What 150 one on ones can do

by Rabbi Shuli Passow

Rabbi Shuli Passow is Director of Community Engagement at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, and a Seminary Leadership Project alum.

Leading isn’t enough anymore. In our current political reality, we need more than just strong leaders – we need leaders who can nurture and develop other leaders. It’s not enough to stand up yourself – change won’t come if we don’t mobilize entire communities. Through my organizing training and mentorship with JOIN, I’ve been able to help B’nai Jeshurun, a nationally known New York City synagogue of 3500 households, expand the number of people involved in our justice work so that more of our community is united in taking action.
When I first arrived at BJ 2 1/2 years ago, my goal was simply to find out what my congregation cared about and what they wanted to work towards. I began by meeting with 150 congregants one on one, listening to their stories and identifying people who were ready to grow as leaders. This model of organizing wasn’t new to BJ; it has driven our justice work for the past 14 years. After our first listening campaign in 2003, larger campaigns organically emerged, covering everything from labor practices of farm workers in New York state, to making elder care more affordable and humane, to fighting for and winning reform of corporate waste hauling in NYC.
By taking an organizing approach to my work here, I’ve been able to build new leadership teams focusing on racial justice and immigrant rights. Right now, we have over 200 people responding to the urgent refugee crisis. There are lawyers providing pro-bono legal aid for immigrants. An investment banker thinking about how he could help refugees and asylum seekers find work in the U.S. He is building a team of other BJ members who want to assist, and they’re leveraging their huge number of professional contacts today – already placing 6 or 7 individuals in jobs, working closely with refugee settlement agencies to find more.
Most of the people involved in our justice work aren’t steeped in lifelong activism or organizing – they’re simply citizens stepping up to meet the moment.
Every step of the way, the mentorship of JOIN has been instrumental. Meir Lakein, JOIN’s Director of Organizing, was the person I spoke with to figure out if this was the right job for me in the first place, and I continue to work with him as a coach. He is the person who can say the least with the most impact. He asks “Why do you think that?” and my whole understanding of the situation completely opens up. Meir sees how the day-to-day work connects with the larger vision, helping me sort through what truly needs to get done. He helped me see that once the organizing was underway, I could step back and let the leaders in place move our work forward.
Our community is taking responsibility for the role we were called to play in the struggle for justice, with more members getting involved every day. It is amazing to look back and see what grew from those initial one on one meetings. Community organizing is often the invisible tool that allows for great change to occur. JOIN is training leaders like myself throughout the American Jewish landscape to organize and train leaders, who go on to train more leaders. And we’re just getting started.

Rabbi Shuli Passow
Director of Community Engagement, B’nai Jeshurun
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