An Interview with Chloe Zelkha

Chloe Zelkha is an alumna of the 2013-2014 Jewish Organizing Fellowship. When asked about the benefits of her experience as a Fellow, she said she valued the emphasis on building strong, sustaining relationships to do social justice work. She also appreciated the emphasis on storytelling and how it helped her do her job. “I fell in love with that tool and taught it to youth at The Food Project, which is where I was working as a JOIN fellow.”

Today she is a chaplain resident at UCSF Medical Center, where she uses storytelling while sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying. It helps to solicit a review of the person’s life and connect them to their own wisdom and what matters most to them, she explained. In addition to this work, she has been preparing for the Young Adult Grief Retreat, a project inspired by her own experience, and by extension a form of organizing. 

We interviewed Chloe about her work in early March. She was thrilled to tell us more about how the grief retreat came to be, and what participants can gain from the experience.

JOIN: What inspired you to bring to life a grief retreat? 

Two years ago in January, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack – totally healthy person in his 60s. I really was thrown into these questions. And I should also say, relatedly, my partner of many years, now my husband, three months before my dad’s sudden death, was hit by a car on his bicycle on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah and suffered really serious injuries, a massive brain injury, he broke his sternum and his neck and had nerve damage on his legs that made him really not able to walk, really serious. So for a year, we were working towards his recovery. Those two moments of powerful grief thrust me into this landscape of big questions about life and death and meaning. … I was woken up to this essential fact that anyone can die at any moment. The central fact of our mortality, and of impermanence. I was like “How do I stay awake to this? I don’t want to go back to sleep and just ignore that that’s true, because I think that there’s some wisdom and power there. How do I stay awake to that without living afraid all the time?”

JOIN: What was your process for finding the answers to such big questions?

The thing that I knew from organizing was that big questions and projects of the heart are best done in community. So, I went looking for people who got it. I came across a few really wonderful organizations, one being The Dinner Party which is a wonderful organization of folks, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have experienced significant loss, gathering together around dinner tables in all these different cities. I connected with that crew, and also with faith-based communities: the Jewish Healing Center in the Bay area, and with my family at Urban Adamah (this Jewish farm in the Bay area). That’s ultimately what also brought me into chaplaincy. I thought about my professional work thus far, and continue to, as trying to facilitate transformative experiences for people. That’s how I think about what I do. I had known the power of retreat, from my work running this three-month, super-immersive experience with Urban Adamah, the Urban Adamah Fellowship, and with my work running summer-long immersion experiences for diverse youth at the Food Project, and also from sitting retreats myself. I thought it would be so beautiful to combine that form of immersion experiences on an urban farm, that I knew really well, with the population that is now where my heart is. I also thought it would be amazing to do that, instead of in a highly pathologized, clinical way that most grief spaces run, to do that for and by young people who know loss. So I got this idea in my head to do a grief retreat for young people on an urban farm, and Urban Adamah was game to try it out with me. I’m really excited about it; I think it’s going to be really magical and transformative.

JOIN: What can participants expect to gain from this experience? 

One thing that’s really unique about the retreat is that all facilitators are also participants, and all participants are gonna be asked to hold space for each other. So there’s some things that are really separating us from this really formal therapeutic traditional grief-group vibe, that for me are really important and draw me into spaces. With the exception of a few teachers that we’re bringing in for an hour-and-a-half-long workshop session, who are just coming in and out. Participants can expect to engage with community ritual and with multi-model ways of getting at grief from working with emotions in the body, and with singing, and moving, and making art, and cooking, and also lots of free space and social time to connect with people who get it, or people kind of “in the club.” We’re really centering relationship, so hopefully people really get a chance to connect with others in the way that they want. And also, invitations into speaking from the heart, into silence, into solitude and also into community.

JOIN: Does a person have to be Jewish to attend?

Nope! The retreat is open to folks of all backgrounds and we hope it will be a diverse crew.

JOIN: What encouragement can you give to someone who considering participating in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship?

JOIN is such a special opportunity to deepen into yourself as a leader and as a Jewish person and as an organizer, and to deepen into this powerful community that can love you and push you. There’s nothing better than that. That’s basically as good as it gets!

JOIN: Is there a memorable moment from your JOIN experience that you can share with us?  

I’m thinking about our closing retreat, and at that point in the program the fellows were empowered to plan and facilitate almost all of the retreat, which was so empowering and special. Dylan [Kaufman-Obstler] and Henry [Neuwirth], two of the fellows in my cohort, led a closing ritual that took us through the story of our year together, in conjunction with the story of each of our lives, and the story of the seasons. It was a very powerful and creative ritual that was home-grown out of our group. When we finished, we all spontaneously gathered in this tight little circle and sang one of our group’s favorite songs to sing. I remember it starting slow and building and building until we were practically jumping up and down wailing, some people laughing raucously, some people shedding tears, and I just found that group ritual to be such a good descriptor of how open our hearts were to learning but also to each other during that year. It was such a sacred moment. I remember that really strongly.





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What Happened When I Went On Sabbatical

After ten years as Executive Director of JOIN for Justice and twenty-five years in the work world without a break, I had the rare opportunity to have a sabbatical last year.

When I tell most people about having had a sabbatical, they don’t know what to make of it. They imagine the academic model – did you write a book? they ask. (While having written a book is something I’d like to have said I’ve done in this life, I’m not sure I actually want to spend any time writing it. But I digress.) This sabbatical wasn’t like that. It was paid, it was three months and I didn’t have any “work” required for it. Basically, after daydreaming about the idea for three years, I finally went to the board and said “I’ve been working really hard for a decade plus, while raising a family and dealing with an illness and now my house has burnt down (true story, but I digress again). I need to build up some reserves to do my best work going forward.” They said, without stopping a beat, let’s make it happen. I was fully supported to make the dream happen, and for that, I am forever grateful.

The word sabbatical comes from the word sabbath, and most plainly means “a break”. It is related to the shmita, a rest from the harvest. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein points out that the full mitzvah of shabbat in the Torah is “six days you should work and the seventh you should rest.” Work and rest are inextricably linked in the mitzvah. For twenty plus years I had been harvesting – a family, a leadership development organization, a Jewish social justice field. Truth be told, I was burnt out, even if I didn’t see it back then. But I had enough perspective to know this: my fields needed a rest.

After a ton of research and organizational planning to make it happen well (see my other yet to be written article on how to get a sabbatical) I had arrived at the time in my calendar which had more white space than it ever had before. I’d spent my life getting good at juggling too much and marking my success by checking off item by item, so I started my sabbatical armed with my productivity skills in one hand, and a list of all the things I had the “time” to do in the other. There was a lot, including the “meaningful” (go on a solo silent retreat, visit long lost friends), the regular (take the kids to and from school, make dinners) and not urgent/not important (organize all those cell phone photos into something).

I needed a plan to make it all happen, and I know how to make a plan! But instead of feeling excited by the free time and opportunities, I looked at said list day after day, and arbitrarily completed some items, but mostly didn’t and then felt guilty. Somehow, I again had too much to do in too little time. I felt no compulsion to start that list. I was extremely disoriented. How can “rest” also feel so stressful? I’m doing something wrong.

After a few weeks of the uncomfortable yet familiar feeling of anxiousness, I surprised myself. Instead of forcing myself to “make the most of the time” and “being productive” I put the whole damn thing down. The list. For the first time in my adult life, I just lived in the moment.

It was a strange thing, and a lot emerged that I couldn’t have planned. It was like trying on a new style of clothing; a lot of “huh” and “why not?” I started meditating on a whim, and found I loved it. I embraced a new therapist (not literally). I began walking a lot because I was gifted a fitbit. I spent time with friends and family by encouraging them to visit when they could be in town. I read or listened to books that crossed my path, and joined a book club when asked. I binged on Glow and loved it.

And then things started to change in ways I hadn’t planned. Most notably, my inner world shifted. I stopped thinking that the only thing that mattered was how much I could accomplish, and started questioning the whole paradigm of productivity as a value. I realized I was listening to my kids in a different, more patient way. I stopped the constant telling myself how hard it was to balance everything and started being grateful about all the opportunities my life had provided me. A window opened that I hadn’t even realized had closed and air flowed in. The opportunities of my future life, and of my work, again felt endless, even if I didn’t take them. I could make little changes. In fact, I could be different. Hope, as a real feeling, returned. I stopped counting down to the end of my sabbatical and rather, started thinking about how I would live differently after the sabbatical. Not what I would do, but who I wanted to be.

The sabbatical came to an end quickly, but not as quickly as I feared when I took it. I looked back at my original to do list, and found I had actually done more than I thought I had. But I let life pull me along instead of pushing myself. And it took me exactly where I needed to go. I don’t understand why this happened, and I don’t have tips for you about how others can make it happen. The only part I think I learned firsthand is the magic of fallow ground. New things grow when given space. Planned then unplanned, intended yet not labored on, the sabbatical worked. I saw again with new eyes. I had breathed and been refreshed.

And now, six months later, I am proud to formally announce that luckily for me, I returned to a community of others embracing a new path. JOIN for Justice itself, is also going through a period of deep breath and renewal. Our new strategic plan began with 2019, and it marks a shift in our own understanding of who we truly are and who we want to become. Following a 9 month period engaging 100+ members of our community of leaders, funders, and partners, we created a plan that strives to live out our values. Our new mission is to build a powerful field of Jewish leaders capable of effectively organizing for justice, both inside and outside Jewish communities in the US. We organize because, in the words of Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free”—our destinies are bound up as one.

One plank of our strategic plan demonstrates that JOIN has been on a similar voyage of discovery as I have. Slowing down to develop a strategic plan, we were able to listen to our colleagues who have cautioned us that leaders will be much more equipped to transform the world if they also are transformed themselves. They’ve told us something we already knew – that if leaders organize great victories for justice, but then burn out and fall apart, they won’t be able to defend those victories, much less bring vitality to their communities and move on to further struggles. While we already knew that, though, it was hard for us to figure out how to incorporate it into our training. Everything felt – and was – so urgent; in the couple last years especially, but, truly, always. Just as I did, JOIN has let itself be pulled, and has learned how important it is that we incorporate into our work further training to support Jewish leaders to dig into Jewish wisdom to learn how to be resilient and stay in the work – and be fed by the work – over time. If more of our leaders can learn these habits of self-care that took me 25 years to grasp, the time we took to do it will render us even more powerful, even more a force to be reckoned with.

We will be sharing more in the months to come. There will be many opportunities to lead, to connect, to learn. Please reach out if you’d like to be more involved. New things are indeed growing.

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Apply to Become a Placement Organization

JOIN is currently seeking dynamic social justice organizations to partner with us by hosting a Jewish Organizing Fellow in the 2019-2020 academic year. Past and current partners include unions, issue-based organizations, Community Development Corporations, neighborhood organizations, and broad-based or interfaith organizations.

Deadline to apply to be a Placement Organization is April 8, 2019.

This year, we have two exciting new opportunities for prospective Placement organizations:

  1. This year we are launching the Empower Fellowship, a new track within the Jewish Organizing Fellowship for Jews with disabilities and their employers. In addition to the general fellowship programming, they will also participate in trainings to support their leadership as Jewish organizers with disabilities. Empower Fellows’ placements may include organizations both within and beyond the disability community.
  2. We also have more funding available this year to support Placements in hiring fellows, ranging from $1,000-20,000, to make the opportunity to host a fellow more accessible to organizations. You can learn more about the funding here and in the application.  

Why host a Jewish Organizing Fellow? The Rev. Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs at St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, has partnered with JOIN for Justice for 9 years and counting, hiring Jewish Organizing Fellows and alumni as community organizers. Hear about her experience working with JOIN Organizing Fellows in the video above.

If you may be hiring for a position that uses community organizing skills in the next 6 or so months, this partnership can support you in identifying and developing talented leaders for your organization. Please be in touch with Tali Smookler if you are interested in exploring this opportunity further. You can reach her by email at or at 617-350-9994 ext. 203, and learn more here.

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Strong Leadership and Courageous Action

Simon Greer discussing what he learned from an experiment in dialogue across difference.

When the phone began to ring off the hook after the November 2016 election with calls from rabbis and cantors, trained by JOIN, looking to strategize, it became evident that our rabbinic and cantorial alumni would need particular and different types of support and training to help them organize and lead in this political moment.  This month, we held our first clergy gathering since 2012, designed to address the particular questions that our alumni said they needed the most help grappling with.

Rabbis David Jaffe and Noah Farkas

Over 60 rabbis and cantors from around the country came together to learn from leading trainers and thinkers as they asked questions such as: How do we understand, and teach our members about anti-semitism, white nationalism, and white supremacy?; How do we navigate the current tension between Jewish and other communities, and within our own community, over issues such as the Women’s March?; What can white clergy learn from working respectfully with Jews of Color and non-Jewish clergy of color?; In politically diverse synagogues, how do I challenge those ready to organize for justice while still engaging and respecting those who disagree?; What can happen – for ourselves and the country – if Jews engage with other communities who disagree with us politically?; How will our theology of organizing shift in this moment?; and, how do we sustain our own leadership and nurture our souls while doing this vital work?

Eric Ward presenting on anti-semitism in white nationalism and movement spaces.

Eric Ward, author of “Skin in the Game,” presented on anti-semitism in white nationalism and movement spaces, and challenged rabbis and cantors to not shrink from engaging it publicly.  April Baskin of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable delivered an eye-opening presentation on how to close the widening gap between Jews of Color and white Jewish leadership. She offered us a set of tools to help clergy interpret how different people react to varying degrees of oppression and how to navigate one’s way through them.

April Baskin breaking down her oppression hypothesis.

Tru’ah’s Rabbi Jill Jacobs spoke to the question of clergy having a clear, moral voice in times of political turmoil.  She said we should rely on our own personal insight when crafting our own moral voices. Rabbi David Jaffe honed in on the use of Mussar, and other spiritual technologies, such as spontaneous prayer, visualization, and meditations that can be used to cope in times of crisis and spiritual struggle.

Additional speakers included Megan Black and Rabbi Amy Eilberg of Faith in Action; Simon Greer, a thought leader on common good politics and founder of Cambridge Health Ventures; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, founder of the Social Justice Organizing program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; Rabbi Shuli Passow, Director of Community Engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City; and members of our current Clergy Fellowship program and other alumni of JOIN’s training.

We were able to capture some brilliant reflections from the attendees, and we’ve compiled them below in this playlist. Check it out. 

  1. Rabbi Joel Abraham
  2. Rabbi Aaron Alexander
  3. Rabbi Elan Babchuck
  4. Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein
  5. Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz
  6. Rabbi Aderet Drucker
  7. Rabbi Corey Helfand
  8. Rabbi Lauren Henderson
  9. Rabbi Esther Lederman
  10. Rabbi Joseph Robinson
  11. Rabbi Elliot Tepperman


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When Two Fellows Come Together, A National Campaign Emerges

JOIN Fellows Bar and Carly share how they collaborated together on a deportation defense that became a national campaign.

Bar: I met Carly during match day for JOIN when we sat at the same table waiting anxiously to interview with different organizations. The first group I interviewed with was Episcopal City Mission, an organization that builds power for racial and economic justice by bridging faith communities and grassroots movements. The last group of the day was St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, an organization that promotes equity in Boston through long-term relationships with young people and their families. Carly ended up at ECM and me at SSYP.

We took walks and talked together about the different kinds of work we were doing and making connections between it. It was during the mid-year retreat for our JOIN fellowship that we had an opportunity to work together, facilitating an afternoon activity for Shabbat exploring different modes of resonance and storytelling. It was a breakthrough in our cohort. What made it so powerful was the trust the two of us built both through the walks we took and the work we did to plan the session. I trusted Carly to hold her role, and she trusted me.

A week after the mid-year retreat, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center put out a call for a national day of action to #FreeEduardo. Eduardo Samaniego is a national immigrant rights organizer and a student leader in western Massachusetts who was arrested in Georgia after forgetting his wallet and being unable to pay a taxi fare. He was transferred to ICE detention and spent three weeks in solitary confinement due to his identity as an activist.

Eduardo is also a friend from Hampshire College who I met during my first semester of school when we were in the same tutorial (a class where the professor serves as an advisor to all the students and where our advisor ordered us the good pizza). He is an incredible leader who has organized and spoken at rallies, marches and all sorts of events— first for the Dreamers movement and later for the permanent protection of all immigrants living in the United States.  

Carly: Bar called me on Monday morning as soon as she saw the national call to action. She asked me for ECM’s support in organizing the Boston solidarity actions for Eduardo. We had to organize a petition delivery and a vigil for Wednesday.

Bar and I sprung into action, connecting with the national organizers at Pioneer Valley Workers Center and local Episcopal leaders through ECM’s network to host an interfaith vigil at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the Boston Common, as Eduardo awaited a decision on whether he would be offered bond or ordered deported. The vigil at St. Paul’s was one of over twenty solidarity actions across the country, from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Washington, DC. (Media coverage: Boston Globe)

Pioneer Valley Workers Center led the national campaign to #FreeEduardo with incredible love. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for them and watch them model community care — defending Eduardo as well as two community members in Sanctuary — alongside structure-based worker organizing. In our JOIN trainings, we studied the concept of “Movement Ecology” that comes out of the Ayni Institute in East Boston; this is the idea that there are multiple theories of change that need to operate together for the health of a movement. Bar modeled this approach, and I feel transformed by the experience of generating urgent response to a friend and movement leader’s deportation while holding a larger commitment to abolishing ICE and prisons.

On February 1, Eduardo was deported to Mexico after being forced to agree to a “voluntary departure” order by Immigration Judge William A. Cassidy on January 25. In a letter written prior to his release, Eduardo wrote:

“My dreams and hopes – that took years to form fighting in the streets for universal healthcare, access to education, and amnesty for all immigrants – are still inside and they burn with a passion.”

May we continue to tell Eduardo’s story and amplify the voices of undocumented leaders as we work to end mass incarceration and the targeting of immigrants, especially immigrants of color, by all levels of our government.


To support Eduardo and his family, please continue to share his story and donate to his emergency fund at If you would like to be involved in immigrant justice accompaniment or advocacy in the Boston area, contact

Speak up about the human rights violations at Irwin County Detention Center, where Eduardo was detained, and other private prisons. (Media coverage: Rolling Stone)

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