Siyyum Graduation 2017: When We Rise Up

On June 26th, more than 170 people gathered to celebrate with the 14 Fellows at JOIN for Justice’s Siyyum Graduation.  The evening was an incredible gathering to support our graduating 2017 Jewish Organizing Fellows.

(Pictured above: The graduating fellows leading a song)

“We are still chasing that world together. … we want to invite you all to journey ahead with us, because we know this road needs every one of us. It is not an easy journey, nor a particularly glamorous one. Instead, it is one to which we must commit in every moment, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we go out and when we return.”

~except from our Siyyum Program book

It was an evening of inspiration and love, and one which demonstrated how this graduating class has risen up together through their work this year. And as the crowd listened to their stories, they demonstrated that there is a community standing behind these powerful young leaders as they work for justice in Boston and beyond.

If you weren’t able to join us at Siyyum, you can watch their stories below and get a taste of their experiences as Jewish Organizing Fellows. Prepare to be moved, inspired, fired up, hopeful…and most of all ready to join them in transforming the world as it is into the world as it should be.














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L’dor Vador (From Generation to Generation)

This past fall, we had three special participants in our online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! These participants are parents of current fellows in our Jewish Organizing Fellowship Program. This meant the while our Fellows were beginning their journeys with JOIN to become the best organizers they can be, their parents were learning alongside them through our online course. In honor of Mother’s Day a few weeks ago, and Father’s Day coming up, we want to share the beautiful stories and reflections of the parents experiences taking the online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! and how their justice work and relationships were strengthened because of it.

Hersch and Michael Rothmel

Hersch (Fellow): From a very young age, my dad taught me to always question authority and to never accept the status quo. Without realizing it, he was raising me to become an organizer. I don’t think we’ve had a conversation without it turning political in well over five years. However, he always regretted not taking on more systemic political work outside of practicing law. The Don’t Kvetch, Organize! course had really lit a fire in my dad’s belly. He was always telling me how he carved out time in the morning to complete his assignments. I’ve always enjoyed talking with my dad about my organizing work, but now that he’s taken the course there is more dimensionality to our conversations. We are both drawing on what we’ve learned to help each other navigate organizing, and develop ourselves as organizers.

Michael (Hersch’s Father):I am so proud of how my son is doing as a JOIN fellow. He is staying true to his principles in every single respect. Not many people have the opportunity to engage in a job they love that allows them to practice their political beliefs and make a difference. Every day I see him grow. He inspired me to take the JOIN course; Don’t Kvetch, Organize! 

I am planning to apply the skills I learned in the online course to help organize the Democratic party in Burlington County and make it more progressive and active. I believe this is important because our representative is Tom MacArthur who was one of 9 Republicans who voted against the repeal of ACA. I hope I can devote the same energy to my organizing as Hersch does to his.

Miles and Marcel Meth

Miles (Fellow): As I have come to political awareness in the past few years, it’s been wonderful to have more conversations with my parents about the world. I’ve found myself broaching topics that we never previously had: race and racism, capitalism and alternative economic systems, and more. Increasingly, I felt my dad and I had many similar views, but he didn’t always have the same language that I did or experience in the organizing world. I recommended Don’t Kvetch, Organize! and he was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to learn about how to really affect social change. It’s been beautiful to see him engaging in politics more than ever, especially in these important and volatile times.

Marcel (Miles’ Father): Although I think of myself as being a liberal and having strong opinions about making the world a better place, I have felt that I have done little to change the world. My biggest contribution has been, together with my wife, to raise three well-adjusted children who are all committed to making the world a better place and whose opinions and actions I respect, value, and support. My 22 year old son, Miles, is the youngest and active at a grassroots level.

Miles suggested that I take the JOIN class Don’t Kvetch, Organize!. The title seemed perfect for the change in my life that I have been looking for. Organizing is definitely outside my comfort zone. I am a mathematician by training, so I like clean problems: Problems that can be easily stated and that have elegant solutions. The types of issues that we need to tackle in order to improve the world are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The problems themselves consist of a web of complex issues and the solutions are not straightforward. The solutions involve collaborating with a group of people and persuading a much larger audience to participate and become active. Often the solutions seem to defy logic and ignore facts. The tactics for problem solving in this space revolve around storytelling and the strategies require visionaries. Furthermore, no matter what the solutions are, there will be parts of the solution that seem to be antithetical with the final goal as well as the prejudices that have been ingrained in me about what it means to be a good person.

The class Don’t Kvetch, Organize! was a good first step for me. I think that before I become good at organizing, I will need to get some practice as an apprentice. Miles is doing a good job in teaching me some useful skills. I started to take the course before the Clinton/Trump election. I felt quite frustrated that I did not persuade a single person to change their vote. I feel that there is a lot of work ahead, and that I have a lot to learn.

Rachel and Elana Leiken

Rachel (Fellow): One night leading up to the election, I was talking to my mom on the phone about whatever stories happened to be in the news that day. She told me that she was feeling so sad about everything that was going on—especially the vitriol and hate of political discourse—but that she didn’t know what to do and was looking for some way to educate herself on language and strategies of today’s justice movements. In response, I suggested she take Don’t Kvetch, Organize course (which I had taken in the Fall of 2015), and she did! It was great to have conversations about organizing together—we talked about a lot of components of the course, shared thoughts on some of our favorite videos, and discussed important issues like what it means to prioritize certain identities and voices without tokenizing individuals. I’m really proud of the project my mom is developing as a result of the class (see below)—she has been a teacher at her school for 22 years (since I’ve been born!) and a union representative for 10, and the work she is doing is an example of the powerful transformative work you can do when you’re really embedded in, understand, and love a community. I feel so proud to have a mom who pushes herself to learn about justice work through new modes, and lucky that I have a mom who I can learn from and with in my organizing work.

Elana (Rachel’s Mother): During the course of the class, one of the staff members at my school was diagnosed with cancer. As I started to think about it, I realized that we have had an unusual amount of staff members diagnosed with cancer at our school and needed to take action. In the past I would have done this on my own, but drawing on the lessons I learned in Don’t Kvetch, Organize!, I knew the project would be enriched by input from the entire staff. What really surprised me when we all got together to formulate a plan was how everyone stepped up to help and how we were able to create a comprehensive plan of action so quickly and efficiently. We have teams scheduling meals, testing the water and soil, and meeting with our union and our district to see if we can find a cause. It felt wonderful to not have to shoulder the entire burden and I know we will be more effective together.

On a personal level, I feel such a pride in the work Rachel is doing. It’s not the kind of pride you feel as a parent when your child accomplishes something at school (although that’s nice too) but a deep, deep pride that comes from knowing that your child is helping to make the world a better place. And, she has helped make me a better person too!


BONUS: ** Looking for another sweet family organizing story? Check out this post from last year!


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The Pledge

Micha Thau is a senior at the Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, and is a gay orthodox Jewish teen. Through his internship at Eshel, an organization which works to create community and acceptance for LGBTQ Jews and their families in Orthodox communities, he took JOIN’s online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! Upon completion of this course, he decided to create “The Pledge” which includes a series of promises Jewish high schools can take to protect gay and lesbian students. The Pledge was released during the past High Holidays in Fall 2016.

Why do you feel passionate about LGBTQ issues in an orthodox context?

I acted on this cause, of advocating for the rights of LGBTQ orthodox Jews, because of my experience coming up in my Jewish orthodox high school. It was torturous to be in the closet, to not know that if I came out I would be accepted at my school. I was so worried. When I finally took the leap, I saw that my school was in fact supportive. I thought, “Why should I have had to go through all that torture if I could have been happy my entire high school career?” It was not fair that I had to question whether I would be accepted, and I have become passionate about making it so others don’t have to go through what I went through. No one deserves to be in fear that their school won’t accept them, because coming out isn’t about your school or shul – it’s about finding yourself and finding a part of your identity. By creating The Pledge, a series of promises that Jewish schools can sign in order to create a protected environment for all students, I’m trying to prevent others from going through the fear that I went through.

How did you get started on this project?

Last year, a teacher recommended that I get in touch with Rabbi Steve Greenberg at Eshel, an organization which works to create community and acceptance for LGBTQ Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. I ended up working for them as an intern starting in the winter of 2015. They told me I should take JOIN’s online course in spring 2016 to learn how to organize, and then I could create my own initiative to better the Jewish orthodox world.

After taking Don’t Kvetch, Organize!, and through my internship at Eshel, I decided that my summer project would be to create a pledge for orthodox schools to sign to be public about their acceptance of gay and lesbian students. Last July (2016), I approached the school administration to share that while I felt accepted, I would have come out earlier if I had known how the school felt about this issue. I told them I was going to create this pledge, and asked if they would be open to signing it.

Instead of just saying yes, they said that they wanted to partner with me, and it ended up being incredible working with Rabbi Ari Segal (the head of school) and Noam Weissman (the principal). We worked with Eshel, who has experience navigating the difficult world of policy, donors, and religion when working on LGBTQ rights in the orthodox world. Together we came up with the six points of the pledge, points that would make students comfortable without pushing religious lines, since we want this to be something that orthodox schools would be comfortable signing on to. And we are clear that if a school isn’t comfortable with the whole thing, they can adopt a modified version. Even if it’s just one thing, it can ease the anxiety of students. We want this to support students in feeling comfortable in their identity, and prevent them from being subjected to fear.

Were these key lessons about organizing from Don’t Kvetch, Organize! that supported you work on this project?

The course provided a lot of context about how to best approach an initiative that can seem controversial, and provided tools to tackle difficult problems. It gave me an education about how to advance this cause.

A big lesson was about relationships – how important they are (especially with people in power), and that it’s important to work with others even if we aren’t 100% on the same page, and even if we have to compromise.

Was there a moment that felt particularly powerful during this work?

What felt most powerful for me was when the article that I wrote was published in the Jewish Journal. It generated a lot of comments and really humanized the issue for a lot of people. The greatest and most rewarding aspect was people coming up to me saying I have a gay son, or lesbian daughter, and sharing how appreciative and happy they were that I had brought this to their attention. Some people shared that they didn’t understand this issue before, but now they did. I received so much empathy and support, and was happy I could contribute to the orthodox community in this way.

Where’s the project now, and where do you hope it will go?

We worked on The Pledge over the summer, and went public this past fall (2016). Currently my school is the only one that has signed on, but we are preparing to do a bigger outreach effort in the next couple of months.

What would be most successful is if we got orthodox schools nation-wide to sign this, like 20-30 schools. I think that the future of the Jewish community is kids, children, people like me, not the people making decisions right now. I see this as a stepping stone for making change in the future.

How have you grown during this process?

By being an advocate and ally, I’ve come to find myself and to become more comfortable with my sexuality – the way I feel about being a gay Jew has entirely changed as I’ve become more active. When I’m fighting for myself and others on the assumption that everyone is equal, I realized in that process that I should see myself as equal.

You can read Micha’s article in the Jewish Journal here, and access The Pledge here

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This is how we’re going to win

This piece was written by Ariel Branz, alumni of ourJewish Organizing Fellowship, class of 2016.

I’m reaching out today as a JOIN Fellowship alumna to tell you a story about why I want you to join me in supporting JOIN’s year-end fundraising campaign today. 

At what was my JOIN placement and continues to be my current job, I organize mostly Spanish-speaking parents of color at an after school program run by St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, a non-denominational program run out of Episcopal churches. Throughout my fellowship last year, other fellows, trainers, and staff stood alongside me as I learned how to be a better organizer. But after Siyyum Graduation in May, I wondered: now what?

Then, something special starting happening. Our broader community showed up.

First, it was Shira, who coached me on an upcoming meeting plan. The meeting went so well that the parents unanimously committed to work on the state-wide No On 2 campaign to keep funding in their kids’ schools.

With the campaign in full gear, Liz joined the parents at a weekly Spanish phone bank. Lily, Batya, and Sarah cheered alongside the parents at a rally in Dorchester. Hannah took two days from her jam-packed job to help get out the vote.   All of these people were members of the broader JOIN community, current Fellows, alumni of my class, and alumni of other classes too!

The parents of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs were the strongest, largest, and most effective group of Spanish-speaking parent leaders in the whole state!

In the end, we won No On 2, and we won with heart. Before I even got home on election night, parents were calling: “We won! Can you believe we did it? If we can do this, just think about what else we can do!” I felt so proud of this community of parent organizers.

After it was over and we had celebrated our win, one of the parent leaders and I wiped sticky sparkling cider from the tables in the church basement. She looked at me and said, “Ariel, I noticed your community showed up here, too. You have a really special Jewish community, don’t you?”

I do. We do.

JOIN helps us forge the relationships that keep us learning and growing. And then, we keep showing up for each other. In the weeks since the election, when the fight ahead feels daunting, I keep thinking: This is how we’re going to win. We, as a Jewish community, will show up together in the struggle for racial justice. We will stand together in the fight for immigrant justice. And when we have to push for educational justice or economic reforms?  JOIN will be there organizing alongside leaders on the front lines of these struggles-and winning.

JOIN is here to back us up on all these fronts, but they need all of us to back them up. I am ready to support JOIN. Will you join me by making a end-of-year gift? 

This year, let’s show JOIN we know what it means to stand together.




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Powerful Stories of Change-Makers

On October 20th, JOIN hosted “Celebrating Change-Makers,” an event in NYC featuring incredible JOIN leaders who have utilized what they learned from JOIN training to make change in their communities.  We had 55 people join us to celebrate Sukkot and listen to powerful stories from Rabbi Adam Baldachin, Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, and David Schwartz about what it takes to make change.

Karla Van Praag, JOIN’s Executive Director, began the evening sharing that “JOIN teaches the skills of organizing and builds supportive communities that shelter us as the sukkah does.  From the sukkah, we can still feel the danger of outside, but, we can find skills and the courage to keep going on our journey to change the world.”

She continued, “JOIN for Justice does two things to gird people for that journey to change the world – first, we teach organizing skills to leaders. Most simply, organizing brings people together who identify as a community, together name a common goal, and then act collectively to achieve it. That is how change happens. The second thing JOIN does is help these leaders muster the courage to take the risks inherent in changing the status quo. The world as it is is too vast for anyone to successfully take on alone – you need mentors and a community to support you.”

Below are the three inspiring stories from leaders about their experiences utilizing the skills of community organizing to create change in their communities.

Rabbi Adam Baldachin: Rabbi Adam Baldachin is the rabbi at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, NY. He was previously the rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center in Rockland County, NY. He has been a leader in the fight for education justice in East Ramapo.


David Schwartz: David Schwartz is the Co-Founder and Campaign Director of Real Food Challenge, a national student movement to create a more healthy, just and sustainable food system. David was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 under 30” for Social Entrepreneurship in 2013.

Rabbi Stephanie Kolin: Rabbi Stephanie Kolin is the Associate Rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City. Previously, she served as the Co-Director of the Union for Reform Judaism‘s Just Congregations and was founding lead organizer for Reform California.

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