Nurturing a National Network of Leaders

Boston-based JOIN for Justice uses Jewish teachings to groom activists

By Sarah Smith
Special to the Advocate
*this article originally appeared in the Jewish Advocate.

Julie Aronowitz and Rachie Lewis at Newton Reception

Julie Aronowitz had long struggled with where to focus her energies: within the Jewish community or with “people who really needed it.”

“JOIN was the first glimpse I got that it would be possible to do both,” Aronowitz said of the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network for Justice.

Through JOIN, she learned the skills to help Jews and non-Jews weather the 2008 financial storm, and later to mobilize fellow young Jews in community service.

Aronowitz is an alumna of the Boston-based JOIN’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship, which trains young Jewish adults in leadership and organizing skills. They go on to lead efforts ranging from immigration reform to promoting the interests of seniors.

Earlier this month, JOIN alumni and supporters met in a Newton living room to honor Rabbi Jonah Pesner for helping to shape the organization as its founding chair. Pesner, the new senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, received JOIN’s Tekiah Social Justice award at the organization’s first national summit in April. The Newton reception was held to honor him in his hometown. Pesner, who founded Just Congregations, is a 20-year veteran of putting Jewish teaching into practice for social causes. It’s not just a matter of altruism, he told the Newton gathering, it’s key to the survival of Judaism.

“Judaism becomes irrelevant if it doesn’t become acted on in the world,” Pesner said. “We are Jews because we stand for something.”

Besides providing moral and ethical guidance, Jewish texts serve as a playbook of sorts for JOIN Fellows.

“[Exodus] isn’t about Moses speaking and everyone following,” said Karla Van Praag, JOIN executive director. “And that really is the way that organizing works – through building teams of people who are building followers.” The fellows often refer to the passage when Moses becomes overwhelmed leading alone and consults G-d about enlisting others.

Besides finding inspiration in Biblical figures, JOIN fellows have been motivated by the work of American Jewish activists in the labor and civil rights movement.

“What I got out of my time in the fellowship was to really ask what is Judaism’s vision for building a just society,” Aronowitz said. “Clearly there is not one vision.”

Recognizing that, she was able to be more attuned listening to the stories of young adults amid the 2008 financial crisis. She found that many wanted to help the community, but not through politics.

Aronowitz helped organize ReachOut!, a service and learning program sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Putting to work skills she learned through JOIN, she used house meetings, personal relationships and participatory leadership to build the volunteer network.

The same relationship-based leadership module holds true in JOIN’s Seminary Leadership Project. Rabbi Greg Litcofsky participated in the seminary program in 2006, a year before he was ordained.

“It’s about people, not programs,” he said, explaining that some synagogues take a top-down approach rather than listening to their congregants. As an assistant rabbi at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Litcofsky met one-on-one with members. When he learned that families with younger children felt slighted, he helped launch the Families Connection Committee.

Now a member of JOIN’s board, he will soon move on to be the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, N.J.

Each JOIN fellow completes an internship during their year.

Rachie Lewis, for example, works with a grassroots senior citizens’ organization, a position she found through JOIN. Lewis said the fellowship program has helped her learn to be pragmatic. “There’s a lot of discussion about the tension between the real and the ideal,” she said.

JOIN began as the Jewish Organizing Initiative in 1998 in Boston. Last year, JOI became JOIN for Justice. Last April, at national summit, it brought leaders from throughout the country for workshops and other learning sessions. Over the past 15 years, the initiative says nearly 150 young leaders have completed its programs.

“Boston is regarded as a national model,” Pesner said. “All across America they’re looking at community organizing … because of this work.”

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