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Detroit Jews for Justice

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
1 – 3 years
Target audience
Arts & Culture

Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ) was founded by a Reconstructionist Congregation to live out our mission of making social change more central to our Judaism and Jewish practice. DJJ has grown into a broad coalition of Jews from all backgrounds. Together we employ the tools of community organizing to make life in Michigan more sustainable, equitable and joyous for all, with a particular emphasis on people of color, low-income workers, the unemployed, women, GLBTIQ folks, immigrants, and others struggling against systemic bias. We draw on the richness of Jewish traditions, history, and culture to deepen and sustain our work.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

Each DJJ gathering - whether it’s focused on education, activism, or community-building - includes Jewish teaching, deepening the experience of our work for all. We are blessed to enjoy a Director who is not only a practicing rabbi, but has a strong ability to lead groups in song. Our gatherings often begin or end with learning a song and are similarly punctuated with a relevant portion of Torah or Midrash. In addition to centering Jewish wisdom within DJJ, Rabbi Alana and other leaders have brought text studies to Limmud, congregations and other Jewish spaces.

Each of our major programs draw on Jewish wisdom to inform our activism, our community building, and our spiritual practice. Jewish time serves as a particularly powerful guides for our work. Creating culture guided by the Jewish calendar is one of the central ways that we communicate Jewish wisdom via spoken values and embodied practice. In the fall of 2015, we gathered together during the festival of Sukkot -- the perfect time to talk about housing access! Our 50 attendees reflected on how we relate to concepts of home and security and learned about the history of race and real estate in Detroit. During the 10 Days of Repentance, a relevant art exhibit helped us connect to the stories of our families and their relationships to wealth and the economy. As the event invitation explained, "The High Holidays ask us to reflect not just on our personal responsibility, but on collective responsibility-- how people fit within and passively or actively construct social systems."

Chanukah 2015 featured our “Festival of Rights”; over 120 people came together to enjoy latkes, Klezmer music, and dreidel games. An interactive art experience helped us: a large-scale depiction of a Hanukiah identified 8 justice issues and guests were invited to place flames next to the ones they were most passionate about. Eight community members spoke about each issue, one they had taken leadership on. Through this we both modeled activism for those we are bringing in, and honored folks who so need, and deserve, to be seen and lifted up.

At our Purim “extravaganza” in the winter of 2016, we rewrote the story of Megillat Esther to examine contemporary human rights struggles over water in our region. We depicted Esther and Mordechai as community organizers and activists, fighting for their rights as Shushan residents against the corrupt “HamanCorp” corporation. A legendary activist in the Detroit black community took on the lead role of Mordechai. The actors and script-writers were DJJ volunteers. They and our 100 attendees not only participated in the tradition of reading the Megillah, but also reflected on the ways that the characters and circumstances of the Purim story relate deeply to us in our own time. Towards the close of our shpiel, we experienced both Jewish and Detroit catharsis, as the young activist Esther mourned the enormity of the systems that were working against her (“Sure, we destroyed “HamanCorp,” she said, “but what about all the other unaccountable leaders and corrupt governments?”) The wizened Mordechai responded, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21). Through Purim and other active embraces of religious text and ritual, we thread a Jewish tradition of critical thinking into our social justice work.

One of our leaders shares: “I always LOVE it when Alana or Blair teach a song or a chant, and end that way, or infuse it in. It always takes everyone deeper. Sometimes you can see some people are uncomfortable, but after awhile, everyone seems to join in, and you can see joy on their faces!”- Barbara, 48

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

In many progressive Jewish spaces, we hear a recurring paradigm: “How can social justice make Jews more connected to Judaism?” In DJJ, we ask this core question: “How can Jewish wisdom and culture make the activism of Jews more strategic, more sustainable, and more meaningful?” We feel that, by framing our work in this way, we inherently challenge ourselves to make Jewish wisdom accessible and applicable to our audience’s lives. Many of our participants have expressed that this is what draws them to DJJ - a connection between their values in the larger world and their Jewishness, a lens that they had been missing or craving.

Many questions guide us as we apply Jewish wisdom to our lives, our participants’ lives, and our collective struggle:
How can traditional Jewish practice sustain activists to fight for a better world?
How can it be a mode of healing from the pain of struggle and loss?
How can spirituality deepen work for social change and vice versa?
Can Judaism exercise the muscles of our imagination to help us envision a better world?
How might Jewish history sharpen our analyses of power, privilege, oppression, and social change?

We make the assumption in our work that Judaism has much to say about how we live. Through our organizational culture and programming, we articulate our core values, guided by Jewish practices like Shabbat and Jewish concepts like brit. Our lay-led Arts, Culture, and Community Building team, translates Jewish wisdom for activism and finds creative ways to share Torah. The members of this committee are artists, musicians, potters, and community builders. They are people who are seekers and learners, who are looking to connect and share. The “Jewish Sensibility” of Na’Aseh Ve’Nishmah, “we will do, so we will understand” is a perfect description for this team.

In this application, we’ve highlighted the ways in which DJJ brings Jewish wisdom to our community of Jews. It is just as important to note that DJJ helps bring Jewish wisdom into the larger community. Whether it’s teaching about Honi at a water justice demonstration, marching with lulav and etrog in Ferguson, or singing a Hebrew blessing to a convention of thousands of union members, DJJ has become a vehicle to share Jewish wisdom across religious lines.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

By providing a fulfilling vehicle through which Jews can realize their commitment to repair the world, DJJ engages city, suburb, young, old, denominational and unaffiliated Jews in a vibrant, living Torah of hesed. DJJ creates Jewish experiences both within existing congregations and also beyond institutional walls. As one of our participants shared:

“I keep thinking how glad I am that I brought my kids to the [Hanukkah vigil for police accountability] gathering. Since our family is not affiliated, all of the Jewish experiences they’ve had have been in private homes. Now they know that Jewish identity can be a vehicle for broader moral connection to the world.” - Tova, 47

We work hard to give our “leaders” (the label we use to describe all those folks who make up the 100 person strong active core of DJJ) opportunities to synthesize their DJJ experiences through our blog. Since our work is all about integrating the spiritual and the activist, reflection is an important tool that supports the transformation we hope to support in our leaders. The following reflections from the leader who played “Governor” Achashverosh in our Purim shpiel are an expression of how our goal of spiritual and activist synthesis plays out:

"Change involves doing the challenging yet valuable work of forming strong relationships with each other, and partnering with both the people we enjoy working with, and the folks who do not necessarily appreciate or care about our mission. So who is the greater 'we'? Everyone. Including Governor Achashverosh. As Esther shows both in the megillah and in our revision, when we give leaders another perspective to reflect on and another way to act, even seemingly villainous characters can be swayed to think differently about their actions, and to change their approach to leadership. Both the original and our version of the story are importantly skeptical about this kind of top down change, viewing it as a treatment of symptoms, not root causes. But just as Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot - “the work is not yours to complete, but neither is it yours to desist from”. - Melanie Rivkin, age 24

We have seen our successes in the crossover between participants in DJJ’s activism and participation in Congregation T’chiyah, the founding synagogue and fiscal sponsor of DJJ. Jews who have never before are coming to High Holiday and other services, and turning to Rabbi Alana for life cycle support. We see our successes in the plans of our Arts, Culture, and Community building leaders to work together on creating art rooted in Jewish wisdom to use for rallies and protests.

We had the honor of hosting Vic Rosenthal as a trainer of Jewish Community Action for our Shabbaton Leadership retreat in Fall 2015. At some point in the weekend he said to Rabbi Alana, “DJJ is so Jewish!”. We were surprised when he explained that Jewish Community Action, though a home for progressive Jews in the Twin Cities for over 20 years, is a very “secular” space which does little to integrate Jewish tradition. It’s true that training and relationship-building was interspersed with singing, praying, blessing, and Torah study. Vic was struck by how much we center Judaism and ritual in our work as an organization. He was intrigued and moved by this approach and what it could mean for DJJ’s unique impact in the future.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

One of our core takeaways has been that our framing - “how can Jewish wisdom make the activism of Jews more strategic, more sustainable, and more meaningful?” - has been truly important to our success. Because our members know that we are grounded both in Torah and in activism, they trust us to mine our tradition for wisdom, both challenging and healing, that will nourish, push, and inform them in their work.

Earlier this year, we were honored to host a visit by Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. Rabbi Waxman’s enthusiasm for (in her words) our “bold and innovative experiment combining social change and serious Jewish practice” was validating and gratifying. While DJJ is just over 18 months old, we have identified a clear inter-generational yearning for this kind of meaningful Jewish community. Through our successful winter crowdfunding campaign, impressive turnout at all of our events, diverse membership, significant contributions to the fight for earned sick time and more, we’ve demonstrated a deep desire and eagerness to connect Jewish values and serious justice activism.