by Julie Aronowitz
Do I believe that with God’s strength I can do all things? How powerful would that be?
For the months of October and November, I spent every Saturday morning – every Shabbat – at the supermarket. Different supermarkets each Saturday, and not inside, but outside, almost in the parking lot. I knew which ones were which – Market Basket was easy. Stop and Shop was really hard. Approaching strangers, “Hi, we’re collecting signatures to raise the state’s Minimum Wage – will you sign?”, coaching Haitian teenagers – “Move faster! Don’t wait ‘til they pass! Get them before they’re mentally in the store – you can do it! Like that, yes! Good work!” Telling kindly Unitarian retirees “Be more chutzpadik! Umm, I mean, bold. Be out there – you’re not asking a favor! You’re offering them to act on their values, to make this world more just – and all they have to do is sign! That’s easy!” It felt like the closest thing to kiruv (outreach) I’ve ever done. No, we weren’t peddling in Shabbat candles, but we were peddling in Jewish values. Or I was, at least.
For the past year and some I’ve been working for Brockton Interfaith Community, a congregation-based community-organizing group. BIC partners with our 15+ member congregations to do grassroots organizing and advocacy work in the post-industrial, low income, majority immigrant “Gateway” city of Brockton, MA, a local affiliate of a national congregation-based organizing group called PICO. Founded by local clergy who, 20 years ago, decided to step out into the streets instead of rolling up the welcome mat, BIC has organized for everything from street outreach workers to devastating statewide foreclosures and afterschool programs. Currently we’re joining with other affiliates, community groups and unions across the Commonwealth to pass ballot initiatives to raise the state’s minimum wage and ensure earned sick time for all workers.
Before this, I wouldn’t have considered signature collection to be “praying”. Prayer happened in shul, a more common Saturday morning destination in my life. However, I’ve always known that my commitment to do justice work has been motivated by a deep sense of what it means to me to be Jewish, to be called by the universe and God to build a just world, to be a part of something bigger than myself.
I’ve worked in the Jewish community, a Jewish specific space, doing social justice work. But it wasn’t about God. My current leaders, almost exclusively Christian, are all about God. Explicitly. Verbally. Soulfully. And the social justice work we do together is one hundred percent an expression of their faith in God, and their response to the call of what they know with certainty God is calling them to do.
When Kathy, an African-American Baptist woman got up in front of the State House to share her and her daughter’s stories of struggling to survive on low wages, she spoke about the power and dignity that being empowered to collect 388 ballot initiative signatures with her church gave her. We’d practiced the speech, tweaked it, but when she was up in front of the crowd waiting for her turn, I saw her scanning her cell phone. At the end of her testimony, she offered a Scripture: Philippians 4:13. “This campaign has called me to witness to others, to step out on faith, and so I’d like to share scripture that has encouraged my spirit,” she said. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I didn’t know she was going to share this scripture. I had never even heard of Philippians. But Kathy’s faith, her relationship with God, called her to share His word. I definitely don’t believe in Jesus Christ, but that day I left, challenged. Do I believe that with God’s strength I can do all things? How powerful would that be?
These leaders and others have challenged me to step out on faith, to really deeply ask what it means to feel called to do this work. I know that for them, our days outside of Market Basket collecting signatures are unquestionably about spreading the Word of God. And I think increasingly, I’m ready to name that they are for me, too.
Julie Aronowitz is an alumna of the JOIN for Justice organizing fellowship, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. In her spare time she runs Moishe Kavod Social Justice House Board Meetings, does yoga, and wonders about God.