JOIN for Justice http://www.joinforjustice.org Fri, 27 Mar 2015 02:51:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 SHIFT: Taking Root ~ An Evening of Stories http://www.joinforjustice.org/fellowship/shift-taking-root-evening-stories/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/fellowship/shift-taking-root-evening-stories/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 02:35:27 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=4127 At JOIN for Justice, we believe that stories matter. Stories create connections between people, they are how we share our history, they inspire us to act. Last week, JOIN for Justice celebrated the importance of stories when we gathered for … Read More

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At JOIN for Justice, we believe that stories matter. Stories create connections between people, they are how we share our history, they inspire us to act.

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Photo by Ernesto Arroyo Photography.

Last week, JOIN for Justice celebrated the importance of stories when we gathered for SHIFT: Taking Root ~ An Evening of Stories. Hosted in the inviting Cambridge, Massachusetts home of JOIN Board member Larry Bailis and his wife Susan Shevitz, SHIFT celebrated storytelling, community building and social justice with JOIN friends, alumni, guests and staff.

All of us in attendance were entertained, moved and challenged by the stories we heard, including this one from Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum Dani Moscovitch:

In addition to Dani, we enjoyed stories from Seminary Leadership Project alum Rabbi Jen Gubitz, Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum Dani Moscovitch and JOIN Director of Organizing Meir Lakein.  JOIN Board member Dan Rosan served as our emcee.

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Enjoy a slideshow of images from the evening, and stay tuned for more video stories! All photos by Ernesto Arroyo Photography.

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Paid Family Leave: Using our Faith and Courage to Reflect Jewish Values http://www.joinforjustice.org/thinking-out-loud/paid-family-leave/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/thinking-out-loud/paid-family-leave/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 17:56:08 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=4111 JOIN for Justice’s Clergy Organizer Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay recently co-authored an excellent piece on the importance of paid family leave as an equitable policy, “What Do We Need? Paid Family Leave. When Do We Need It? Now!” Read an excerpt … Read More

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JOIN for Justice’s Clergy Organizer Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay recently co-authored an excellent piece on the importance of paid family leave as an equitable policy, “What Do We Need? Paid Family Leave. When Do We Need It? Now!” Read an excerpt below, and read the entire article on the eJewish Philanthropy website:

Beginnings are critical. They set the stage for how relationships will develop. Having the opportunity to bond with a child, or children, embrace a new identity as parents, and create a new and expanded family unit takes time and requires focus. Parents need to be home, and there needs to be food on the table and money to pay for the expenses of supporting a family.

Beginnings are when healthy habits are created. Beginnings are when families can get grounded and bonded. They are when a family can root itself and prepare to take its place as a contributing unit in society. Families can’t do any of these things if the mother loses her job when she gives birth, or has pregnancy complications that she can’t address because her job doesn’t permit her to make adjustments to how and when she works.

Recently, I was asked to help a Jewish communal organization recruit for some positions for which they were hiring. I felt uncomfortable helping recruit for an organization that did not offer its employees a sufficient and just period of paid leave. I shared this reaction with the organization which is actually currently working on this at the board level, and anticipates changing their policy in the near future.

They expressed appreciation for the feedback.

Read the whole article on eJewish Philanthropy.

StephanieRuskayRabbi Stephanie Ruskay serves as the Clergy Organizer at JOIN for Justice. Trained in organizing through JOIN’s Seminary Leadership Project, Stephanie is particularly focused on helping rabbis develop and use organizing skills to help transform their communities and work more effectively to pursue social justice. Stephanie also serves as the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

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Shmita, Debt & Justice in a Los Angeles Garden http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/shmita-debt-justice-los-angeles-garden/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/shmita-debt-justice-los-angeles-garden/#comments Wed, 25 Mar 2015 17:37:06 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=4103 For the last year, Rose Prevezer worked as the rabbinic intern at Netiya, an interfaith food justice network in Los Angeles. This internship is run in partnership with JOIN for Justice. We are so grateful for this thoughtful reflection that … Read More

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For the last year, Rose Prevezer worked as the rabbinic intern at Netiya, an interfaith food justice network in Los Angeles. This internship is run in partnership with JOIN for Justice. We are so grateful for this thoughtful reflection that Rose shared with us — about growing food, shmita, forgiving debt and working for justice.

My time working as the rabbinic intern for Netiya, an inter-faith food justice network based in Los Angeles, has been focused on education and community organizing around the Shmita, or Sabbatical, year that started last Rosh Hashana, The shmita year is a year of rest for the land of Israel that the Torah states should occur every seven years as “a Sabbath for God”. We are told that “for six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat” (Exodus 23:10-11). In the shmita year all produce is ownerless. You can store items from the previous six years’ harvest to survive but you are not permitted hoard more than you need; the excess must be made hefker (free) to all. At the end of the shmita year all debt is cancelled, for no man is “to oppress his neighbor or his brother” (Deuteronomy 15:2).

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Shmita has long been relegated to the abstract in contemporary Jewish life. As its halachic rules and regulations apply only in Israel, Diaspora Jewry largely ignored its teachings. Moreover, in Israel itself, loopholes in Jewish law – developed for the purpose of allowing agriculture to survive in the early years of the State and intended to be time-limited – became normative practice. However, recent years have seen a flourishing of interest in shmita and an increased understanding of the relevancy and ethical power of its practices.

There has been an acknowledgment that the lessons and benefits of shmita are multiple and universal. Shmita teaches the value of long-term agricultural good practice and sustainability by encouraging rest and respect for the land and its potential yield. Shmita draws our attention to the intersections between poverty, debt and food insecurity, and radically shifts our understanding of ownership. Shmita articulates the relationship between rest and dignity in way that forces us to address not only our own individual and organizational work commitments and stresses, but also labor rights and widespread wage inequality.

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Shmita promotes the role of empathy in creating a more equal society. For one year all people share in the resulting abundance or insecurity. How does this shared experience have the potential to change us? How does it alter the way we are in relationship with one another? Going forward will we be more alert to societal ills, more conscious in our consumerism, more attuned to the needs of the land? Will shmita result in the kind of spiritual and social awakening envisaged by Rav Kook in his introduction to his treatise on shmita, “The Sabbath of the Land:”

“What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant…It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life. Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten…Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life.”

This shmita year, environmental and social justice organizations in Israel and the Diaspora have been working to educate and encourage communities to find ways to practice and infuse their daily experience with the values of shmita. In Southern California Netiya has been at the forefront of this endeavor, and as their outgoing rabbinic intern I have been working with communities and groups throughout Los Angeles to explore the relationship between shmita, spirituality, debt and food relief. In particular we have been examining the myriad ways in which shmita can be observed and celebrated today, whether one lives in Israel or not.

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At Netiya we have been speaking and teaching about shmita in synagogues and churches, schools and institutions throughout the city. We have been using the model of shmita to examine our own organizational practices and encouraging others to do the same. We have been hosting workshops and events – on gardening, water conservation, planting, pickling, and harvesting – in order to promote long-term sustainable food practices.

We have been working to ensure that the lessons of the shmita year will continue to impact and change the lives of our communities for the better. It has been a privilege to be part of this conversation.

941347_600046326673115_83268822_nRose Prevezer is a rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Los Angeles. She has worked as Netiya’s Rabbinic and Community Organizing intern and is an active member of the Minyan Tzedek Organizing Path at Ikar, a social-justice focused spiritual community. Rose is pictured at the far left of the photo on the right. She’s with a group of 7th graders at Ikar who have just learned how to harvest a carrot!

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Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism Profiles JOIN and JOIN Leaders http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/voices-conservativemasorti-judaism-profiles-join-join-leaders/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/voices-conservativemasorti-judaism-profiles-join-join-leaders/#comments Thu, 19 Mar 2015 16:15:03 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=4090 The May 2015 issue of Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism profiles two JOIN leader alumni, Rabbi Noah Farkas and Rabbi Dave Baum, and JOIN for Justice in their excellent article, “Holy Chutzpah: Synagogues move from social action committees to social action … Read More

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The May 2015 issue of Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism profiles two JOIN leader alumni, Rabbi Noah Farkas and Rabbi Dave Baum, and JOIN for Justice in their excellent article, “Holy Chutzpah: Synagogues move from social action committees to social action commitment.”

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Click the image above to read the entire online magazine, read just the article and read an excerpt here:

This large-scale, sustained involvement in social action is not isolated to Pennsylvania’s Ohev Shalom. Rather it is part of a larger change in the way many Conservative synagogues incorporate social action and tikkun olam, repairing the world, into the lives of their kehillot. These congregations are moving social action from an occasional community activity to a core part of what defines synagogue life.

And as they do, they’re finding it a powerful tool for engaging people who no longer join synagogues out of obligation, but as a way to find meaning in their lives.

“If we want to bring more people into our tent, we need to broaden our perspective and challenge ourselves to see things differently, to see God’s work as outside of the synagogue,” explains Rabbi David Baum of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton, Florida.

To do this in South Florida, Baum and his congregants partner with an interfaith group that gleans extra produce from local farmers’ fields at the end of the season and donates it to the local food bank. Aside from the obvious biblical allusions, Baum encourages his congregants to see the very performance of service as holy and integrally connected with Jewish tradition.

“We have these commandments to feed the hungry and look out for the less fortunate,” he says. “When people learn and then do it, they become more connected to Judaism and God.”

Baum and his fellow Conservative rabbis engaging in this kind of work believe that connecting the Torah’s commandments to hands-on social action breathes new life into Jewish observance and creates more entry points into a synagogue.

“Seeing tangible results from what a religion says about the world is really important,” says Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, a large congregation in Encino, California. “So when our religion says that we should think about the stranger and the orphan that means we need to think about the stranger and the orphan and act on their behalf – otherwise these words become hollow.”

Like several of his colleagues, Farkas capitalizes on the community organizing skills he learned as part of JOIN for Justice, which trains Jewish leaders in building community to effect social change. For the last several years, JOIN has trained hundreds of rabbinical and education students, as well as rabbis across denominations, to use the tools of organization to deepen community engagement.

In 2013, the group held a training for members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Jay Kornsgold, chair of the Rabinical Assembly’s social justice commission, says the event represents a shift in Conservative Judaism toward putting more emphasis on social action and social justice. “A few years ago this wouldn’t have been possible,” Kornsgold said of the meeting, which attracted over 40 rabbis.

Community organizing techniques are the ultimate in “relational Judaism” and indeed JOIN was mentioned in Dr. Ron Wolfson’s influential book of the same name. As Farkas explains, the approach involves engaging congregants in conversations, hearing their stories, and identifying issues they’re passionate about. Efforts are then organized around those issues and lay leaders are empowered to take ownership of the causes.

Read the entire engaging article.

We are so proud of the work that Rabbi Farkas and Rabbi Baum are doing in their congregations and the impact they are having on their communities and their world. And we’re thrilled that JOIN for Justice is in a position to expand our training and organizing work with rabbis and congregations this year through our Seminary Leadership Project and our new Chut Hameshulash Fellowship for rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators. Stay tuned on our website for more news!

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JOIN Alum Rabbi David Segal Featured in Aspen Magazine http://www.joinforjustice.org/seminary-project/join-alum-rabbi-david-segal-featured-aspen-magazine/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/seminary-project/join-alum-rabbi-david-segal-featured-aspen-magazine/#comments Wed, 11 Mar 2015 19:53:16 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=4068 JOIN alum Rabbi David Segal was featured in Aspen Magazine’s March 2015 issue (he’s on the left in the photo below): The text reads: David Segal, 34, Rabbi, Aspen Jewish Congregation The Aspen Jewish Congregation (aspenjewish.org) has endured some periods … Read More

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JOIN alum Rabbi David Segal was featured in Aspen Magazine’s March 2015 issue (he’s on the left in the photo below):

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The text reads:

David Segal, 34, Rabbi, Aspen Jewish Congregation

The Aspen Jewish Congregation (aspenjewish.org) has endured some periods of difficult transition over its 40-year history, but thanks to Rabbi David Segal, it’s finally seeing the light. His arrival almost seems like kismet: The Houston native spent many family vacations in Aspen. He now lives in Basalt with his wife, Rollin Simmons, who is the congregation’s cantor, and their two children. A Princeton alum, Segal was ordained by Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in 2010 and immediately headed west. “Today, and especially among our demographic, it’s clearly harder to engage people in religion,” he says. “People don’t move here to become religious, but they do more here to become spiritual.” Named one of America’s most inspiring rabbis in 2014 by The Jewish Daily Forward, Segal engages locals with regular music-focused services, a monthly slopeside Shabbat at Snowmass and expanded programming. Notable nugget: He took a stand-up comedy workshop while living in New York and has performed shows there and in Aspen.

We continue to be inspired by how Rabbi Segal engages with his community!

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Announcing: New JOIN Clergy Fellowship! http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/announcing-new-join-clergy-fellowship/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/announcing-new-join-clergy-fellowship/#comments Thu, 12 Feb 2015 19:43:07 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=3984 Talking about community organizing…  is easy! Learning it is a challenge. Doing it is much harder. Community organizing brings people together to identify a shared mission and common values and interests and act on them together. Doing this consistently and … Read More

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Rabbi_Noah_SHIFTTalking about community organizing…  is easy!

Learning it is a challenge.

Doing it is much harder.

Community organizing brings people together to identify a shared mission and common values and interests and act on them together. Doing this consistently and persistently, in a way that has an impact and invigorates you rather than depletes you, is hard work.

Hundreds of rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators have been trained by JOIN for Justice’s Seminary Leadership Project, but, to bring about the changes we dream of in the world and the Jewish community, we need to expand our support to clergy in the field.

That’s why JOIN is thrilled to announce the launch of our new Chut Hameshulash Fellowship for rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators!

The Fellowship will run from March 2015 into next year. Read more and let us know if you’re interested!

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Political Leadership: JOIN Board Member Stephanie Kolin http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/political-leadership-join-board-member-stephanie-kolin/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/political-leadership-join-board-member-stephanie-kolin/#comments Thu, 29 Jan 2015 02:19:02 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=3945 This week on RJ.org, guest blogger Steven Windmueller wrote a great piece about JOIN Board member Rabbi Stephanie Kolin: about her new position at New York’s Central Synagogue and about her role in modern-day religious leadership. He writes: With the … Read More

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Photo of Rabbi Stephanie KolinThis week on RJ.org, guest blogger Steven Windmueller wrote a great piece about JOIN Board member Rabbi Stephanie Kolin: about her new position at New York’s Central Synagogue and about her role in modern-day religious leadership. He writes:

With the announcement this week of the appointment of Rabbi Stephanie Kolin to the position of Associate Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City, the progressive Jewish community has the opportunity to celebrate the evolution of Just Congregations, including its creation of Reform California, and the defining role played by its extraordinary leader, Rabbi Kolin.

The storyline here is not only about how one person can affect change but also of how a movement can be created, nurtured, and led by an inspiring leader.

In examining the rise of Reform CA as a new political force within this state, we can explore the impact of what religious leadership can mean in a 21st-century context. Rabbi Kolin, with her knowledge of community organizing, her Jewish prophetic passion, and an extraordinary degree of personal energy and integrity, also brought to the table a leadership style that empowered her colleagues and in turn engaged their congregational leaders.

For Rabbi Kolin, this was as much about “team” as it was about mission. From the outset, she framed the entire cause for building a new model of social engagement around the collective will, insights, and commitment of her partners. The team evolved, not only in terms of numbers but through a maturation process of shared learning. Several principles framed this enterprise: to organize, empower, and invest the collective energies and resources of our community in growing our political resources and connections in order to build partnerships and alliances with other state-wide actors. The outcome was to achieve a new vision of what California could be by taking the political steps to change the status quo.

Continue reading “Building a New Model of Political Leadership: How Rabbi Stephanie Kolin Changed our Community” on RJ.org.

 

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What Rabbis Do http://www.joinforjustice.org/seminary-project/rabbis/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/seminary-project/rabbis/#comments Wed, 21 Jan 2015 18:02:16 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=3880 JOIN is honored to work with incredibly engaging rabbis from around the county. Check out some of #WhatRabbisDo: Tell stories… Teaching rabbinical students the power of #story for social change. @JewishOrganizer @ElanBabchuck #whatrabbisdo pic.twitter.com/OdbTUy6XwF — Rabbi Noah Farkas (@RabbiNoah) January … Read More

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JOIN is honored to work with incredibly engaging rabbis from around the county. Check out some of #WhatRabbisDo:

Tell stories…

Train…

Teach…

Call us to action…

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Reconnecting to Climate Change as a People’s Movement http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/reconnecting-climate-change-peoples-movement/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/reconnecting-climate-change-peoples-movement/#comments Wed, 07 Jan 2015 19:42:06 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=3863 One of the major progressive events of 2014 was the powerful gathering of over 400,000 people calling for action around climate change in New York City. Jewish Organizing Fellow alum Davida Ginsberg was there, and she recently reflected on her … Read More

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One of the major progressive events of 2014 was the powerful gathering of over 400,000 people calling for action around climate change in New York City. Jewish Organizing Fellow alum Davida Ginsberg was there, and she recently reflected on her experiences with organizing, environmental work and justice:

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Earlier this fall, I was one of over 400,000 people who attended the People’s Climate March in New York City to demonstrate to our world leaders the urgency of climate change as an issue that affects all people and all social justice issues. Several days before Rosh Hashanah, I found myself on West 58th Street in Manhattan standing shoulder to shoulder alongside Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, Humanists, Pagans, and many others from faith communities, all of us waiting for the largest climate march in history to begin. Immediately surrounding me were friends from the Boston Jewish community — JOIN fellows and alumni, members of the Moishe Kavod House, and rabbinical students at Hebrew College. Inches from my ear shofar blasts sounded, signaling the urgency of climate change and the need for a collective “wake-up” call to take action. But it also served as a wake-up call for me. Being a part of the march both renewed my connection to climate change as an issue I care about and deepened my analysis of it as a meta-social justice issue connected to all other forms of inequality and injustice in our world.

Growing up in a family that composted, recycled, and spent many dinner time conversations discussing sustainable modes of transportation or cutting edge “green” technologies, I became an environmentalist early on. It was the issue that my parents cared about, so I cared about it. As I got older, climate change — or rather a fear of it — inspired me to actively choose environmentalism as something that I personally cared about. I watched An Inconvenient Truth and felt overwhelmed and fearful about the future of our planet, and so in college I coordinated a recycling program on campus and after graduating I spent time living on a farm and learning sustainable agriculture.

Yet when I moved to Boston to do JOIN, I saw for the first time my identity as an environmentalist in contrast with other social justice issues. Surrounded by JOIN fellows and alumni advocating for equal access to healthcare, labor conditions, and economic opportunity for all, I saw the environmental movement from which I had been raised as a movement of privilege, one that has historically focused on conservation of the earth and less on the people that are affected by environmental degradation. And so I took a break from it. I began my JOIN fellowship year working at Rosie’s Place, a shelter for women experiencing poverty and homelessness.  Even as I learned about environmental justice organizations like ACE (Alternatives for Community and Environment), I still felt disconnected from the mainstream environmental movement.

Late this summer when I learned about the climate march, I was at first skeptical. But as I learned more, I realized that the organizers had intentionally designed the march to tell the “people’s” story of climate change: with indigenous and low-income communities at the front of the march to illustrate that the groups who should be leading the movement are the ones disproportionately affected. This framing was transformative for me — it inspired me to march, to reconnect with an issue I had taken a step back from, and also to connect more authentically with those around me — with the vast multitudes of people everywhere.

On the trip down, at 8 am that Sunday morning, I felt the power of people that poured from myriad coach buses and flooded the rest stop on I-95. Waiting for the march to begin, I felt the pulsating power of community as I saw so many people from different faith traditions who had shown up because they care about the environment, but also, and perhaps more accurately, because they care about each other. And reaching beyond my comfort zone, I talked to a total stranger — a security guard standing by — about climate change and why we had all come together to march.

Climate change is big. It is scary. It is overwhelming. But being a part of the march and connecting with the issue on a human level enabled me to, for the first time ever, connect with the issue from a place of hope, rather than fear. It was a brief yet powerful glimpse of what it possible when we all come together — across race, class, gender, issue, and faith.

Davida Ginsberg is a Boston-based community organizer and food justice activist. She is an alum of the JOIN for Justice Jewish Organizing Fellowship.

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“Checking Our Privilege” and Intersectionality: A JOIN Alum Learns from Jacob http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/checking-privilege-intersectionality-join-alum-learns-jacob/ http://www.joinforjustice.org/uncategorized/checking-privilege-intersectionality-join-alum-learns-jacob/#comments Fri, 02 Jan 2015 13:07:14 +0000 http://www.joinforjustice.org/?p=3856 Rabbi Michelle Dardashti is a JOIN leader and an alum of our Seminary Leadership Program. Rabbi Dardashti serves as the Associate University Chaplain to the Jewish Community at Brown University and Rabbi at Brown RISD Hillel. Her essay, “Checking Our … Read More

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Photo of Rabbi DardashtiRabbi Michelle Dardashti is a JOIN leader and an alum of our Seminary Leadership Program. Rabbi Dardashti serves as the Associate University Chaplain to the Jewish Community at Brown University and Rabbi at Brown RISD Hillel.

Her essay, “Checking Our Privilege,” an Obligation Bestowed by our Ancestors: Learning Intersectionality from Jacob” first appeared on Jewschool. Rabbi Dardashti challenges us to tie privilege to the weekly Torah portion:

Jacob has a thing for messing with the expected societal order. His story begins with striving to claim for himself what his birth-order denied and ends with his enforcing this switch upon his grandsons.

“When Joseph saw that his father [Jacob] was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. ”Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.”  But his father objected….” (Gen. 48: 17-19).

One’s first instinct in reading is to simply presume that old habits die hard and Jacob has learned nothing from his own destructive experiences with meddlesome blessing bestowal and favoritism.  But in reading Genesis this year, with dynamics of power and privilege at the forefront of my thinking, I’m inclined to believe there’s something deeper at play.  A closer look at the stories of our ancestors reflects that the supposed precept of a birthright—privileging/entitling an eldest son to a greater share of blessing simply by virtue of being the first born—simply was not upheld. (Evidence: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers – our narrative lists and preferences each in a manner contrary to their seniority.)

Consumed of late by conversations about institutional and structural discrimination, I can’t help seeing Jacob through this lens and taking pride in the way our foundational Torah tales consistently subvert the notion that accidents of birth should confer privilege.  Privilege, in faith speak, is none other than blessing – something to which no one is entitled, but rather granted by grace, that’s why gratitude is the bedrock of our faith; Jews, in Hebrew, are “Yehudim,” meaning “thankful ones.” Privilege, says our tradition, should not be institutionalized and when afforded, should inspire both gratitude and a heightened sense of responsibility. Accordingly, “checking one’s privilege”—just like “counting one’s blessings”—is paramount and about the most Jewish thing one can do.

Understanding Jacob as modeling the above sheds new light on the famed scene of his wrestling with an angel.  From this perspective, his all-night fight prior to reencountering Esau is about working through—“checking”—feelings of un-entitlement to privileges bestowed; the name Israel, which he receives after wrestling and emerging forever marked by a limp, comes to embody this stance of humble gratitude (privileges in check).  It’s only in facing his guilty conscience over blessings he obtained at Esau’s expense that he’s able to properly and positively encounter his brother; the process Jacob undergoes of owning his privilege is what transforms him from adversary to true brother, what allows him to show up as a legitimate ally in Esau’s eyes.

A colleague from another student center at Brown University, where I serve as Rabbi and Associate Chaplain, recently put these dynamics in context as follows: While not all Jews see themselves as white, the reality is that most Jews in this country have white privilege and it’s only in fully owning this privilege that they will be accepted as allies by students of color.

As a community, we are enriched by the biracial Jewish students and also Jews of color in our midst, with and about whom we’re deepening conversation through our recently formed Jews of Mixed Identity Group, or J-MIG.  The majority of our Jewish students, however, are indeed white-presenting and some among them bristle at the charge by my colleague; they reject the notion that they have privilege due to Jews’ historic position as an oppressed minority and the anti-Semitism that’s still alive and well in the world.

In light of this predicament—a desire by the Jewish community to be in meaningful and authentic solidarity with people of color (POC) at this time, coupled with discomfort by some students with perceived prerequisites—I, together with phenomenal student leaders of our J-MIG and Tzedek groups, designed an evening to allow (and in many senses, push) our community to do some internal wrestling of our own. Entitled “Talking Race and Racism, from Ferguson to Campus: A Hillel Conversation,” the description noted its intention to explore “To what extents (if at all) do we, as Jews, see ourselves as white, privileged, powerful, oppressed, and/or able/obligated to be in solidarity/allyship with POC in the wake of the verdicts on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases and climate of racial injustice and inequality in this country?” In opening, we brought a text by Gina Crosley-Corcoran, explaining privilege by defining intersectionality. She writes, “The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against.”

Here again, Jacob’s story is instructive.  “Few and bad have been the days of my life,” attests Jacob when brought before Pharaoh in last week’s parasha (Genesis 47:9).  Why, if he appreciated his privilege and blessings, does Jacob give such a report? The explanation lies in understanding intersectionality.  Jacob’s having been graced by God’s blessings in so many respects, negates neither the adversity he faced nor the reality that in his present context he is decidedly subservient and “other” – a starving Hebrew seeking refuge in a foreign land.  While in encountering Esau, with whom he wished to build allyship, it was vital that he own his unearned blessings and privilege, in addressing Pharaoh, who had far greater power than he and from whom he wished to gain shelter and sustenance for his family, it made sense to highlight his struggles.  Jacob’s story reflects the appropriateness of owning and checking our privilege in different ways at different times.

In the context of America today we need not behave as subjects encountering Pharaoh. Though the Jewish community is not a monolith in terms of whiteness and socio-economic status, we are not marginalized strangers here; by and large, we have power and privilege and must use it effectively to undermine racial preferences and prejudices at play.  Our experience as strangers in Egypt was intended not to scar but strengthen us and insure that we would protect and uplift strangers in our own midst whenever we were in a position to do so. Now is our time.

“Where are the Jews today?” asked my colleague, noting that anyone who knows anything about the fight for civil rights in this country fifty years ago knows that Jews were at the forefront of that movement in ways they are not today. My colleague clearly attributes our diminished presence in the trenches to our community’s generally increased privilege having made us more bourgeois and conservative and less empathetic and concerned with the plight of the marginalized. While I know that to be an oversimplification—overlooking some formidable fissures and challenges in relations between African Americans and Jews over the last half century, which call for conversations and much wrestling within and between our communities to unpack exactly “where we’ve gone”—I agree that a necessary first step in getting us back to the frontlines of seeking racial and economic justice in this country is checking our privilege. There are many Jewish leaders, communities (including institutions of traditional Jewish learning, such as Hadar, Drisha and Yeshiva University) and social-justice organizations (T’ruahJews United For JusticeBend the Arc and Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, to name a few) raising their voices and praying with their feet, particularly in the wake of Ferguson. These conversations and actions must continue to expand; this is ultimately the legacy Jacob bequeaths.

Before leaving the scene, in blessing his grandsons in this week’s parasha, Jacob shifts not only his hands, but the way he tells his story.  He invokes not the “badness” of his life, as he did with Pharaoh, but rather the miraculous way in which an angel accompanied him, redeeming him “from all the badness.”  Jacob closes the book of Genesis and story of his life recalling his blessings and owning his privilege as he did in the scene with the angel.  This is the legacy which prepares us for the next book of the Bible, in which we formally become a nation through the experience of slavery and redemption. Gratitude—a checking of our privilege and counting of our blessings—is at the core of our identity as Jews (Yehudim, “thankful ones”) and as the Nation/People of Israel (Yirsrael­, “wrestlers” with/for our blessings, emerging with privileges checked). Our thanks is meant to find expression in the mitzvot, ethical and ritual commandments.  It’s supposed to work like this: blessing/privilege begets gratitude and gratitude begets responsibility and obligation.  The Exodus pointedly underlines and institutionalizes this lesson: we are redeemed in order to redeem others; we experience the blessing, the privilege, of liberation so that we always seek that liberation for others. 

Hazak hazak v’nithazek – “strength strength and we shall be strengthened.” This is the prayer we proclaim in completing one book of the Torah and starting the next and it’s also one I carry for our community in its engagement with justice and building of solidarity in our country today. Onward.

Read Rabbi Dardashti’s article on the Jewschool website.

May we all walk into strength in this new year!

 

 

The post “Checking Our Privilege” and Intersectionality: A JOIN Alum Learns from Jacob appeared first on JOIN for Justice.

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