Welcome to The BackStory, a peek into JOIN’s Jewish Organizer Network. The BackStory introduces members of the passionate and creative network of people who are using JOIN’s community organizing tools to make social change and work for justice.
Let’s get to know Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, an alumna of JOIN’s Seminary Leadership Project (SLP), and current Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Stephanie is a leader with JOIN, training and organizing rabbinical students and rabbis.
What’s your background in community organizing and social justice? I was part of the Jewish Theological Seminary SLP cohort. The trainers sent me to IAF training with Mike Gecan. I then worked with Jeannie Appleman and the other seminary student alumni. Prior to rabbinical school I worked at AJWS for five years. There I had the opportunity to work with other staff and Jewish community members who were interested in understanding the connection between Jewish life and social justice. I went to rabbinical school in order to become a rabbi committed to justice who could help lead the Jewish communal conversation and action in that direction.
You are active with the Seminary Leadership Project. How did you become involved with JOIN for Justice, and the Seminary Leadership Project specifically? I was seeking organizing training and Jeannie Appleman and the Seminary Leadership Project (now run by JOIN) created the opportunity for me to be trained and then hone the skills. At some point we students felt like the best trained least experienced organizing students. We set out to practice at our various seminaries. The result was a house meeting drive which raised up many issues people addressed in their personal and communal lives. One of the most significant issues we identified was health insurance, which turned out to be a significant concern for many students, faculty and even administrators. Having the tools to organize and the support of JOIN trainers to practice, we were able to move from feeling powerless, to understanding that we could take action together and inspire a reaction – which while it did not completely solve the problem, did bring together the various constituencies in deeply relational ways – and laid the groundwork for future work together. The experience of feeling so much more deeply connected to the others in the seminary community -more deeply than I had in the 9.5 years I studied there as an undergraduate and graduate student, made me hopeful about the possible impact of Conservative Movement leaders becoming trained in organizing and using those skills to strengthen their communities.
How do you spend your days? I am the Director of Alumni and Community Engagement at AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. There I work to support alumni in building a powerful network that can help support and lead the Jewish community’s fight against poverty. In this role I utilize relational organizing skills on a daily basis. I also rely on the network of rabbis trained in organizing to become leaders with whom AVODAH alumni can partner to help shape and lead the Jewish community’s antipoverty work.
What’s a story that shows the impact of the organizing work you are doing? We recently convened 80 AVODAH alumni for an alumni leadership development retreat. There we engaged Meir Lakein to train alumni on some basic relational organizing skills. At night we did a version of the Moth storytelling (The Moth). One of my favorite stories was told by an alum from the first year who regaled us with a tale of going clubbing with the women from his cohort. After waiting on a long line and anticipating being turned away, the AVODAH folks he was with begged the bouncer to let them in, telling them the type of service they were doing that year with AVODAH. The owner came out and when he heard their story about working with underserved immigrants, he said that that was his family story too and he wanted them to be his guests at the club for the rest of the year. To me that story demonstrated the power of relational connections and the potential power for those connections to lead to covenental relationships and sacred action together.
How does your Judaism inform who you are as an organizer or leader? The traditional concepts of each person being created in the image of God and therefore requiring respect befitting God, and the Jewish commitment to justice for all speak strongly to me. Given that relational organizing means that each person has the power to act regardless of structural privilege, and that it puts sacred connections at the center, it is a natural way for me to engage as a rabbi and communal leader. I am certain that if we are successful in engaging more rabbis in using organizing principles and introducing them to their communities, that the Jewish community will be a more sacred, connected, welcoming and just place.