In November, at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 2015 Convention, JOIN for Justice will launch an initiative to train clergy and synagogue lay leaders jointly in community organizing skills.
Seminary Project alumna and former staff member Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay was interviewed by Voices of Conservative Judaism about using a community organizing approach to transform synagogue life. The interview is excerpted below, and you can see the full piece here.
For a lot of synagogues the challenge is finding new leaders and volunteers. Is congregation-based community organizing a way to help with that?
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay: Yes, because it’s all about developing and cultivating leaders and helping them act on the things that are most important to them in partnership with other congregants.
What’s different about this approach? What makes it effective?
SR: Sometimes in the Jewish community we’re afraid to talk about power or about self-interest. Community organizing involves a willingness to think about and discuss self-interest. It’s the idea that people really will work on something for a long time if they see it as in their self-interest and can articulate why. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Can you explain that a bit more?
SR: Often with leadership opportunities at congregations, a person might think there’s a lot that needs to be done, so they’re going to go look for someone to help do it. And if you’re persuasive you can convince people to do things. But you can’t necessarily convince them to do things for a long time and in an effective way. With community organizing, it’s not about convincing people to do things you want them to do, it’s about understanding who they are, and what they care about, and how working together you can craft something that will help them act on the values they care about in the world.
What’s the process?
SR: It’s relational organizing, which means that relationships are at the center. So you need to get to know people. People set up one-to-one meetings, or house meetings with small groups, and at those meetings you get to know what moves people and what motivates them. You see what they might have energy to work on. Also, you come to know who some of the leaders in a community really are, which doesn’t necessarily mean the people who are already the leaders.
Why are these leaders not known?
SR: In shul, we might see people frequently, but we don’t know what’s actually going on for them, what they care about and what the challenges in their lives are. When you take the time to do that, people feel heard, and if they know you’re going to work with them, that you’re invested in their leadership and success, then they’re going to show up for you, especially when you’re working on something that’s of prime importance to them.
See the rest of the interview here.