“Let’s be bold”: A story of two JOIN trained leaders

Stephanie Blumenkranz is the Assistant Director at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY), and Julie Sissman is a member of JWFNY’s New York Metropolitan Grants and Advocacy Committees.  JWFNY imagines a world in which all women and girls have equal opportunity for economic, religious, social, and political achievement. As part of their efforts, JWFNY recently adopted a policy stating they will only accept grant applications from organizations with paid parental leave policies that offer their employees at least four weeks of paid parental leave at full salary. They are the first foundation in the Jewish and secular communities to establish a criterion of this type.

Stephanie and Julie are alumni of JOIN’s Don’t Kvetch, Organize! online course in community organizing, which they both took in the Fall of 2015. We had the opportunity to hear from them about this policy and their experience in the course.

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(Pictured above: Julie Sissman (left) and Stephanie Blumenkanz (right).)

Why is paid parental leave such an important issue to you personally?

Julie: I have two kids, and my time at home with them was incredibly important to me. I happen to work for a company that paid me for my maternity leave for longer than four weeks.  Those first four weeks are an incredibly important time for parents, and it can be a real burden to manage if you’re not being paid for it.

Why did you want to take the course?

Stephanie: I oversee the foundation’s advocacy initiatives. We sit on many different coalitions, and are an active voice in the field promoting better family policies in the workplace. But in terms of actions, we were looking for a way to step it up, and I thought this course would be a great way to learn more about how to do that.

Why did you decide as an organization to work on adopting this policy to only accept applications from organizations that have paid parental leave?

Stephanie: We had been advocates for paid parental leaves for many years. Parents in positions that pay more can usually afford to take time off; it’s parents who are poorer who can’t, and who have to come back to work just two weeks after becoming parents. We wanted organizations to have these policies in place for all employees so everyone, and not just more senior people in their organizations, could be afforded the benefit of parental leave.

In 2010, we started asking organizations that applied for grants about their paid parental leave and flexible schedule policies, but we did not eliminate based on these criteria. This past year it frustrated some of our donors that we could fund groups that are national leaders in creating better family policies in the workplace, yet did not have strong policies for their own employees. We realized that funding an organization that didn’t have these polices in place went against so much of what we were doing.

Julie:  So I emailed Stephanie, saying: “I think we should be bold. Let’s not just talk around it, let’s be bold. Let’s put a stake in the ground and say we think this is really important, so important that we won’t give you a grant unless you have a policy.”  If we’re serious about our mission, we should be bold around parental leave.

Stephanie: That’s what really got this conversation off the ground.  Then it was the Chair of the Advocacy Committee, Avra Gordis, whose leadership skills helped bring the policy to fruition.

(Pictured: Members of JWFNY with Bev Neufeld from PowHer NY, an organization working to create economic equality for women in NY.)

Can you give an example of how the course supported this work?

Julie: The course helped me understand key organizing precepts – such as how to think strategically about who are the key people and influencers needed to make change happen. Having that framework supported how we thought about getting this project off the ground.

Stephanie: When we brought this issue to the Advocacy Committee, this is where tactics I learned in Don’t Kvetch, Organize! really took hold. Out of everything I learned in that course, there were a few things that stuck out the most. One is that the power and passion of a campaign or effort have to come from the people who are doing the organizing, not the person leading. Going into this meeting with the committee, I purposely had donors be active in leading the conversation. This is because I learned that what someone says is only half of it; the other half is who is the one saying it, and who has the relationships. For the committee to hear from someone in a similar seat as them – one of our donors – that really made a difference.

Why should someone take JOIN’s online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize?

Stephanie: The course makes you rethink what you’re doing. By hearing what people have done and learning from their experience, the course really forces you think about your own work. Anyone – both newer and seasoned organizers – could gain knowledge and understanding form that course.

I realized through the course how much more change I could create by enabling and providing space for others to lead and become change-makers. These ideas about enabling others to act really hit home during the week of the course that we learned about campaigns. That week I was pushed to think deeply about how to create social change, and how important it is to build power and develop leadership with the people I am working with.

What was it like to take the course with someone else who worked with you in your organization?

Stephanie: It was great! We would check in on each other, ask each other what the other’s thoughts were on such and such. It was really helpful to have people to bounce ideas off of. The course is intense and it made such a positive difference to have someone take it with me to talk to them about what we were learning, and to be able to continue that conversation even after the course has ended.

JOIN for Justice would like to thank the JWFNY for being a supporter of our online course.


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Like Daughter, Like Mother

Stephanie Kogan, mother of Elana Kogan, took JOIN’s online course, Don’t Kvetch, Organize! in Spring 2016. Elana Kogan is a long-time organizer and creator of the online course. We interviewed Stephanie to learn more about her experience in the course, how it has impacted the work she is doing, and to explore the special experience of taking this course as the parent of an organizer. She is involved with a variety of volunteer organizations and the Cincinnati Jewish community.

elana and mom right size
(Pictured above: On the left, Stephanie Kogan, with daughter Elana Kogan on the right)

Why did you want to take Don’t Kvetch, Organize!?

I belong to a group called Delta Psi, which is part of an international education society for women. I was treasurer for nearly a decade.When the president passed away while in office, there was no one else to fill the position; so I stepped up. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that everything was being done by the president. I couldn’t get anyone to take even the smallest of jobs, not even a simple job like buying snacks. I recognized that I had to work on building leadership in the organization.  I knew that a strong skill and foundation for community organizers is building and developing leadership in those that they work with. I realized it was time for me to learn those skills and how to build up the leadership in our group.

Can you share a story or two about how you have applied what you learned in the course to your work?

First story:

After learning about the concept of relational conversations in Don’t Kvetch, I decided to try it with a few people in my chapter as a way to meet immediate leadership needs. It was ABSOLUTELY amazing. My whole approach and outlook changed – instead of talking about our organization’s needs, I talked with members about their interests and what they wanted to get out of volunteering for the organization. Lo and behold, I was immediately able to fill four leadership positions I had struggled with for so long. I’m not talking about easy jobs like getting the snacks – I’m talking about multiple-hour jobs. I was successful simply because I applied the skills I learned in the course: talking with the volunteers about their interests, sharing our stories and experiences, and then suggesting how the proposed positions would help them meet their own goals. I was flabbergasted by how effective this approach was.

I saw how, by changing my own attitude and outlook, I was also much more excited about my role as president—and way more effective!  Now I’m actually enjoying being president!

*BONUS: Check out this very excited voicemail Stephanie left her daughter Elana about the day she filled one of those leadership roles mentioned above.*

Second story:

The course also helped me reflect on failed organizing efforts in the past. When I was a teacher, I was very active in the teachers’ association at our Jewish day school. The administration and board worked closely with our association, and it was a true collaborative effort. Then, after more than twenty years, a new principal and new board changed the way the school was run.  Not recognizing the value of our teachers’ association that had enabled the school to run so effectively, they made many changes without our knowledge or input. We, the teachers, fought these changes, but were completely unsuccessful.

Because of this course, I have a better understanding of why we were unsuccessful, which is important so that moving forward I won’t make the same mistakes. At the time, we arranged to have teachers speak up at every board meeting and wrote out responses to the changes.  However, we didn’t organize for success; we didn’t focus on targeting people who could have made a difference. For example, we didn’t contact our former school principal and ask her to write a letter on our behalf.  We didn’t compile and publicize stories that showed how the cooperative approach had benefited the school.  We didn’t enlist the help of former board members or major financial contributors to the school.  I learned from the course that you have to look for others who may be in a better position than you are to influence the people in power.  Unfortunately, by not being successful in our efforts, within five years, the school’s student population fell by 75% and many of the best teachers had left.

This course was a real eye-opener to the power that the community organizing can offer. It’s easy to think that these things are intuitive, but they are not. It’s a learned process and a different way of thinking.


Teddy Bear Tea right size
(Pictured above: Delta Psi make tea for residents of an Alzheimer’s unit  for their Mothers’ Day Teddy Bear Tea event.)

What is one takeaway for you from the course?

It was a very inspirational course. It motivates you to do something, not just to make a statement. Now I know the difference. When I look at some of the things I’m doing, I see that I’m making a statement, not a difference. While I know that what I am doing is important, I also want to make a difference.

I now look at things differently when others ask me to do something. Recently, I was contacted by an interfaith group that is going to meet in a major public square in Cincinnati and read poems about peace during the noon hour. I asked “What’s the plan for after this event?” I was told, “Well, it’s just to show our support for peace…” Basically, there was no plan for after the event.

I thought to myself that this event is just a statement.  I learned from this course that to make it more than a statement, we need to plan for how to use the strength of the rally and how to capture the people’s energy and enthusiasm for action afterwards. If we just stand around and read about peace, that will be nice, but it will not make a difference. The course taught me to think this way, through the lens of an organizer.

What was special about taking this course as a parent?

As a parent, I really understand so much better what my daughter is doing and why she is so committed to organizing. I also think I understand my daughter much better. I have always been very proud of her, but it’s at a different level because of my new appreciation for what it takes to be an organizer. I have great respect for what she does and hopes to accomplish in society. It’s really more than pride; it’s a deep, deep respect. I have a better understanding of what it is that she’s doing, the difference that she’s making, and why she is so passionate about it. Seeing her do this work really makes me, as a parent, feel like what I have taught my kids really sank in. It’s such a positive feeling as a parent –  to see that those values really came through.  Now I get to take what she has built to help me further the things that I am trying to accomplish in my own life.

What would you say to someone considering taking the course?

You will learn skills that will enable you to organize and accomplish whatever it is you want to do—social justice work or volunteer work, etc. The skills are adaptable to so many different situations. We can apply these skills today, reflect on how we should have used them in past, and plan for how use to them in the future.

I want to share how exciting it was when I applied what I had learned, and it turned out to be so successful. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but it did. And it was like, “Wow this really works!” It was exciting, that’s the only way to put it. I got it and I can use it.





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Marching With My Rabbi for #BlackLivesMatter

This piece by Helene Cohen Bludman was originally published in Lilith.  Helene is a congregant of Rabbi Beth Kalisch who works at Beth David Reform Congregation of Gladwyne, PA. Rabbi Kalisch is both an alum of JOIN’s Seminary Leadership Project and our Clergy Fellowship.  

My daughter Laurie and I arrived at the designated meeting point and found a crowd of at least several hundred strong. About 30 members of my synagogue—Beth David in Gladwyne, PA—were there too. The mood was calm and friendly.

The march began and we fell into the sea of humanity walking as one: young and old, skin color of all hues, men in kippot walking alongside men in clerical collars, children on scooters, several people in wheelchairs. White people and black people holding signs with the same message.

“This is awesome,” I breathed to my daughter as we stepped along.

“It sure is,” said a voice next to me. The voice belonged to an African American woman walking with a friend.

I reached out my hand and she clasped it.

“My name is Helene, and this is my daughter Laurie,” I said.

She smiled. “My name is Whitney and this is my friend Tiffany.”

We walked on. Together.

Along the route were local police officers stationed to make sure everything was under control. It was.

“Wait a minute,” I said to my daughter. I broke out of the line and ran over to one of the officers. “Thank you for protecting us,” I told him.

He smiled. “I appreciate that. Thank you.”

I am a white woman of privilege, a Jewish woman who needs to understand more in order to make a difference.

What I see on the news and read in the newspaper and hear on the street are my only frames of reference.

I have not walked in the shoes of my black neighbors. But last week our shoes were pointed in the same direction.

Blessing Osazuwa, a recent high school graduate and pursuer of peace, organized the march to bring about understanding and solidarity in our community. In an emotional speech, she said, “We want our sons to know that they will not be a target when walking down the street. We want to be heard. Please do not silence us.”

She acknowledged several children standing in front. “Our young people need to see this [show of solidarity]. The next generation should know that we can take action. We don’t have to be silent.”

“Our old people need to see this!” yelled a silver-haired woman in the crowd.

Ms. Osazuwa smiled. And then, pointing to each child, she said, “If he’s not free …. If she’s not free …. If he’s not free … no one is free.” Thunderous applause erupted.

A woman in front of me turned around and whispered, “Do you have a kleenex?” I handed one to her.

As we walked back to the car, my daughter said she was glad we went. This is just the start, I thought.

My rabbi posted this on her Facebook wall last night:

“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
— Elie Wiesel z”tl

The march with my rabbi was one step, one tiny step but a step nonetheless, toward tikkun olam, repairing the world. May we all continue to march that path together.

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Siyyum Graduation Opening Remarks by Executive Director, Karla Van Praag

On June 20th, our ten 2015-2016 Jewish Organizing Fellows graduated at our annual Siyyum Graduation. Below is Karla Van Praag’s (Executive Director, JOIN for Justice) opening remarks. 


We are in the home stretch in a season of graduations. So, because imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m going to start today quoting a story from the recent speech of an incredible person, and one of my greatest mentors and teachers… my 12-year-old son, Zakkai, who graduated from 6th grade last week. Here it is:

“‘Difficult times often bring out the best in people,’ Bernie Sanders said. I’ve had many challenging times at my elementary school. One that I will surely remember is when we went to Thompson Island in 5th grade and I climbed the 62-foot Alpine Tower. I’m scared of heights, but I was encouraged to try it. I went onto the sculpture. I took a deep breath, and climbed the first 15 feet, the easiest. When I looked below, my heart leaped. ‘It feels so high up here! Can I come down?’ I screamed, shaking a bit.  ‘Already?’ I heard. ‘You’ve got this.’

So I kept going. Suddenly I looked to the ground. It was SO far up! ‘Please, I can’t!’
What I heard next wasn’t one voice. It was many. It was my friends, encouraging me to continue. I realized there was no use in giving up now. I had to keep going. After a deep breath, I did. My body was shaking the whole time. It took me way longer than everyone else, but with the help of my friends’ encouragement, I did it! I sat on top, smiling. It was such an amazing moment.

‘Difficult times often bring out the best in people,’ Bernie Sanders said. Although he is right, I think friends are even more important. Think about where you’d be today without your friends. I’d still be stuck halfway up a tower on Thompson Island!'”

Zakkai’s speech made me proud, not just because he overcame fear, employed the primary elements of story we teach in our training, and was the only one to mention politics. It moved me because he seemed to learn not just the importance of personal determination, but one of the lessons I depend upon daily, that his life is tightly connected to those around him in ways he cannot anticipate but ultimately needs to survive.

Zakkai also captured something that I want to talk some more about today – what it takes for people to come together in a common purpose, the way his friends did to urge him on. Of course, most of our society’s problems aren’t as straightforward as Zakkai’s, but there are important similarities. When there is a big challenge, there is often tremendous fear and doubt at one’s ability to impact it. There is the feeling of being alone and not knowing what to do. As Zakkai recognized, we can’t know what to do until we are not alone.

I have struggled with what to express publicly after Orlando. We have had conversations in the JOIN office whether we have anything meaningful to say on so many complex issues that isn’t already being said. Upon reflection I think what we may have to contribute as a group of organizers and community of people committed to creating a more just world, is not initially more words, but rather our ability to listen. Hard.

This takes tremendous control, patience, and skill. When we hear the loud bang of a gun, whether in Orlando, or Charleston, or Sandy Hook, we want to scream. We want our cry, our voices, to overwhelm and drown out the pain. We want to be heard.

But organizing and our Jewish traditions teach us not only to cry out, but also to listen.
God understood this before Moses did. When God called to Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moses protested “I have never been a man of words… I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” It didn’t matter. You don’t need to be able to yell to be an organizer. But if you can’t listen? You’re pretty much done. Maybe God recognized that, not speaking all the time, Moses had cultivated the ability to listen.

When you learn to be an organizer, you start by learning what it means to truly listen. Every voice has a story, if you take the time to listen for it and draw it out. An organizer makes room for others to discover themselves and bring the stories and experience they have into a public problem-solving space.

Listening goes beyond hearing. It takes listening to hear the whisper of a brilliant strategy from someone who never thought their ideas were worth anything, to listen to what remains unsaid, to listen to the people whose voices are so often erased, to listen for the still, small voice of God that the prophet Elijah finds.

Organizers learn that listening doesn’t only require one’s ears. It requires one’s heart. We tell of the wisdom of King Solomon. But when God asks Solomon how God should bless him, and Solomon requests wisdom, so he can lead his people, what he literally asks for is “lev shome’a”, a listening heart. At times like this, when so much feels so absurd, we can’t just scream – more than ever, we need a listening heart, so we can listen to each other, and figure out how we will push back against this broken world, and the people who seem to take pride in wanting to break it even more.

As long as people don’t have the opportunities to listen to people who are different, we have no hope of understanding each other. Here’s an example: in a video for our online course, Don’t Kvetch: Organize, political scientist Robert Putnam says that the rates of people marrying across class lines are plummeting because people of different economic status rarely meet. The more that’s the case, the more likely it is we can’t sympathize. We can’t hear other’s stories. We can’t get the “why.” Because we are not in relationship.

Listening for voices who are different than us or who are being left out by society is the pathway to understanding and ultimately to change. We must, whoever we are, make efforts to reach out beyond our own comfortable ideological or physical communities and build new relationships with people different than ourselves. JOIN trains and mentors thousands of Jews across the country to put relationships first, thereby creating room for unheard voices to move themselves back to the center.

This year’s group of Fellows has changed so many things in their year organizing, including the larger organizational impact of their ability to listen to one another. As a group, in one voice, they called upon our organization to reflect on the role it is taking, internally and externally, in fighting against systems of oppression like racism or classism in the ways we support those who are recruited or in the fellowship. They came together as a group to challenge JOIN as an institution, and, in response, JOIN has made this one of its organizational priorities going forward.

Let’s exercise our listening hearts tonight. Listen to the stories of our talented, dedicated, inspiring fellows. You will not agree with everything said today – you may want to shout out. But instead, sit still, and listen harder. Quietly, you will notice that despite our differences, you will find a sense of faith in our collective future. Our commonalities will drown out the din that extends beyond these walls. You will find hope that we can figure it out together.

Difficult times often bring out the best in people. Listening to the voices will remind you change is possible, and that eventually, together, we can climb that tower too.

You can watch the graduating fellow’s Siyyum stories here

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JOIN Alum Launches ClergyClimateAction.org

We asked Rabbi Shoshana Friedman (Jewish Organizing Fellowship alum, Class of 2006) about her work organizing as a rabbi to fight climate change.  Here’s what she had to share.   

(Pictured: Rabbi Shoshana Friedman reading the Torah at a West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline action in May.)

Why is climate work important to you?

Climate change is an overarching moral crisis of our generation. What we do or don’t do is literally making or breaking the chance for ordered human civilization to continue on earth, and for millions of other species to survive or go extinct. Because the issue is so overwhelming, I felt paralyzed for years. By getting involved in the interfaith climate movement, I have found new language and theology for working toward climate justice. I work on climate because doing so is what I need to do to hold onto my own humanity. The work I’m doing is part of a giant global movement, so I don’t feel alone. I don’t know if we will succeed, but the struggle is deeply holy. The friends I have met and inner struggles I have surmounted in this work have spiritually transformed me, and opened my heart deeply. So I do climate work both because of the climate crisis, and because doings so is a path of growth and spiritual development for me.

state house updates(Pictured: Rabbi Shoshana in front of the Massachusetts State House for a December climate action.)

What projects have you been working on?

I have been involved in state level advocacy for a just and clean energy future in Massachusetts. I am on the leadership team of a group called the Mass Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA) that formed in October. Together with other climate groups, we have helped move the dial on state energy policy in Massachusetts, though as of this writing the final bill hasn’t come out of the legislature. While I want to keep my feet in legislative work, I have been increasing drawn to peaceful direct action. I need my own response to the crisis to be somewhere near the scale of the crisis, and non-violent civil disobedience is a way to do that. So far I have helped organize two direct actions against the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline. The first was a prayer service led by 16 clergy. We walked onto the construction site, stopped the construction by our presence, and sang and prayed until we were arrested.* The second was a symbolic mass grave funeral to call attention to the connection between the construction of fracked gas pipelines like the WRL and the bodies filling mass graves during deadly heatwaves. When my friends got into the trench and acted dead, we were rebranding the WRL pipeline trench a mass grave – not only because if it explodes it will level a neighborhood, but because the methane that leaks from fracked gas is a potent contributor to deadly climate change. **

(Pictured: Clergy participate in civil disobedience at the May 25th action against the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline.)

Why do you believe that non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful strategy to fight climate change?

By putting my body in the way of the construction of a dangerous and climate destructive pipeline in West Roxbury, I am signaling to my community and the public the scale of this issue. I am making myself vulnerable in a way that actually gives me and the movement power to leverage change. As clergy we have a particular kind of power. We stand not just for ourselves, but for our traditions. We stand not just for our traditions, but for the spiritual and moral compass of humanity. This is why when clergy abuse their power it is such an outrage. When clergy use our power for good – peacefully but firmly and clearly making a moral statement, we get attention. We are calling for a just world, and we understand that the scale and speed of climate change are such that we cannot wait for policies. Twenty years ago we may have been able to just do policy work, but we failed. Now it is up to religious leaders and all concerned citizens to rise up against a system that is killing us, and to do so with the moral urgency of non-violent civil disobedience.

I started ClergyClimateAction.org to help others connect to this work. It is a website where you can take the pledge to do non violent civil disobedience for climate, find resources and other people in your area, and get support to plan your action. While it is directed specifically to clergy, lay people can also sign. I have been amazed and excited by the outpouring of interest.

(Pictured: Clergy march at the May 25th pipeline action.)

How has your training through JOIN’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship influenced the work you are doing?

I was blessed to go to a fabulous undergraduate school and a visionary rabbinical school, totaling ten years of higher education. But the one year I was at JOIN taught me more practical skills about working with groups, building relationships, active listening, strategizing campaigns, and making decisions than any training I ever had in school. Coupled with my practice of non-violent communication, the skills I learned at JOIN are a bedrock of my rabbinate and climate work. I use them literally every day.

You can check out ClergyClimateAction.org to take the pledge to do or support nonviolent civil disobedience for climate justice and connect with like minded people in your area. 
For more information about the fight to stop the West Roxbury Lateral pipeline, visit ResistThePipeline.org.
For more on Rabbi Shoshana and her work, check out RabbiShoshana.com.

*You can read more about these actions in the Boston Globe and in the Huffington Post.
** You can read more about this action in the New York Times and NBC News.

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