Winning Change at Ramsay Park

We are excited to share a major organizing victory that Jewish Organizing Fellowship Alum Sarah OConnor (’14-15) won with her teen organizers at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs in Boston’s South End.

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Last spring, St. Stephen’s teen organizers decided that their priority for the coming months was to clean up Ramsay Park, the only park in the neighborhood surrounding St. Stephen’s.  The park was filled with needles and trash, the city had removed the benches from the park, and most parents in the neighborhood forbid their children from playing there.  A lot of teens and families in the neighborhood saw this as a visible manifestation of a lot of challenges in the neighborhood and they were determined to do something to change it.

Fast forward a few months, and the teens had transformed the park.  They’d cleaned up the trash, painted murals, and were leading tennis lessons and art activities for neighborhood kids.  But the teen organizers also wanted to the city to step in and provide the resources necessary for their park to be as inviting as those with well-endowed “Friends of” groups a few blocks away.  While Mayor Marty Walsh visited Ramsay Park during a routine visit doing “Coffee Hours” in the park, the teens shared their frustration with the lack of investment in their park.  They asked for a meeting with the Mayor, their State Rep, the Parks Commissioner, and their City Councillor to share their visions for the park and ask for their investment and support.

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After a series of meetings with elected officials, the teens were successful in securing one million dollars in funding from the City to improve Ramsay Park.

In Mayor Marty Walsh’s State of City Speech on January 19, he said: “I grew up in our parks. I know how much kids and families depend on them. So I was moved when a group of young people came to see me at Ramsay Park in the South End last summer. They told me what it was like to grow up right next door to a park that was too unsafe to use, and how they’ve been working to fix that. They are here tonight. I’m happy to tell them: because of your advocacy, and with your input, we are going to completely renovate Ramsay Park.”

When asked how the teens she is working with responded to the victory, JOIN Fellowship alum Sarah OConnor said: “They are really excited and so proud of this victory which, they totally should be. This is such a great example of working on a hyper local issue that materially impacts their lives and they can see this concrete victory happening in a couple of months.  We are very grateful that the city is investing resources in this neighborhood, we are going to continue working with the city to make sure that people who live here now will still be able to continue living here to enjoy the renovated park.  We want this to be a victory for the community that worked to make their neighborhood better. They should be the ones to influence how the park is developed, and they should be able to stay here as the project is carried out.”

Sarah also said: “Everyone we have talked to is happy about this news.  People who never brought their kids to the park before are excited to see this investment in their community, as a place that people want to live and are reclaiming as an asset to their community.  I would also say that we struggle because we don’t always control the way the story is told, and we see this as a project for everyone who is part of the neighborhood, and some people are telling it as if improving Ramsay Park pits children against ‘dangerous druggies and homeless people’ which is absolutely not the message we want to send–because decrepit parks and addition problems are both products of the systemic disinvestment in the health of this community. We have been asking for solutions for them, too, and we hope that as the city is committing to physical improvements in this park, that there is also a commitment to providing the kinds of support that people need so that they have a more dignified place to go to the bathroom than a Boston public park.”

Congratulations to Sarah and her team at St. Stephen’s on a well-earned victory that’s going to make a real impact in the neighborhood!

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Transforming Synagogue Culture in Baltimore: An Interview with Leaders at Oheb Shalom

In the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, 46% of the Baltimore Jewish community reported that they felt Jewish organizations were “remote” or “not relevant.”  In response to this survey, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore chartered a diverse group of 10 volunteers to recommend ways for Jewish organizations to be welcoming and relevant. From these recommendations, the Darrel Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center (DFI) founded the Engagement Partnership, whose goal is to work with synagogues and other Jewish organizations to become more welcoming and relevant to their community.

In February of 2015, DFI partnered with JOIN for Justice to run a program that includes six synagogues that are changing the way they utilize their boards, engaging their members to create warm, welcoming environments, and exploring what the word “relevant” means to their community.  Senior Organizer and Trainer Jeannie Appleman worked closely with five synagogues to lead an in-depth training series teaching leadership development through an organizing frame. Below, two leaders from Temple Oheb Shalom, Vicki Spira and Maxine Lowy, describe the transformative process currently underway in their synagogue.

Can you start by introducing yourselves?

Vicki: I’m Vicki Spira, one of Executive Vice-Presidents at Oheb Shalom. I am the Chair Person of our Engagement Partnership. I’ve been in various leadership roles since I joined Oheb Shalom almost 20 years ago.

Maxine: I’m Maxine Lowy, the Director of Development and Special Programs at Oheb Shalom.  As part of my “special programs” I was asked to be the staff person to take the lead on this project.

Tell me about what your synagogue was like before you started this project and why you decided to take on this project.

Maxine: What this project has really done is taken us back to a time when people were involved and engaged and the synagogue was the central hub of their lives.  Over the last decade or so, we’ve gotten away from that at Oheb Shalom. Things and activities have been more staff driven than lay driven.

Vicki:  When I heard about this project, it seemed like an opportunity to do something transformational.  I didn’t know exactly what it was or where it was going to go, but I thought the journey would be interesting.  I loved the whole idea of connecting to people in a more meaningful way, and the notion that we could engage members as vested owners rather than bystanders.

Can you share what project you’re working on?

Vicki: We had a grant from The Associated called “The Engagement Partnership” to see how we could make Oheb Shalom more meaningful and relevant.  We decided to focus on baby boomers, because that is a population that we had not paid a lot of attention to in recent years. Boomers represent one-third of our membership and the largest population of financial contributors.

We were doing something we had not done before and had little experience in this construct. With Jeannie’s [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] help and counsel, we determined to reach out to this population in small group relational meetings. We would pose a couple of questions about a meaningful experience they had in the synagogue, and what people would create at Oheb Shalom if they had a magic wand to learn more about our members and what their passions and interests really are.

In these small group sessions we reached about 175 people out of 400 members.  We met at people’s homes  8-10 people at a time, which the Design Team facilitated. We also had a couple of big Shabbat dinners targeted at Baby Boomers, which included small group relational conversations after dinner.  People really liked it and responded favorably, and expressed an interest in continuing these get-togethers.

The next step addressed what we could do with all of this information? We had a second series of gatherings, where members were asked “What do YOU want to create at Oheb Shalom?   The participants decided what interests they wanted to create and pursue in Action Teams.  Our action teams are based around contemporary issues, food, and Tikkun Olam.

Vicki : An example of how we are incorporating this culture – We had our opening Board meeting the other night, and because of the work we did in the Engagement Partnership, we decided to make our meeting “more relational.” We broke into two groups and asked people to share a time when they were leaders, and what traits or characteristics they played.  We learned what people were good at and they got to learn about each other.

Instead of our usual tradition of telling Board members what their responsibilities are, we did a group exercise where the Board members said what they believe their responsibilities and expectations should be. They owned it!  Prior to the Engagement Partnership, we would not have approached it like this.

This project is making us think differently about a lot of things that we do.

Have you noticed a change in the sanctuary during Shabbat services?

Maxine: I think our Shabbat services have taken on a different feel. We’re watching people that have met through these small group meetings, building relationships, making plans to go out together, talking about their plans. I’m a native Baltimorean. People have always said that Baltimore is a hard city to break into. As I’ve observed what’s going on at Shabbat services, we’re seeing this sense of inclusion and this sense of people building new relationships.

Vicki: It’s not like you go in and you see some wholesale change. It’s more nuanced than that.  All of us feel a little bit different.  I think we’ll begin to see more of this.  It’s something that you start and little by little grow.  We’d like to have JOIN for Justice work with us on some development with our Board for them to understand this better.

What has been the hardest thing about this?

Vicki: As Jeannie would say, it’s a culture shift.  You can’t do this overnight.  It takes years.  The work will be done amongst many of us in the years to come.

What other changes have you noticed?

Vicki: One of the changes is that we’ve developed a group of members that really do have an appetite to work. These people really became personally invested.  They are all leaders—it’s not just about a title, it’s about real responsibility.

Unless we can find a cadre of lay people who want to do something, we’re not going to do it. I’m not saying we’re not going to change the AC, but if it’s a project that needs lay energy to act, then instead of letting something limp along, there’s just no point in doing it.

Have you learned something about yourselves as leaders?

Vicki:  One of the most profound things I learned was how challenging it was for me to chair and begin this project without knowing exactly where we were going.  Many wanted to have the answers from the start but this wasn’t that kind of project.    So in the beginning I really felt anxious about what we were doing and about my leadership.  But in time it became clear that this was the process we had to go through and this is in fact what enabled us to build such a strong team.  My passion for Oheb Shalom always kept me going. And Jeannie’s counsel through all of this was essential!

Maxine: For me this was a whole different skill set.  My leadership style has always been: give me a task and I will get to a successful conclusion. I can do all of the concrete steps—that’s what I’m good at.  This was different because it was so amorphous, and we really didn’t have a clear direction. It was speaking a language that wasn’t part of my language.  I wanted a beginning and end and this is all about the gray stuff in the middle. I’ve grown tremendously as a professional and a leader, able to look at things more critically, to ask different kinds of questions, to think more about the people than about the outcome.  Jeannie has been hugely instrumental in this.

This feels quite inspiring and satisfying right now. And I can’t say enough about our work with Jeannie.  At every twist and turn she got us through every difficult part.  We learned so much from her, things we can carry forward that she gave to us that we now have for the future.

Lynne Kirsner talks about her experience with the Engagement Partnership at Temple Oheb Shalom.

The Engagement Partnership is funded by the Kolker-Saxon- Hallock Family Foundation, Inc., a supporting foundation of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.  The lead volunteer on the project and liaison to a few of the congregations is Alan Bernstein, who is working in partnership on the training with Cindy Goldstein, Executive Director of the Darrell Friedman Institute for Professional Development at the Weinberg Center.

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From Recovery to Redemption: an interview with Chaplain Adam Siegel

Last week, we talked to Chaplain Adam Siegel about his involvement in the JOIN for Justice Clergy Fellowship, and his work at Beit T’Shuvah organizing for criminal justice system reform with the broad-based interfaith organization LA Voice.  Beit T’Shuvah is both a Jewish residential treatment center in Los Angeles and a full-service congregation offering religious services, holiday celebrations and study.

Tell me a little about yourself and your work with Beit T’Shuvah.  What calls you to this work?

I’ve been involved for about 5 years, wearing two different hats.  We have a long term recovery program, where people stay between 6 months and a year, and I work individually with folks in this program.  I work with people to help them see what spiritual resources are available to help them deal with whatever issues they are dealing with.

Over the last year or so, I have also been working to develop our service and justice initiative.  Our model is a dual model: we are a residential facility but we are also a spiritual community. We run weekly services, holiday events and life cycle celebrations for both the residents and for community members. We have a congregation that includes alumni, family members, folks interested in the intersection between Judaism and recovery, and those that are looking for a different, relevant Jewish experience.  That’s the communal aspect that I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize and mobilize to work on justice issues.

What Jewish framework do you bring to your chaplaincy?

Through my work at Beit T’shuvah I’ve been able to understand that a recovery perspective gives a spiritual framework for the condition of being human.
Our Jewish tradition gives us a sense of being able to recognize the holiness within us, and instructions for how how to share this with the world.

How did the service and justice initiative develop?  Why is it central to your work?
We’ve been around for 30 years.  Our primary work is doing healing and repair work for individual souls. But the longer I’ve been around, the more I’ve been able to recognize the opportunity that recovering souls have towards repairing the world.

Over time I saw that there was a lot of opportunity here, and that historically we have done individually projects, but there hadn’t really been a concerted or coordinated effort to develop the power within this community.

Can you tell me about the work you are doing with LA Voice?

LA Voice, a PICO affiliate that does broad-based interfaith organizing, has been working on criminal justice reform–passing and implementing Prop 47, and a campaign called “Banning the Box.”

Prop 47 is a California statewide proposition that passed in Nov 014 that was geared towards the reclassification of a dozen minor felony offenses to misdemeanors, which provided for the early release of people that were incarcerated for these crimes.  The savings that the State incurred by letting people out early are directed towards restorative justice activities, recovery services, transitional re-entry programs, and mental health programs for formerly incarcerated individuals.

LA Voice was key in organizing faith communities around LA on this proposition, which passed with a significant majority across the state, and is now working hard to ensure that it is implemented correctly and that the funds are spent well on a local level.

At Beit T’shuvah, we have individuals who benefited from the passage of Prop 47, because they got out of prison early, and people who are very passionate about criminal justice reform.  At any given time, 10-15% of the 120 folks staying at Beit T’shuvah are coming out of prison, and they utilize this program as a re-entry and transition experience helping them to move into the next stage of their life.

LA Voice was eager to get us involved both as representatives of the Jewish community, and as individuals who can speak from personal experience about the significance of these reform efforts.

We are also planning to work on a lcoal campaign in the next year that would “Ban the Box” and prohibit employers from asking potential employees about felony convictions early on in the interview process.

Tell me about your experience in the Clergy Fellowship.  

As I’ve gotten more involved in organizing work in the last year, it has really energized me to be able to  see the role that my Judaism has in guiding me towards how I can contribute to the betterment of the world.  It’s so powerful to do it in an organized way where I don’t have to figure it all out by myself, and our organization doesn’t have to figure it all out by ourselves.

The Clergy Fellowship been incredibly helpful in giving me a framework for understanding how to approach justice work. This is both from the perspective of understanding larger societal issues, and also even more importantly being able to see the role that the individual as part of a collective can have in addressing some of the potential for improvement in our world.

Jeannie Appleman [JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer and Trainer] been incredible.  I think there’s great value in being able to participate wth the other Clergy and rabbis in the cohort.  We’ve grown closer and we’ve also been able to see opportunities available to us to do collaborative work together.

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With my eyes I can take everything from you: Rededicating ourselves to seeing Black lives

This piece by rabbinical student Josh Weisman was originally published on State of Formation.

Chanukah is a festival of lights, which makes it an opportunity to reflect on what we see and how we see it. The rituals of Chanukah are all about light and seeing: we’re commanded to kindle Chanukah lights each night; we’re commanded to enjoy their light; we’re commanded to spend time appreciating their glow. Chanukah is all about our eyes. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Reb Shlomo), following the Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, took this focus on light and the eyes to teach that Chanukah is a time for fixing the eyes, for repairing the sins we have committed with our eyes.[1] Chanukah is a chance to correct the ways we fail to see what is really in front of us, or the ways we see with distorted vision.

Last year, Chanukah came on the heels of the failure to indict the white police officers who had killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Since then, police killings of unarmed black people — including Jamar Clark, Tamir Rice, and many others — have sadly continued. The impunity and lack of transparency surrounding these cases — and others like the death in police custody of Sandra Bland — has also continued. In response to this ongoing tragedy, a movement has taken shape around a truth so simple it should never have needed to be stated in the first place: Black lives matter. Many white people – including white Jews, white people of all faiths, and secular white people – are opening their eyes to the ways in which they have failed to see Black people as they truly are, and the devastating consequences of this in terms of Black lives lost to racially-influenced police violence. Black people – Black Jews, Black people of all faiths, and secular Black people – and their allies of all races are taking bolder action than they have in years to demand an end to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Those of us who are white are starting to recognize that even when we don’t hold a gun, our distorted vision has negative consequences, such as when we see news of these killings and often see a Black “suspect” instead of a Black son, brother, father, child of God. We have sinned with our eyes and it’s time to fix our eyes – to address the damage done, and to learn how to see truly.

That a real error is taking place is not merely in the eye of the beholder. White people literally can’t see Black people right, and the result is sometimes a matter of life and death. Research studies collated by faith-based community organizing leader Gordon Whitman demonstrate the following alarming facts about how white people and police tend to see, or fail to see, Black people: White people see Black boys as older – and therefore more threatening – than they really are, by an average of over four years. Police who dehumanize Blacks are more likely to have used force against Black children. In simulated tests, white police more readily shoot unarmed Black people than unarmed white people. Reb Shlomo said that “with my eyes I can take everything from you.”[2] How true.

Jewish tradition teaches that each human being is created in the image of God. The problem here is that too often, when we look at Black people, white people do not see the image of God. We see instead our fear, our projections, our mental images of what Black people are. Thankfully, not all white people are oblivious to this bias. But it’s not just the blatant racists out there that are part of the problem. Even those of us who have made efforts to unlearn these patterns of misperception are still not seeing things right. Despite being educated alongside – and often by – Black people since childhood, despite learning about Black history, despite Ethnic Studies classes and anti-racism training, despite my personal relationships with Black friends and family members, despite working for social justice alongside Black people for years – in other words, despite having benefited from numerous means of overcoming racial bias, and despite truly believing in racial equality – I still failed the Implicit Attitude Test for race, which tests unconscious visual perceptions of Black people vs. white people, with a score of “moderately biased.” Our eyes are in need of significant repair.

Chanukah is also a holiday of rededication (Chanukah literally means “dedication”), and so it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves. Over two thousand years ago, the Jewish people’s holy Temple was treated as if it were not holy by an oppressive government. Today, Black people’s bodies – reflections of the image of God, temples of the Divine spark – are being treated as if they are not holy by the dominant racial group in this country. The miracle of Chanukah was that, during the work of rededication – of repurifying the Temple after it had been profaned – the light that shouldn’t have been enough turned out to be enough.

At this time when we Jews celebrate our resistance to a dominant culture that wanted to see us out of existence – that recoiled at our difference – it’s time for white Jews and all white people to rededicate ourselves to the holy task of seeing with true eyes, of seeing the holy in the temples that are Black people. We are starting without enough light – our eyes have not yet learned to see – but, with help, we can turn it into enough light, enough light to see truly.

[1] The Soul of Chanukah: Teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Shlomo Katz, ed. Mosaica Press, 2013. p 21

[2] Ibid. p 23

Josh Weisman works, writes, studies Torah, prays, and parents at the intersection of social justice and Jewish spirituality. Before becoming a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Massachusetts, Josh was a grass-roots organizer for ten years in Northern California.

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A late-night argument with my husband about hope

A message from our Executive Director, Karla Van Praag.

It was late Sunday night, after all the kids were finally asleep and the school lunches had been made. It was that moment you look forward all day, the moment you finally put your feet up. The “free” moment you have to chat, to make plans, to laugh.

It started innocently enough. We were discussing how we would go about helping one of our children prepare for something. The details aren’t important, but if you looked under the surface of the words we were saying to each other you would see we were talking about something bigger than the issue at hand. It was the subtext that made us raise our voices. He was saying if we work hard at it, we can make a difference in this situation. I heard myself saying something different: what will be, will be. The cards are stacked against us, so let’s not work so hard. It went on for hours, our discussion of destiny, our heated efforts at persuasion and understanding.

Fate has been on my mind a lot lately. For a year and a half I’ve been battling an illness that has taken away a lot of who I am. I’ve had several unsuccessful surgeries and take medication to manage the symptoms of my condition.  Uncertainty about how this will end abounds. Still, the biggest battle by far has been keeping my faith about whether anyone can really shape their own lives and collective future, when illness and cruelty and disaster seem to be ever-present in our lives. Aren’t we fools to believe we can influence our future when so much is out of our control?

The day after the argument, with the benefit of sleep, I rose to a bright sunrise and went to work. Sarah, our Communications Officer, had asked me to write an introduction to our November ENEWS about appreciation. I procrastinated. Instead, I read my email and there, the first email I read, was a link from a student in JOIN’s online course Don’t Kvetch, Organize! reflecting on attending a Fight for 15 rally for a living wage.  This is a campaign with growing success led by thousands of people around the country with plenty to lose and little reason to have faith in their power to shape their own lives, given the institutional barriers in their way.  But as Maimonides said, hope is the belief in the plausibility of the possible, as opposed to the necessity of the probable. There they were, creating a different reality, fighting and winning when most thought it was improbable.

I felt hope rising in myself, and I remembered again who I was. My illness and the many forces of injustice in the world cannot take away my agency, or my part in our collective efforts to make an impact on the world around us.  I was reminded by these leaders who have so much to lose that hopelessness is never a good option when the possible is plausible.

And so, this is what I’m feeling appreciative of.  In this line of work, I keep getting reminded of the ways that we can influence our own destinies.  Much in life, including my illness, is out of my control.  But in other parts, our agency is crystal clear.

JOIN for Justice is the embodiment of the belief that though the challenges we face in the world are hard and sometimes overwhelming, we still can make a big difference, if we’re smart about it and we work at it together.  We’ve seen the results again and again. We are the type that takes responsibility to play a role in the future; we don’t withdraw and allow what happens to happen.

And sometimes, thankfully, we win.

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