Fighting for 15

This beautiful d’var torah was written by Salem Pearce, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College and a participant in our online course Don’t Kvetch Organize!  It originally appeared on Salem’s blog No Power In The ‘Verse.

On Tuesday afternoon, I skipped my halakha class in order to attend a “Fight for 15” rally downtown. This local effort was part of a nationwide day of action, a “March for Racial and Economic Justice,” aimed at increasing the minimum wage in our state to $15/hour. Outside of Faneuil Hall, we listened to a dozen plus speakers, and then we marched with our signs about a quarter of a mile to the state house, where we heard from state Sen. Dan Wolf about a bill that would mandate a $15/hour wage for fast food and big box store employees. The bill has moved out of committee and now heads to the full Senate. If implemented, the policy would effect more than 200,000 workers in the state, many of whom now make less than $10/hour.

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Author Salem Pearce with her friend

I learned about the event through an organizing class that I’m taking this semester: The local group JOIN for Justice is pioneering an online course called “Don’t Kvetch! Organize!” The class has participants from all over the country. At the rally I met up with several of my Boston-area classmates, as well as a few JOIN staff members. The action was meant to be a way to put into practice, or at least witness, some of what we’ve learned so far.

The speakers at the rally represented a wide variety of workers: All people of color — and more than a few undocumented immigrants — they included students, home health care workers, fast food employees, adjunct college professors, and child care providers. One woman spoke about her eldest daughter, the first in the family to get into college — and then told of her sadness at the family’s not being able to afford that college. A fast food employee testified that he was striking that day — for the 11th time in three years — for $15/hour and the right to unionize at the McDonald’s where he works. The adjunct compared her insufficient full-time salary, and the paltry wages of the university’s staff, to that of her college president, who makes $3 million/year. They had in common long hours, exhausting work, job insecurity, lack of benefits, and painful choices around spending because of their paltry compensation.

I am proud to report the robust Jewish presence at the rally. Besides the JOIN students and staff, also represented were the New England Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, Moishe Kavod House, and the Boston Workmen’s Circle, plus just some individual, good old fashioned Jewish activists — some of whom are part our community here in JP and at Nehar Shalom. And this is just here in Boston: All over our country, from L.A. to Chicago to Miami, on Tuesday Jews marched for racial and economic justice.

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This demonstration of our commitment to justice as Jews got me started thinking about the Jewish values that underpin that commitment. I’ve learned — and will teach as a rabbi — lots of texts that speak directly to those values and that commitment. But this week, as I learned part of our parshah to chant tomorrow morning, I wondered about workers’ issues in relation to Toledot.

This week’s parshah, as so many in Genesis, is filled with the continuing family drama of the Abrahamic line. Rivka gives birth to twins Esav and Ya’akov, who spend their lives at odds with each other, starting in utero. The tension between them, the text explains, stems from their differences.

Esav is a character derided by the Jewish tradition. Depicted as a brute, unintelligent, and powerful man of the field, Esav is often seen as the opposite of the rabbinic ideal of his brother Ya’akov. Rashi even sees a religious difference between them: He claims that at bar mitzvah age, Ya’akov went to yeshiva, and Esav turned to idol worship. But before being swindled out of his birthright over a bowl of lentil stew, Esav comes home from working in the field all day. The Torah makes a point of noting that he was עָיֵ֖ף, “tired.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the significance of this verse: “Esau came tired from all his accomplishments and all his conquests. He was exhausted and disappointed . . . [And so the verse says], Esau came from the field and he was tired . . . Focused solely on physical success, Esau finished his day existentially exhausted: unfulfilled, demoralized, and disappointed.”

Before I explore this further, I want to note that this interpretation of Ya’akov and Esav is uniquely Jewish. Growing up a Protestant, I learned the story of the warring twin sons of Yitzhak quite differently: I was taught to strive to be like Esav, not Ya’akov, who in my tradition was regarded with great suspicion because of his dishonesty. The difference in Jewish and Christian traditions in their interpretations of this story continues to be one of my most surprising experiences as a convert.

As a Christian I learned to valorize Esav’s unvarnished physicality, and I saw a bit of this value in the clergy invocation offered at the beginning of the rally on Tuesday. The Christian pastor prayed for workers’ continued mobility and physical stamina, that with Gd’s help they might have the strength to get up each day and run, and that we at the march might continue the walk to justice. I have to say — as a future rabbi who hopes someday to be asked to give an invocation at the beginning of a rally — I was disappointed at the ableist language that he used. And yet asking Gd for vigor wasn’t totally out of place. It’s physically draining to be a fast food worker, or a child care provider, or a home health aide in way that it’s just not to be, say, a rabbinical student. The pastor recognized that and prayed for the need he saw in the workers at the rally. To bring the metaphor back to our parshah, he identified them with Esav.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow morning I’ll be chanting Torah here, and since we’re in the third year of the triennial cycle of Torah reading, we’ll be looking at the end of parshat Toledot. As I practiced the leyning, I found myself quite moved by Esav’s distress at the discovery Ya’akov’s deception of their father Yitzchak. Incredulous, he wails, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” And then וַיִּשָּׂ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ: “Esav raised his voice and wept.” We’re also told that he cried a great and bitter cry, וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה. Much of this vocabulary will later appear at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when the pain of the Israelites reaches Gd’s ears. It’s hard not to see some anticipation of the slavery in Egypt in Esav’s reaction. So even though traditional commentators have been quite harsh with Esav, I see points of strong poignancy in the text with regard to him.

What I hope for us is that seeing the story of Esav through the lens of the struggles today of hourly workers might engender some understanding — and maybe even some righteous indignation — about the situation of both. The vitriol that I see directed at Esav by traditional sources is quite troublesome to me: He is almost universally condemned as wicked, a adulterer, and a despiser of Gd — predicted to be — and later accused of being — a murderer. I see in the rabbis’ attitudes toward Esav a parallel to some of the unflattering narratives that our society creates around the working poor.

But I think the Torah actually creates sympathy for Esav’s plight by comparing his pain to that of the later, enslaved Israelites. And like many workers today, Esav is completely depleted by his work. Like many workers today, Esav suffers because of others’ perception of scarce resources. Like many workers today, Esav is forced into painful tradeoffs for basic necessities. We can and should feel compassion for people in these situations. The jobs that the workers at the rally describe are generally not ones that we do want or would want for ourselves and our loved ones.

I marched on Tuesday because I believe that low pay is not worthy of the dignity of human beings. I see the racism that underpins the fact that low-paying hourly jobs in service industries are often filled by people of color. It’s not good for our communities when families struggle to make ends meet. And even though as a rabbi I don’t expect to make a comparable hourly wage, I think that our obligation as Jews is to act boldly for the common good — and that our real birthright — available to us all, not just the firstborn or his trickster younger brother — is our commitment to this kind of everyday revolution.

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JOIN for Justice in Los Angeles

Last week the halls of Los Angeles synagogues Shomrei Torah and PICO Shul were buzzing as rabbis and lay leaders gained skills in community organizing and explored how to put them to work in their own communities.

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JOIN for Justice Senior Organizer Jeannie Appleman conducted trainings with synagogue lay leaders of the rabbis in our LA Cohort of the Clergy Fellowship, focusing on building a culture where members feel ownership over the synagogue, and exploring how to use house meetings to kick off these culture shift projects.

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After Havdallah on Saturday night, Jeannie participated in small-group conversations with 30 members of PICO Shul, a vibrant Jewish community committed to spiritual growth and living mindfully led by JOIN Clergy Fellow Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. Synagogue lay leaders discussed the struggles members were facing in their lives and possible social justice campaigns they could support through their synagogue. They also discussed internal organizing efforts that could help them envision the future of PICO Shul, and the particular talents they plan to bring to creating that future.

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Thank you to the LA Jewish community for welcoming us and joining us for these trainings!  We’re inspired by the commitment there and excited to see how this work continues to unfold.

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Shifting Synagogue Culture at Shape the Center

Two weeks ago, we were excited to lead a day-long community organizing training for 12 Conservative rabbis and their lay leaders at Shape the Center, the Conservative Movement’s biannual conference.  JOIN for Justice Senior Trainer Jeannie Appleman led the training along with JOIN Board member Rabbi Noah Farkas.

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We spent the morning exploring how to catalyze a culture shift in synagogues.  We discussed how to move from a transactional culture where members expect certain things in exchange for the dues they pay, towards a relational culture where all members take responsibility for the future of the congregation.  Then Rabbi Farkas shared the basics of conducting one-to-one meetings, and the importance of listening deeply and understanding interests of new leaders.

In the afternoon, participants explored the cycle of organizing and how to use house meetings to build new bases of leaders for their synagogues.  Finally, Rabbi Farkas led the group through a case study of the recent campaign on homelessness and affordable housing that his synagogue has played a critical role in.  Participants had the opportunity to explore what tactics worked best in this campaign, and think through how to conduct a power analysis and unearth the best tactics in their own communities.

 

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We enjoyed the opportunity to further deepen our relationship with the Conservative rabbis and lay leaders, and look forward to hearing about how the participants in this training put these ideas into action in their communities and congregations.

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Unpacking what it means to be “too busy”

A message from our Executive Director, Karla Van Praag.

There is a hunger in our Jewish communities to work for social justice that is greater than you can imagine. Greater than I did, anyway.

When we came up with the idea to create a large-scale online course to teach Jews about the role of community organizing in creating social change, there were initially many doubters (including on our own staff).

Some organizer friends cautioned us about the significant challenges that would come with teaching organizing online, and encouraged us to stick to in-person training. Others said people are too busy to participate in a long-form course. Two-hour tastes are more realistic, given people’s busy lives and the prevailing “click here” culture. Keep it short and sweet, and don’t ask too much of people.

We care deeply about the quality of our programs, and about the impact they should yield, so these critiques gave us serious pause. We wanted to design our course Don’t Kvetch, Organize! to take the best of what an online course can provide and merge it with what is most powerful about learning community organizing.

So we decided to take these comments not as a rejection of the concept but as advice.
We worked for months to design a curriculum with stimulating content. We recruited luminaries in the field as Master Trainers, and found Course Instructors with years of organizing experience to support our students.

Nowadays we are told to water things down, that people are too busy to do commit more than the most minimal time to anything new.

But changing the status quo requires a serious commitment. So we decided to go big, and to ask participants to devote significant time, energy, and passion over seven full weeks to learning organizing and beginning to take action. We set a stretch goal of 150 students for the first course.

It turned out not to be a stretch. We had to close registration months before the final deadline, and have a growing waitlist for next time. Today, over 200 students are immersed in Week Four of Don’t Kvetch, Organize!

We can see from the way our course participants are grappling with content in the discussion forums and section meetings that people are learning and growing, challenging long-held assumptions about the roots of inequality, and re-committing themselves to acting powerfully for change in their communities.

We are realizing from all this feedback that we hit a nerve. And we are remembering one of the most important lessons of organizing: no one is too busy to do something new when it taps deeply into their self-interest, connects them to community, and makes them feel powerful enough to make real change.

We are grateful to everyone who took this risk with us: our funders, our supporters, our Master Trainers and Course Instructors, and of course each student dedicating their time to learning and growing with us.

I can’t wait to see what they will accomplish.

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Redefining “Rabbi” in Rockland County

Rabbi Adam Baldachin, Seminary Leadership Project alum, wrote on eJewish Philanthropy this morning about his work organizing for justice in the East Ramapo School District.  His piece is excerpted below, and you can read the full piece here.  

As rabbis, we are trained to access the collection of texts that deal with the stuff of life. The law, narratives, interpretations, and inner yearnings that make up the Jewish tradition give us the background we need to do our holy work: to bring truth, meaning, justice, and empathy to anyone who will connect with us on their Jewish journeys. Yet when I began to work full time as a rabbi in Montebello, NY, I couldn’t have guessed where my training would lead me.

In my first week on the job, a local reporter asked my opinion about the crisis unfolding within the East Ramapo school district. Knowing nothing about the issue, I declined to comment. Instead, I began my justice work by holding one-on-one conversations and listening, as I learned while at JTS in a course taught by Meir Lakein of JOIN for Justice. So upon arriving at Montebello Jewish Center, I met congregants in my office, out for coffee or in their homes to hear their stories and find out what might motivate them to get involved in some issue that affected them, their community or society at large. The issue that was mentioned over and over again was the situation in the East Ramapo School District, which is located about three miles from our synagogue.

See the rest of the post here.  

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