Siyyum Graduation Opening Remarks by Executive Director, Karla Van Praag

On June 20th, our ten 2015-2016 Jewish Organizing Fellows graduated at our annual Siyyum Graduation. Below is Karla Van Praag’s (Executive Director, JOIN for Justice) opening remarks. 


We are in the home stretch in a season of graduations. So, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m going to start today quoting a story from the recent speech of an incredible person, and one of my greatest mentors and teachers… my 12-year-old son, Zakkai, who graduated from 6th grade last week. Here it is:

“‘Difficult times often bring out the best in people,’ Bernie Sanders said. I’ve had many challenging times at my elementary school. One that I will surely remember is when we went to Thompson Island in 5th grade and I climbed the 62-foot Alpine Tower. I’m scared of heights, but I was encouraged to try it. I went onto the sculpture. I took a deep breath, and climbed the first 15 feet, the easiest. When I looked below, my heart leaped. ‘It feels so high up here! Can I come down?’ I screamed, shaking a bit.  ‘Already?’ I heard. ‘You’ve got this.’

So I kept going. Suddenly I looked to the ground. It was SO far up! ‘Please, I can’t!’
What I heard next wasn’t one voice. It was many. It was my friends, encouraging me to continue. I realized there was no use in giving up now. I had to keep going. After a deep breath, I did. My body was shaking the whole time. It took me way longer than everyone else, but with the help of my friends’ encouragement, I did it! I sat on top, smiling. It was such an amazing moment.

‘Difficult times often bring out the best in people,’ Bernie Sanders said. Although he is right, I think friends are even more important. Think about where you’d be today without your friends. I’d still be stuck halfway up a tower on Thompson Island!'”

Zakkai’s speech made me proud, not just because he overcame fear, employed the primary elements of story we teach in our training, and was the only one to mention politics. It moved me because he seemed to learn not just the importance of personal determination, but one of the lessons I depend upon daily, that his life is tightly connected to those around him in ways he cannot anticipate but ultimately needs to survive.

Zakkai also captured something that I want to talk some more about today – what it takes for people to come together in a common purpose, the way his friends did to urge him on. Of course, most of our society’s problems aren’t as straightforward as Zakkai’s, but there are important similarities. When there is a big challenge, there is often tremendous fear and doubt at one’s ability to impact it. There is the feeling of being alone and not knowing what to do. As Zakkai recognized, we can’t know what to do until we are not alone.

I have struggled with what to express publicly after Orlando. We have had conversations in the JOIN office whether we have anything meaningful to say on so many complex issues that isn’t already being said. Upon reflection I think what we may have to contribute as a group of organizers and community of people committed to creating a more just world, is not initially more words, but rather our ability to listen. Hard.

This takes tremendous control, patience, and skill. When we hear the loud bang of a gun, whether in Orlando, or Charleston, or Sandy Hook, we want to scream. We want our cry, our voices, to overwhelm and drown out the pain. We want to be heard.

But organizing and our Jewish traditions teach us not only to cry out, but also to listen.
God understood this before Moses did. When God called to Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moses protested “I have never been a man of words… I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” It didn’t matter. You don’t need to be able to yell to be an organizer. But if you can’t listen? You’re pretty much done. Maybe God recognized that, not speaking all the time, Moses had cultivated the ability to listen.

When you learn to be an organizer, you start by learning what it means to truly listen. Every voice has a story, if you take the time to listen for it and draw it out. An organizer makes room for others to discover themselves and bring the stories and experience they have into a public problem-solving space.

Listening goes beyond hearing. It takes listening to hear the whisper of a brilliant strategy from someone who never thought their ideas were worth anything, to listen to what remains unsaid, to listen to the people whose voices are so often erased, to listen for the still, small voice of God that the prophet Elijah finds.

Organizers learn that listening doesn’t only require one’s ears. It requires one’s heart. We tell of the wisdom of King Solomon. But when God asks Solomon how God should bless him, and Solomon requests wisdom, so he can lead his people, what he literally asks for is “lev shome’a”, a listening heart. At times like this, when so much feels so absurd, we can’t just scream – more than ever, we need a listening heart, so we can listen to each other, and figure out how we will push back against this broken world, and the people who seem to take pride in wanting to break it even more.

As long as people don’t have the opportunities to listen to people who are different, we have no hope of understanding each other. Here’s an example: in a video for our online course, Don’t Kvetch: Organize, political scientist Robert Putnam says that the rates of people marrying across class lines are plummeting because people of different economic status rarely meet. The more that’s the case, the more likely it is we can’t sympathize. We can’t hear other’s stories. We can’t get the “why.” Because we are not in relationship.

Listening for voices who are different than us or who are being left out by society is the pathway to understanding and ultimately to change. We must, whoever we are, make efforts to reach out beyond our own comfortable ideological or physical communities and build new relationships with people different than ourselves. JOIN trains and mentors thousands of Jews across the country to put relationships first, thereby creating room for unheard voices to move themselves back to the center.

This year’s group of Fellows has changed so many things in their year organizing, including the larger organizational impact of their ability to listen to one another. As a group, in one voice, they called upon our organization to reflect on the role it is taking, internally and externally, in fighting against systems of oppression like racism or classism in the ways we support those who are recruited or in the fellowship. They came together as a group to challenge JOIN as an institution, and, in response, JOIN has made this one of its organizational priorities going forward.

Let’s exercise our listening hearts tonight. Listen to the stories of our talented, dedicated, inspiring fellows. You will not agree with everything said today – you may want to shout out. But instead, sit still, and listen harder. Quietly, you will notice that despite our differences, you will find a sense of faith in our collective future. Our commonalities will drown out the din that extends beyond these walls. You will find hope that we can figure it out together.

Difficult times often bring out the best in people. Listening to the voices will remind you change is possible, and that eventually, together, we can climb that tower too.

You can watch the graduating fellow’s Siyyum stories here

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JOIN Alum Launches

We asked Rabbi Shoshana Friedman (Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum, Class of 2006) about her work organizing as a rabbi to fight climate change.  Here’s what she had to share.   

(Pictured: Rabbi Shoshana Friedman reading the Torah at a West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline action in May.)

Why is climate work important to you?

Climate change is an overarching moral crisis of our generation. What we do or don’t do is literally making or breaking the chance for ordered human civilization to continue on earth, and for millions of other species to survive or go extinct. Because the issue is so overwhelming, I felt paralyzed for years. By getting involved in the interfaith climate movement, I have found new language and theology for working toward climate justice. I work on climate because doing so is what I need to do to hold onto my own humanity. The work I’m doing is part of a giant global movement, so I don’t feel alone. I don’t know if we will succeed, but the struggle is deeply holy. The friends I have met and inner struggles I have surmounted in this work have spiritually transformed me, and opened my heart deeply. So I do climate work both because of the climate crisis, and because doings so is a path of growth and spiritual development for me.

state house updates(Pictured: Rabbi Shoshana in front of the Massachusetts State House for a December climate action.)

What projects have you been working on?

I have been involved in state level advocacy for a just and clean energy future in Massachusetts. I am on the leadership team of a group called the Mass Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA) that formed in October. Together with other climate groups, we have helped move the dial on state energy policy in Massachusetts, though as of this writing the final bill hasn’t come out of the legislature. While I want to keep my feet in legislative work, I have been increasing drawn to peaceful direct action. I need my own response to the crisis to be somewhere near the scale of the crisis, and non-violent civil disobedience is a way to do that. So far I have helped organize two direct actions against the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. The first was a prayer service led by 16 clergy. We walked onto the construction site, stopped the construction by our presence, and sang and prayed until we were arrested.* The second was a symbolic mass grave funeral to call attention to the connection between the construction of fracked gas pipelines like the WRL and the bodies filling mass graves during deadly heatwaves. When my friends got into the trench and acted dead, we were rebranding the WRL pipeline trench a mass grave – not only because if it explodes it will level a neighborhood, but because the methane that leaks from fracked gas is a potent contributor to deadly climate change. **

(Pictured: Clergy participate in civil disobedience at the May 25th action against the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline.)

Why do you believe that non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful strategy to fight climate change?

By putting my body in the way of the construction of a dangerous and climate destructive pipeline in West Roxbury, I am signaling to my community and the public the scale of this issue. I am making myself vulnerable in a way that actually gives me and the movement power to leverage change. As clergy we have a particular kind of power. We stand not just for ourselves, but for our traditions. We stand not just for our traditions, but for the spiritual and moral compass of humanity. This is why when clergy abuse their power it is such an outrage. When clergy use our power for good – peacefully but firmly and clearly making a moral statement, we get attention. We are calling for a just world, and we understand that the scale and speed of climate change are such that we cannot wait for policies. Twenty years ago we may have been able to just do policy work, but we failed. Now it is up to religious leaders and all concerned citizens to rise up against a system that is killing us, and to do so with the moral urgency of non-violent civil disobedience.

I started to help others connect to this work. It is a website where you can take the pledge to do non violent civil disobedience for climate, find resources and other people in your area, and get support to plan your action. While it is directed specifically to clergy, lay people can also sign. I have been amazed and excited by the outpouring of interest.

(Pictured: Clergy march at the May 25th pipeline action.)

How has your training through JOIN’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship influenced the work you are doing?

I was blessed to go to a fabulous undergraduate school and a visionary rabbinical school, totaling ten years of higher education. But the one year I was at JOIN taught me more practical skills about working with groups, building relationships, active listening, strategizing campaigns, and making decisions than any training I ever had in school. Coupled with my practice of non-violent communication, the skills I learned at JOIN are a bedrock of my rabbinate and climate work. I use them literally every day.

You can check out to take the pledge to do or support nonviolent civil disobedience for climate justice and connect with like minded people in your area. 
For more information about the fight to stop the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline, visit
For more on Rabbi Shoshana and her work, check out

*You can read more about these actions in the Boston Globe and in the Huffington Post.
** You can read more about this action in the New York Times and NBC News.

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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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