What 150 one on ones can do

by Rabbi Shuli Passow

Rabbi Shuli Passow is Director of Community Engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, and a Seminary Leadership Project alum.

Leading isn’t enough anymore. In our current political reality, we need more than just strong leaders – we need leaders who can nurture and develop other leaders. It’s not enough to stand up yourself – change won’t come if we don’t mobilize entire communities. Through my organizing training and mentorship with JOIN, I’ve been able to help B’nai Jeshurun, a nationally known New York City synagogue of 3500 households, expand the number of people involved in our justice work so that more of our community is united in taking action.
When I first arrived at BJ 2 1/2 years ago, my goal was simply to find out what my congregation cared about and what they wanted to work towards. I began by meeting with 150 congregants one on one, listening to their stories and identifying people who were ready to grow as leaders. This model of organizing wasn’t new to BJ; it has driven our justice work for the past 14 years. After our first listening campaign in 2003, larger campaigns organically emerged, covering everything from labor practices of farm workers in New York state, to making elder care more affordable and humane, to fighting for and winning reform of corporate waste hauling in NYC.
By taking an organizing approach to my work here, I’ve been able to build new leadership teams focusing on racial justice and immigrant rights. Right now, we have over 200 people responding to the urgent refugee crisis. There are lawyers providing pro-bono legal aid for immigrants. An investment banker thinking about how he could help refugees and asylum seekers find work in the U.S. He is building a team of other BJ members who want to assist, and they’re leveraging their huge number of professional contacts today – already placing 6 or 7 individuals in jobs, working closely with refugee settlement agencies to find more.
Most of the people involved in our justice work aren’t steeped in lifelong activism or organizing – they’re simply citizens stepping up to meet the moment.
Every step of the way, the mentorship of JOIN has been instrumental. Meir Lakein, JOIN’s Director of Organizing, was the person I spoke with to figure out if this was the right job for me in the first place, and I continue to work with him as a coach. He is the person who can say the least with the most impact. He asks “Why do you think that?” and my whole understanding of the situation completely opens up. Meir sees how the day-to-day work connects with the larger vision, helping me sort through what truly needs to get done. He helped me see that once the organizing was underway, I could step back and let the leaders in place move our work forward.
Our community is taking responsibility for the role we were called to play in the struggle for justice, with more members getting involved every day. It is amazing to look back and see what grew from those initial one on one meetings. Community organizing is often the invisible tool that allows for great change to occur. JOIN is training leaders like myself throughout the American Jewish landscape to organize and train leaders, who go on to train more leaders. And we’re just getting started.

Rabbi Shuli Passow
Director of Community Engagement, B’nai Jeshurun
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A Jewish Thanksgiving Prayer

By Shaya French

The author at Duxbury Beach, MA, near Pilgrim landing sites.

Shaya French is one of this year’s JOIN fellows and works as a community organizer at the Boston Center for Independent Living (disability advocacy and services). She grew up in Middleboro, MA 17 miles from where the Pilgrims first set foot on Wampanoag land. She comes from an interfaith family (Jewish and Unitarian Universalist) and is loving having JOIN as an opportunity to delve more deeply into her Jewish roots and the Jewish commitment for social change.

Today is a day of celebration. A celebration of being able to gather as a family and share amazing food. It is a celebration of living on land where we are able to freely practice our religion. We are a people who know about celebrations complicated by grief – charoset served with horseradish. So before we commence our many hours of celebration let us take several moments for mourning and truth-telling. For this Thanksgiving is also a symbol of great historical violence that continues to this day. From King Philips’ War to Standing Rock people who are indigenous to these lands have been killed, tortured, poisoned with toxic waste from industry, deprived of resources, and had their children stolen at every turn. In this current moment, this November 23rd 2017, we’ve watched many attempts to tear apart our social safety net, we’ve watched our neighbors being sucked away by ICE officials and violence directed at us and people we love every week. I fear that this presidency will resemble the fascist movement that killed many of my ancestors.

So let us grieve for the injustice done to our people. Let us grieve for the hatred and violence turned upon Jews, socialists, homosexuals and disabled people during the Holocaust.

Let us grieve the injustice done to indigenous people who live on the land where we hold this Thanksgiving feast. It was only through the Wampanoag’s support and education that the Pilgrims survived their first bitter winter. It was only because Massasoit saw the Pilgrims as a strategic ally in the Wampanoag’s conflicts against the Narragansetts that we gather here today on this land. For those of us who are perceived by the world as white people, let us take a moment to reflect on how we have benefitted from assimilating to whiteness and aligning ourselves with the Europeans who turned musket onto the children of those who had once been allies. European ancestors who were only able to imagine themselves as free in a new land if they “owned” that land and pushed off and killed its original inhabitants. We have nourished ourselves on stolen land. Nourishing ourselves is not wrong; nourishing ourselves without recognizing the cost that nourishment came, without atoning and properly appreciating all that went into creating our nourishment is wrong.

Let us be grateful for the land, for the ancestors who have gone before – complicated humans that they were – no more or less complicated than we know ourselves to be. Let us be grateful for the resources we have, for the good food we will eat today, and commit to sharing our food, our community, our love. Let us commit to truth telling and taking responsibility for our actions and our role.

And on this November 23, 2017 in the spirit of appreciation for all the Jewish and Gentile freedom fighters who resisted the Nazis on behalf of our ancestors; let us commit to resist fascism with all of our might.

Let us commit:
We will not trade our safety for the detainment of people who seem different from us. Never again.
We will not fail to speak up when we are given land, money, promotions and power at the cost of our humanity. Never again.
We will not fail to resist when we are told that some people are worth less because of their body, their gender, their politics, their religion or their nationality. Never again.
We will not fail to act when violence is turned against our siblings who share this land with us. Never again.

We will offer sanctuary to those who are being persecuted.
We will have hard conversations with our people with whom we don’t agree. We will speak up when our friends, colleagues and family members talk about how Muslims need to be put on some list; how Black people need to respect authority more; how immigrants need to go back where they came from.
We will witness the pain of others and not jump too fast to solutions when people share with us pain that is deeper than we can know.
We will tell the stories of when we have failed as allies and humans and strive to avoid righteousness.
We will take time to reflect and be strategic before we act, looking to marginalized leadership, and being careful to expend our energy and resources in strategic and impactful ways.
And we will reflect on the point at which if it comes to it we will take up weapons to resist a powerful and persecuting government that is bent on destroying and exporting those who are part of our communities.

In the coming months let us remember what we must do to protect our own humanity and never forgot how many people joined the resistance on our behalf in Nazi Germany.

Today let’s feast and celebrate that we are free and that we can come together. Tomorrow let us recommit ourselves to the struggle needed now more than ever.

The JOIN fellowship has given me a community of resistance fighters to build movements with. Two weeks ago, half of this year’s fellowship turned out in defense of Siham Biya, a Muslim mother, and friend of a member in our fellowship who is being detained by ICE. Who in your community are you building fellowship and resistance with?

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The Spirit of Justice

Our Clergy Fellows gathered at Pearlstone Center this November to begin their 18-month journey into deeper community organizing. Here are some of their personal stories and torah.

Rabbi Lydia Medwin of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, on her synagogue’s historic relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and what it means today.

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey, on the liberating power of listening.

Rabbi Jen Feldman of Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on being transformed by someone’s story.

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Siyyum Graduation 2017: When We Rise Up

On June 26th, more than 170 people gathered to celebrate with the 14 Fellows at JOIN for Justice’s Siyyum Graduation.  The evening was an incredible gathering to support our graduating 2017 Jewish Organizing Fellows.

(Pictured above: The graduating fellows leading a song)

“We are still chasing that world together. … we want to invite you all to journey ahead with us, because we know this road needs every one of us. It is not an easy journey, nor a particularly glamorous one. Instead, it is one to which we must commit in every moment, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we go out and when we return.”

~except from our Siyyum Program book

It was an evening of inspiration and love, and one which demonstrated how this graduating class has risen up together 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. 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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L’dor Vador (From Generation to Generation)

This past fall, we had three special participants in our online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! These participants are parents of current fellows in our Jewish Organizing Fellowship Program. This meant the while our Fellows were beginning their journeys with JOIN to become the best organizers they can be, their parents were learning alongside them through our online course. In honor of Mother’s Day a few weeks ago, and Father’s Day coming up, we want to share the beautiful stories and reflections of the parents experiences taking the online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! and how their justice work and relationships were strengthened because of it.

Hersch and Michael Rothmel

Hersch (Fellow): From a very young age, my dad taught me to always question authority and to never accept the status quo. Without realizing it, he was raising me to become an organizer. I don’t think we’ve had a conversation without it turning political in well over five years. However, he always regretted not taking on more systemic political work outside of practicing law. The Don’t Kvetch, Organize! course had really lit a fire in my dad’s belly. He was always telling me how he carved out time in the morning to complete his assignments. I’ve always enjoyed talking with my dad about my organizing work, but now that he’s taken the course there is more dimensionality to our conversations. We are both drawing on what we’ve learned to help each other navigate organizing, and develop ourselves as organizers.

Michael (Hersch’s Father):I am so proud of how my son is doing as a JOIN fellow. He is staying true to his principles in every single respect. Not many people have the opportunity to engage in a job they love that allows them to practice their political beliefs and make a difference. Every day I see him grow. He inspired me to take the JOIN course; Don’t Kvetch, Organize! 

I am planning to apply the skills I learned in the online course to help organize the Democratic party in Burlington County and make it more progressive and active. I believe this is important because our representative is Tom MacArthur who was one of 9 Republicans who voted against the repeal of ACA. I hope I can devote the same energy to my organizing as Hersch does to his.

Miles and Marcel Meth

Miles (Fellow): As I have come to political awareness in the past few years, it’s been wonderful to have more conversations with my parents about the world. I’ve found myself broaching topics that we never previously had: race and racism, capitalism and alternative economic systems, and more. Increasingly, I felt my dad and I had many similar views, but he didn’t always have the same language that I did or experience in the organizing world. I recommended Don’t Kvetch, Organize! and he was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to learn about how to really affect social change. It’s been beautiful to see him engaging in politics more than ever, especially in these important and volatile times.

Marcel (Miles’ Father): Although I think of myself as being a liberal and having strong opinions about making the world a better place, I have felt that I have done little to change the world. My biggest contribution has been, together with my wife, to raise three well-adjusted children who are all committed to making the world a better place and whose opinions and actions I respect, value, and support. My 22 year old son, Miles, is the youngest and active at a grassroots level.

Miles suggested that I take the JOIN class Don’t Kvetch, Organize!. The title seemed perfect for the change in my life that I have been looking for. Organizing is definitely outside my comfort zone. I am a mathematician by training, so I like clean problems: Problems that can be easily stated and that have elegant solutions. The types of issues that we need to tackle in order to improve the world are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The problems themselves consist of a web of complex issues and the solutions are not straightforward. The solutions involve collaborating with a group of people and persuading a much larger audience to participate and become active. Often the solutions seem to defy logic and ignore facts. The tactics for problem solving in this space revolve around storytelling and the strategies require visionaries. Furthermore, no matter what the solutions are, there will be parts of the solution that seem to be antithetical with the final goal as well as the prejudices that have been ingrained in me about what it means to be a good person.

The class Don’t Kvetch, Organize! was a good first step for me. I think that before I become good at organizing, I will need to get some practice as an apprentice. Miles is doing a good job in teaching me some useful skills. I started to take the course before the Clinton/Trump election. I felt quite frustrated that I did not persuade a single person to change their vote. I feel that there is a lot of work ahead, and that I have a lot to learn.

Rachel and Elana Leiken

Rachel (Fellow): One night leading up to the election, I was talking to my mom on the phone about whatever stories happened to be in the news that day. She told me that she was feeling so sad about everything that was going on—especially the vitriol and hate of political discourse—but that she didn’t know what to do and was looking for some way to educate herself on language and strategies of today’s justice movements. In response, I suggested she take Don’t Kvetch, Organize course (which I had taken in the Fall of 2015), and she did! It was great to have conversations about organizing together—we talked about a lot of components of the course, shared thoughts on some of our favorite videos, and discussed important issues like what it means to prioritize certain identities and voices without tokenizing individuals. I’m really proud of the project my mom is developing as a result of the class (see below)—she has been a teacher at her school for 22 years (since I’ve been born!) and a union representative for 10, and the work she is doing is an example of the powerful transformative work you can do when you’re really embedded in, understand, and love a community. I feel so proud to have a mom who pushes herself to learn about justice work through new modes, and lucky that I have a mom who I can learn from and with in my organizing work.

Elana (Rachel’s Mother): During the course of the class, one of the staff members at my school was diagnosed with cancer. As I started to think about it, I realized that we have had an unusual amount of staff members diagnosed with cancer at our school and needed to take action. In the past I would have done this on my own, but drawing on the lessons I learned in Don’t Kvetch, Organize!, I knew the project would be enriched by input from the entire staff. What really surprised me when we all got together to formulate a plan was how everyone stepped up to help and how we were able to create a comprehensive plan of action so quickly and efficiently. We have teams scheduling meals, testing the water and soil, and meeting with our union and our district to see if we can find a cause. It felt wonderful to not have to shoulder the entire burden and I know we will be more effective together.

On a personal level, I feel such a pride in the work Rachel is doing. It’s not the kind of pride you feel as a parent when your child accomplishes something at school (although that’s nice too) but a deep, deep pride that comes from knowing that your child is helping to make the world a better place. And, she has helped make me a better person too!


BONUS: ** Looking for another sweet family organizing story? Check out this post from last year!


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