious exemption laws that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

An assurance of solidarity must move beyond compassion for loss of life to affirming the dignity of those who are alive. Without the resolve to support cultural change and policy reform, expressions of solidarity may provide immediate solace but, ultimately, they leave LGBTQ people standing alone.

In the aftermath of Orlando, this is especially true for LGBTQ Jews of color, particularly Latin queer Jews. I’ve noticed that most of the Jewish media’s coverage about the Orlando shooting has not acknowledged the experience of Latin LGBTQ Jews who may see themselves in the victims more acutely than Jews of other backgrounds. This erasure adds to their pain and sense of isolation in the wake of this tragedy. True solidarity means honoring the diversity of our community both in the media and in our communal discourse.

Solidarity also means reflective accountability. It means asking questions: What enables such hatred to flourish? How have I been a bystander in a culture of bigotry? How have I been complicit in a legal system that perpetuates second-class status for LGBTQ people? Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote, “In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” The challenge of Heschel’s observation is that words alone are not enough to right the wrongs all around us. Responsibility requires both words and action — not only in the aftermath of a crisis but all the time.

Unfortunately, after horrific acts motivated by ideology or committed in the name of religion, religious communities are often quick to disassociate from the perpetrator. When Yishai Schlissel, a haredi Orthodox ex-convict, stabbed six marchers at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last summer­ — murdering 16-year-old Shira Banki — Jewish community leaders, including many Orthodox voices, did not hesitate to condemn the attack. Yet many of these leaders asserted that Schlissel’s views do not represent Judaism or Torah. I disagree. As a committed Jew, I acknowledge with sadness that Schlissel’s views do represent certain aspects of our religious tradition. We have critical work to do to challenge these currents of bigotry rather than disregard them.

As a queer Jew, the solidarity I seek from other Jews is not simply ignoring the passages of Torah that are used to discriminate against LGBTQ people. I seek recognition that homophobia and transphobia actively exist in our modern Jewish community and are perversions within our interpretive tradition. I seek the acknowledgment that religion is too often used to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people. By acknowledging this painful reality, we have the opportunity to condemn the ugliness in our tradition and still hold up all that is beautiful.

As part of my work at Keshet, a national organization working for LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, my colleagues and I host a series of Shabbatonim for LGBTQ and ally teens. Each time we host a Shabbaton, I am struck by how many of the teens share that they’ve never before felt so validated, seen and free.

“At the Shabbaton, I finally felt like there was no part of myself I needed to hide, and I was able to embrace myself in its entirety,” a gay teen recently wrote to me.

Nearly all the teens who participate in our Shabbatonim are part of Jewish communities that would describe themselves as inclusive. Most of them have very supportive parents. They attend high schools with gay-straight alliances. So how is it that kids who have so much support in their lives still feel so alone in the world as queer Jewish teens? Our leaders are clearly falling short. The sign posts for inclusion must be more visible. The language of support must be audible all year round, not only during Pride month or after a tragedy.

It shouldn’t take a crisis like the Orlando shooting to catalyze religious leaders’ support for LGBTQ people. In the coming weeks and months, I hope to see people in faith communities — and political leaders of many religious backgrounds — take a bold step toward equality for LGBTQ people beyond attending a vigil or producing a statement.

Just as we are hearing a growing chorus of voices reject the “thoughts and prayers” of politicians and demand action for gun reform, I call on all who offer solidarity with the LGBTQ community to continue to stand with us as we move forward. Solidarity must outlast our mourning.

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Will Your Synagogue Be a Club or a Cause?

This piece by Rabbi Joshua Rabin (an alum of JOIN for Justice’s Seminary Leadership Project)  was originally published on eJewish Philantrhopy

gym

(Photo source: pixabay)

I love going to the gym. Each day, I take an hour to get my heart pumping and my body sweaty to ensure that I approach my work with energy, focus, and zeal. And when I go to the gym, one of the things I am thankful for is that I always have a machine to use, primarily because the majority of the members at my gym never show up! This is not an isolated phenomenon. The marketing research firm Statistic Brain found that while the health club industry generates $21 billion in revenue each year, almost 67% of gym memberships in the United States are never used.

This is a brilliant business model, best captured in an episode of National Public Radio’s Planet Money called The Planet Money Workout. Stacey Vanek Smith states that most gym members are “customers who pay, but don’t cost the business a dime.” If a typical fitness center actually needed to accommodate the number of members who pay dues, there would be a line out the door to use any machine.

A typical synagogue uses a business model almost identical to a health club, where a large number of congregants who use little to no synagogue services pay the membership dues that make up the bulk of the operating budget. Of course, there is nothing wrong with paying membership dues to something that one does not use, as many people want a synagogue to be available to them in the limited moments when they need it. Furthermore, every professional and lay leader I know wants more people to walk into the synagogue and would bristle at the idea that synagogues intend to keep out minimally engaged members. However, as the Pew Forum’s Portrait of American Jews finds that only31% of American Jews belong to a synagogue, it is safe to say that the days of sustaining synagogues where people pay not to use them are numbered at best, and over at worst.

Yet underneath every challenge is an opportunity. I am far from the first person to compare synagogue membership to health club membership, yet this metaphor only matters if it can point us to new imagery that will guide synagogues on a journey toward thriving. The synagogue of the twentieth-century was designed to be a club, a place where membership itself was a form of participation. But at a time when all membership organizations face dwindling numbers, a thriving synagogue in the twenty-first century must be a cause, a place where people invest their time, energy and money because the purpose and mission of that synagogue compels them to engage. This distinction between club and cause manifests itself in three ways:

1. A Club is Owned by the Members, a Cause by the Mission

I visit countless synagogues, and I am waiting to visit the synagogue whose website says that the community is cold, unwelcoming, uncaring, and hostile to the needs of children and families. However, while most synagogues use similar aspirational words to describe their community, there is a tremendous gap between the synagogue as it is and the synagogue as it should be. If the synagogue wants to be a club, then the community as it is works fine, so long as people continue to join. Yet if synagogues want to be true to Dan Hotchkiss’ charge that the “owner” of the congregation is the mission, then a synagogue’s “bottom line” is “the degree to which its mission is achieved.” Clarifying what that mission should be, and thinking about a strategy to transform the ideal into a reality, is critical to ensuring that the synagogue focuses on a cause worth pursuing.

2. A Club Aims for Output, a Cause for Impact

Even struggling synagogues have a great deal of activity, including programs, classes, life cycle events, guest speakers, minyanim, social action projects, and so on. However, a great deal of output from a synagogue does not mean that the synagogue makes a great deal of impact. Consider prayer. All synagogues offer some type of prayer experience, yet Jeffrey Jones reminds us that, “The real issue is whether or not worship offers an encounter with the holy, an opportunity to be touched by the transforming power of God” (Traveling Together: A Guide for Disciple Forming Congregations, 83). Unless prayer experiences are judged by the extent to which they help individuals grow their “passion created by an encounter with the holy” (Ibid.), then the prayer experience itself is simply a repetitive exercise of reciting words without meaning, promoting attendance without cultivating transcendence. By extension, a synagogue that wants to be a cause must think about the mark every aspect of synagogue life makes on individual Jews, the local community, and the world.

3. A Club Fills Roles, a Cause Uncovers a Person’s Gifts

Sefer Shemot tells us that every Israelite “who was moved and whose heart was willing” participated in the work of constructing the mishkan(Shemot 35:21), yet the Torah neglects to mention where a generation of previously enslaved Israelites learned how to perform these intricate and ornate tasks. In response, the Ramban argues that “none of the Israelites had ever learned these skills before … But each one discovered his natural talent or aptitude for the task” (Ramban on Shemot 35:21). Even though God commanded the Israelites to perform a seemingly impossible task, the sanctity of the task itself inspired the Israelites to uncover gifts they never knew they possessed.

While many current synagogue leaders are dying to know who will chair next year’s Purim Carnival, New Members Dinner, or Annual Campaign, unengaged and under-engaged Jews seeking a spiritual home do not want to be another name in an organization’s bureaucracy; the volunteer work needs to emerge from a person’s spiritual gifts. Every task performed in the synagogue, from serving as gabbai to stuffing envelopes, has the chance to be endowed with holiness. Yet if the tasks are framed as a to-do list that someone must perform, synagogues will continue to lose people who see that work as completely disconnected from the formation of a meaningful Jewish life.

When I speak with synagogue leaders in my position at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), I am oftentimes asked about what synagogues can do to ensure that next-generation Jews will one day join synagogues. While the question itself is far too complex for casual conversation, my answer on one foot is that twenty-first century Jews demand that the synagogue serve a cause, but the synagogue’smere existence is not a cause. This subtle difference in purpose is a tectonic shift in the criteria by which synagogues are judged, yet this shift has the power to the sow the seeds of a new synagogue renaissance. May it happen soon, and speedily in our days.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and is the Program Director of the USCJ Convention. You can read more of his writings atwww.joshuarabin.com.

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Creating Resources for Queer Jews of Color

Through her work at Keshet, in partnership with the Jewish Multiracial Network, Kat Macias (Jewish Organizing Fellowship Alum Class of 2015) created a Queer Jews of Color Resource List.

This clip is from a blog piece by Kat Macias about the project, originally published on the Keshet Blog hosted on My Jewish Learning.

keshet(Pictured: Kat Macias)

It is powerful to see yourself reflected in history, in a story, or even in a room. That power is a profound sense of comfort, knowing that you are not alone, there are others like you. It is a feeling of belonging.

Too often as a queer Jew of color I have felt alone: my people absent from Hebrew school lessons, traditions, and communal practice. I have grown to expect that I will be the only queer Jew of color at services or at any other Jewish social gathering. And, despite being welcomed in word time and time again, I have struggled to feel like I belong. What I needed was to know that I was not the only one. I longed to feel at home in a Jewish community I so desperately wanted to call mine.

I turned to the Internet, Googling to find pieces of myself reflected in others. I found it easy to find LGBT Jews or to find Jews of color, there were even whole organizations working to support these identities.

But, finding people at the cross-section, both queer and of color proved to be a challenging task. Eventually, I found a few. My search led me to Raffi Freedman-GurspanMichael TwittyY-Love and more. It took hours of Googling to feel like maybe just maybe Judaism could hold me. I had finally found my nugget of hope… (continued here)

More resources:
You can access the Queer Jews of Color Resource List here.
You can read an article about the project in The Forward here.
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