Why I’m So Excited About JOIN for Justice’s Future
By Phil Rosenblatt, Board Chair and President
On behalf of JOIN for Justice, I’m writing to share our Executive Director, Karla Van Praag’s transition plans—and why I’m so excited about JOIN’s future.
I’ve been on JOIN’s Board, and the Board of its predecessor, The Jewish Organizing Initiative (“JOI”), for some time, most recently serving as Board Chair . . .
. . . From being drawn to the brilliance of JOI’s mission—training Jews in community organizing to honor our Jewish heritage working for real systemic social justice change . . .
. . . To grappling with whether JOI was viable and seeing it answer this question with a resounding YES . . .
. . . To seeing JOI grow into JOIN, and loving what JOIN was accomplishing but worrying that its impact was too narrow . . .
. . . To watching in awe as JOIN’s brilliant professional staff and leaders developed programs reaching across the United States—helping thousands, even millions, of people change their world . . .
And for virtually all this dynamic growth, and during my entire tenure as Board Chair, my principal ally has been JOIN’s Executive Director, Karla Van Praag.
I believe JOIN’s—and Karla’s—success has been built on her style of leadership; i.e., her ability to attract extraordinary talent and to empower our staff to reach great heights.
I have never been prouder to be part of JOIN.
After more than thirteen years as Executive Director, Karla has informed me she still loves JOIN’s mission and she’s still motivated by JOIN’s vision, but she has decided she wants to make space for other aspects of her life and for new leadership in the organization.
While I will truly miss partnering with Karla as JOIN’s Executive Director, I am filled with confidence in JOIN’s future—and gratitude for how Karla has informed us of her decision and has asked to pursue these changes over the next nine months.
JOIN is blessed in at least two important ways. First, Karla has given JOIN ample time to engage in a thoughtful process to find our next Executive Director; and, second, Karla has built an organization which is not only capable of carrying on our dynamic work and growth through this transition, but which will undoubtedly attract exciting candidates to become our next Executive Director—filled with new energy and dreams of how the world can be.
And so, by the end of the year, Karla is going to step down as Executive Director of JOIN for Justice. Until we bring on JOIN’s new Executive Director, she will serve as co-Executive Director alongside Meir Lakein, who co-founded JOIN with Karla and is currently our Director of Organizing.
A fabulous Strategic Transition Committee has been convened to begin JOIN’s search. Once JOIN’s new Executive Director commences their leadership role, Karla will support our new Executive Director’s vision by taking on a new part-time role focused on building strategic relationships and initiatives for the JOIN community to further our work.
I’m grateful to know the Jewish social justice world is not losing one of my greatest heroes. Karla assures me her passion still burns for working to make a better world, and her efforts will continue in those ways she believes she can make her best contributions and feel most fulfilled.
So, for all these reasons, I look forward with great anticipation to JOIN’s future, and I look forward to your ongoing passion for JOIN as we move on to our next chapter.
Board Chair and President
By Karla Van Praag, Executive Director
JOIN is such a special organization. I knew it from the moment I decided to step into leadership at its predecessor organization, the Jewish Organizing Initiative, back in late 2007. This is because JOIN’s leaders, no matter where they call home, view the world through a very particular type of lens. While their concerns may vary widely – from the very local to those of individual Jewish communities to national and global challenges – they share a common determination to move beyond simple “concern” to action. Our people are the kind that say “I’m going to do something about it.” Far from the spaces in social media full of complaints and platitudes, our leaders are committed first to learning how to make effective change, and then getting on with it and making it happen, even when it’s hard, even when they fail.
JOIN is special because it is filled with so many of these passionate people committed to both learning and action. Being in this work with people like this is invigorating. It’s compelling. And truthfully, it can also be very intense and consuming.
This community – and I’ll be specific here – the Jewish social justice community – has grown up a lot in the past decade, and I have been lucky to grow along with it. We’ve become more organized and more effective, and we’ve also learned where we are ignorant, or causing harm, or looking the other way. One lesson that this community has begun to talk more about over the past several years is how much we need to care for ourselves even as we do the hard work for good. That rest is an intrinsic part of the work, just as Shabbat is a part of the week. I can talk a good game about this, but in reality I’ve struggled with this evolution personally. For years, as my body or my mind screamed at me to stop, I’d tell myself I was needed and, I admit, I took pride in being strong.
And then, 2020. Over the past year, we have all been challenged by a reality we didn’t recognize, and many people learned for the first time how much of our lives we cannot control. But just as I flexed my resilience muscle yet again – working harder to navigate the unexpected – I noticed a new and growing willingness in some parts of our culture to admit aloud we were hurting, and to give each other more benefit of the doubt when we faltered. That we might need to question the way it had always been done. I began to listen to the still, small voice that told me I didn’t have to simply push on the same way anymore. If some of the world could begin to admit it needed to slow down a little and change, then maybe I could too.
So rather than push through, I decided to do something radically different for me: to step back. I wanted to create some space in my life for something else, to practice tzimtzum, making space for creation to take root and flourish. And the board of JOIN has been unsurprisingly supportive in figuring out a way to chart a new course that allows me to do so that supports me while always furthering our mission.
Of course, leadership turnover is natural because organizations evolve. Leaving my role is essential for that to happen, and I’m so happy to do it during a period of strength for JOIN, in a time when my health is good, and in a way where the board and I can ensure the transition happens smoothly. This is an incredible moment for JOIN to find new leadership that reflects who we are now and who we are becoming because, simply put, we are thriving. We are training more leaders than ever before. As we announced we would in our growth plan, we have started new programs focusing on building the pipeline for diverse Jewish leadership for change, starting Access to Power for disabled Jews earlier this year and building toward a Jews of Color Organizing Fellowship to launch by next year. New leadership will invigorate our growing organization with fresh energy and insight, and take us to the next level.
I’m also confident in this decision because, as much as I’ve put into JOIN, the organization has never been about me. While I’ve been the official leader of JOIN, it’s always been a leaderful organization. It’s the way I’ve led and the reason I’ve loved it. Because of the way we’ve built this organization, no one piece is indispensable, including me. A new Executive Director will bring their talents to an incredible staff and lay leadership who don’t have to begin to step up, because they’ve always stepped up. The new Executive Director will be fortunate to work with these people and these programs, with all of us.
I’m so grateful to be able to continue to contribute in a role that’s right for me and the organization. I’m also thrilled and recognize the privilege I have to be able to take some time to tend to my kids properly while they are still at home and to tend to my body and soul from a period of physical strength.
Every Passover, we are supposed to feel that it is us, not our ancestors, leaving Egypt. That’s a big ask – it’s hard to tell people what they ought to feel. Yet I suspect many of us may feel, this holiday, that we are emerging from the cave and getting a little closer to the light. We aren’t in the Promised Land yet – but it does feel that we’re progressing through the desert, getting closer. My decision definitely feels like it’s bringing me a little closer. Many, many thanks for being part of this journey with me and with JOIN.
Karla Van Praag