Spirit, History, and Community: Reflections on the JOIN Fellowship

This blog post is written by Jewish Organizing Fellow Danny Blinderman.  


In 1963 Joachim Prinz, a Rabbi and President of the American Jewish Congress, addressed the March on Washington. He spoke, in his words, both as an American and as a Jew. As an American, he joined many others in protesting the chasm between American ideals and the reality of Jim Crowe segregation. Yet he devoted the bulk of his speech to how his Jewish identity and experience, both its spiritual and historical elements, moved him to action.

I first listened to this speech several years ago, and it instantly captivated me. Rather than enunciate progressive values and then claim that they were the same as Jewish ideals, he articulated a deep and powerful understanding of Judaism out of which progressive principles emerged. As someone who feels that my Jewish identity is the base upon which I build my story of why I care about working towards a just society, I wanted a similar grounding. I wanted to root myself in the Jewish tradition, and in Jewish community, so that I could hold fast to ideals of justice and liberation.

I came to the JOIN fellowship because of these questions, and my experience in it has only redoubled how powerful, important and necessary the learning we do together is. We’ve explored humanistic anti-capitalist understandings of Shabbat, challenged Ashkenazi-centrism that is often the resting pulse of our community, and worked to understand the contemporary justice lessons the Jewish diasporic experience hands down to us. We moved beyond the assumption that Judaism is progressive to the discernment of what strands of Judaism could serve as building blocks for a just world. Rather than trade in competing assertions of what lessons Judaism does or does not offer, we have constructed a justice-based understanding of Judaism that is not easily dismissed. For me, historical and spiritual questions have intermingled to create something beautiful and durable.

As powerful as it is to be grounded in these understandings of history and text, the crux of the Fellowship for me is the community we have built together. Jewish tradition teaches us that learning is not an individual enterprise. We live in a society that often seeks to isolate each of us and convince us to downplay critical parts of our own humanity. Community is essential to hold onto our complete selves and our vision of the world as we want it to be. We are meant to explore ourselves and our relationship to the world in communities that can hold us accountable with love. The work we are engaged in is difficult, and we often ask each other to dig into parts of ourselves long left undisturbed. I feel that the learning and community intertwine to create a space that feels, in its own way, sacred. Our shared experience has seeped into the space to create something more than just a place to hold weekly sessions. It is a place of study, of spirituality, of friendship and community. The curriculum is eye opening, but the community is soul enriching. I am grateful beyond words for both.

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JOIN for Justice is changing and we need your help

This post is by JOIN for Justice Executive Director Karla Van Praag.

JOIN for Justice is changing, and we need your help.

We are starting to focus more significant resources on how to adapt our Jewish Organizing Fellowship to better welcome and support Jews with marginalized identities. 
We seek to build a Fellowship class with people who are eager to explore the connections between their unique Jewish identities and working for social change. We also seek to build an inclusive community in which Jews of color, Jews with disabilities, Jews with working-class backgrounds, and trans and gender non-conforming Jews find a supportive environment that is focused on their leadership. We are working on actively recruiting and supporting Jews with marginalized identities in our Fellowship.

Over the years, as individuals with marginalized identities such as those mentioned above have participated in our Fellowship, we have heard feedback about the ways in which the Fellowship experience sometimes replicated larger societal oppressions, and also that people struggled with feeling alone in the group.

Our communal Jewish story compels us to fight for justice, yet our Jewish institutions often replicate larger societal oppressions, and JOIN for Justice is not immune to that.

And so, as a staff, as a board, and with a key team of alumni stakeholders, we’ve been doing some serious reflection.  How do we as an institution need to change? How do we consciously create the just world we envision, through our staff, our board, our program participation, and our training?  We have begun this process by asking stakeholders and alumni from marginalized identities about their ideas for how to approach the work and invited them to support and/or lead our efforts to change.

We fully expect that this will be a multi-year process to change our organization to be inclusive, supportive, and diverse. In many ways, we are only just beginning to define what success looks like. We know that we are examining the fellowship broadly – our curriculum, our fellowship structure, and what support we provide through the year. We also know we must consider the ways our entire organization must change.

We are grateful for the team of alumni and stakeholders who are working with us on this process to make us better than we are. We are approaching this work with an openness to learning and being challenged and an acknowledgement of the work that remains to be done to create this organization-and this world-as it should be.

I would welcome any thoughts, comments and suggestions you may have for us.  You can reach me by email here.

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Fighting for Environmental Justice in Massachusetts

Kate Rafey (Jewish Organizing Fellow ‘12-’13) interviewed Joel Wool (Jewish Organizing Fellow ‘12-’13) and wrote this story.

Joel Wool (Jewish Organizing Fellow‘12-’13) may work in the environmental movement to change policies and impact state governance, but he stays for the stories of resiliency and strength. What keeps Joel going are the people; what ignited his passion for organizing was anger. Using an environmental lens, he tackles interconnected social justice issues.

“The environmental movement is people taking care of their community, ensuring people are safe where they live, work and play,” Joel said. “It’s the story of a grandma cancer survivor fighting in her community, it’s the Latina committed to protecting the earth. It’s the immigrants caring about community, whether we’re talking about the earth or their town.”

Joel has been working at Clean Water Action since 2011. His hope is to see more clean energy distributed. One of his many current projects is with Massachusetts Power Forward, where Joel serves as Campaign Co-Coordinator. He organizes people to ensure that our state invests in clean energy resources.

Joel’s sense of community comes from his own experience. “I came into this [work] from being rooted in a neighborhood in Dorchester. Looking at [these issues] from a community-oriented perspective keeps me rooted,” he said.

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JOIN Fellowship alumni Joel Wool (left) and Kate Rafey (right)

While Joel has participated in different community organizing trainings in the past, JOIN for Justice taught him about relationship building and storytelling. He was involved and active in community organizing before the fellowship began but it took some time for him to process each session to connect with his coalition building.

JOIN’s intentional cultivation of leaders enabled deeper ties for Joel with individuals. Now, he uses storytelling all the time with people he’s meeting for the first time. In doing so, he has been lucky enough to engage with and support the amazing people fighting back against the fossil fuel industry.

One of Joel’s current organizing projects focuses in central Massachusetts with a population often neglected. Dismas House in Worcester, a home for healthy reentry for former prisoners through community work and support, is currently facing its own setback from the legislature as they fight for solar power and green weatherization. Other organizations in Worcester are interested as well, but the State favors utility companies. “We have to consider the bigger picture and choose the right path or there are going to be problems,” Joel said.

As a Jewish organizer, structural injustice and inequality resound with him. Many of the environmental injustices he approaches involve low income and minorities in these communities being, as Joel describes it, “boxed out” or kept from the decision- For him, Tikkun Olam is reality. “We are literally trying to repair the world, physically trying to build and rebuild communities into something better,” he said.

Joel plans on continuing his work in Massachusetts as an organizer for the foreseeable future, working on economic and racial issues with an environmental lens. “I am where I want to be at this point,” he said, “My goal right now is movement building.” Many people use him as a resource for empowering their own state actions. His work at the individual level will elevate movement building and take it to a different level. Currently, Joel is working on a Masters in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.

For people who are concerned about the future of environmental justice in Massachusetts, Joel urges you to take action now. “The energy decisions we make in Massachusetts will affect the rest of the country. We need to start acting now,” he said.

If you would like to get involved with Joel’s work, please contact him: jwool@cleanwater.org

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Finding flint in Flint

This post is by JOIN for Justice Executive Director Karla Van Praag.

By now we’ve all heard the horrific story about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the massive government mismanagement, the lead-poisoned children and the systemic environmental injustice of the highest order.

So much of the coverage of this travesty focuses, on one hand, on the powerful individuals who decided that $100/day was too much to spend to be certain that an entire city would be kept safe and, on the other hand, about the nameless, faceless, oppressed Flint community. But I can’t stop thinking about Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who demonstrated lead levels in toddlers had doubled. Or Miguel Del Torel, the EPA official who leaked his report about the problems to the press after community activist Lee Ann Waltersreached out to him for help.

Many Americans until now only associated flint with a small piece of metal used to produce a spark to ignite a fuel. Now Flint has been personified. These people, and the many other community organizers whose names haven’t been as visible in the media, were the flint here, the spark that finally set the injustice alight.

These individuals, along with the community organizations who fought hard against dismissal, derision, and character attacks to gain attention for the issue, are one important part of the story we as organizers need to remember. Despite powerful efforts to squash people’s resistance and keep them quiet, there are always those who will take risks–with their jobs, with their safety, with their reputations–to uncover the truth and fight for what’s right. Given all of these risks, these people are up against a lot, and I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot recently about what role I can play to support them towards victory. What is my role in this struggle? What is yours? What will we do when we are called to be those heroes ourselves?

The folks on the front lines in Flint Michigan, the people putting their bodies on the line in direct action for Black Lives Matter, young Dreamers risking everything to fight for justice for undocumented immigrants and their communities–they challenge all of us to be better allies and better leaders.

I am proud of our work at JOIN for Justice to train organizers and leaders to join critical fights for justice throughout the country. We can all get better at embracing rather than pushing away the voices that challenge us, and we can all benefit from learning the skills to be better allies with the folks who are taking the biggest risks. And to be ready for when we must be flint ourselves.

If you’re in a place in your life where you want to invest in yourself as a leader and see how to build a spark, I encourage you to check out our organizing programs that are open right now.

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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.


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.


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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