Karla Van Praag, Executive Director
Meir Lakein, Director of Organizing
Ellie Axe, Director of Consulting Programs
Elana Kogan, Director of Organizing Educational Courses
Allegra Stout, Fellowship Director
There is an appetite in Jewish communities to work for social justice, but is there the skill to match the will? JOIN for Justice believes that Jewish wisdom uniquely positions our communities to change in distinct ways, but that their success requires experience and sophistication, not just passion. Our innovative online course, “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!” is opening new ways of training leaders on a much larger and more diverse scale than previously accomplished in the Jewish social justice field. In a six week course drawing upon Jewish texts and stories, we have taught hundreds of leaders to mobilize their communities towards action.
The transmission of Jewish wisdom requires not just learning Jewish values and stories, but acting in Jewish ways, such as connecting and teaching through story, building and prioritizing community, and asking hard questions. Our approach is to model and then teach people how to embody these Jewish values and approaches in their civic life.
1. Story. At JOIN for Justice, we focus on teaching the ancient practice of story-telling, as we tell the stories of our ancestors and of modern Jewish communities to teach lessons of how to build effective movements for societal change. While Jews are far from the only culture to prioritize story, Jewish tradition and text have always used stories as a way to teach essential points. In text after text and ritual after ritual, we don’t recite platitudes about what Jewish communities should stand for, we tell our story, showing rather than telling. As one example: in one session of “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!” we examine the creation story with Rabbi Shai Held. He explains that in ancient times, only kings were seen as being made in the image of G-d. We contrast this with the story in Genesis, which affirmed the dignity and wholeness of every individual, seeing all as royalty. By telling these stories, we are still teaching important lessons about human dignity and challenging ourselves to apply those lessons concretely to how we and our communities act today.
2. Community. Community organizing is inherently a good vehicle to learn and transmit Jewish wisdom, because organizing is essentially about the importance of community, and Judaism believes at its core in the collective rather than solely the individual. We believe in teaching the centrality of relationships-- part of how we learn what to do, the Talmud instructs us, is to mimic God to the best of our ability. Just as God relates and cares for others, so must we.
3. Questioning. We recognize that tapping into the depth of Jewish wisdom requires asking hard, complex questions of how to live as Jews acting for justice, as Jewish communities, and as humans. Our approach to Jewish wisdom is not to pick individual proof texts to assert our predetermined points, but rather to dive deep into concepts that can at times be uncomfortable. Here’s one example of a homework discussion post used in the course: “Let’s say you’re involved in and excited about working for a cause that many people in your own community don’t think about. Let’s say someone approached you and asked you why you were doing it, and said that they didn’t understand why you – as a person or as a Jew – would be devoting your time there. How would you answer them? In answering this question, you could draw on 1. Jewish tradition, 2. Jewish history, 3. The historical experiences of your own family, 4. Modern Jewish realities, 5. If relevant, your own privilege, 6. Your family and friends’ current experiences of struggle and/or success.”
Our course has several components that help people learn, process their learning, and then apply it. In a series of recorded modules, master faculty introduce Jewish ideas of moral leadership, an analysis of growing inequality and relations across lines of race, and foundational organizing skills. The class “homework” offers participants opportunities to engage in discussion boards, get feedback from organizers, form real relationships with chavrutas, and take meaningful action on issues affecting their communities. All participants come to the course with a concrete challenge they are working on in their community—something they want to work with others to tangibly improve, for instance, their synagogue, their child’s school (or, for young people, their own), their neighborhood, etc.. Our program challenges people to build Jewish communities that actually meet each other’s needs and enrich their lives.
Additionally, we recognize that our history and teachings have survived through story. Through learning to tell our own stories, we not only keep traditions alive, we become holders and creators of wisdom ourselves. We believe our tradition is strongly rooted but not fixed. In “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!”, we guide participants to effectively tell their own stories—where they come from, what inspires them, and why being Jewish matters to the work they are doing in the world – situating themselves in the ongoing Jewish story and finding ways to not just talk about what they believe in, but act on it to help it become reality.
In our first year, 375 people took the course. We set a goal that participants leave the course with a natural and powerful connection between their Jewish identities and acting for justice, as well as an understanding of a community organizing model and how it can be used in a practical way to tackle issues, big and small, in their communities. Participant feedback has been very positive. 91% of respondents found the course valuable. 72% of participants responded that they plan to increase their involvement on social justice efforts as a result of this course, and 80% said it was important to them to be involved with social justice though a Jewish institution, as opposed to only 58% before the course. Individuals are already taking action, as is shown by one among many thoughtful reflections:
“I have long believed that my Jewish identity is central to my yearning to make the world a better place. This course reinforced my belief and understanding of this notion, in so many ways. I have been inspired and motivated, to pursue justice at every opportunity, and I hope to seek further involvement in social justice efforts…even in my new roles (which don’t necessarily scream “social justice” overtly). Specifically, at the day school, I hope that I can encourage a long-term vision for more focus on social justice with a community organizing lens. I want this to be a key reason that parents choose to send their children to private Jewish day school – that this IS why being Jewish matters.”
First, we have learned that the age-old Jewish drive to deepen learning should not be underestimated, just because our modern lives are very busy. Nowadays we are told to water things down, or make them bite-sized, because people’s lives are too full to do anything bigger. But through our work with “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!” we have seen over and over again that when we have high expectations of people and hold ourselves accountable to those expectations, people will respond. The demand we have seen for our course, in terms of sheer recruitment numbers, as well as the thought and effort that participants put into work, has been beyond our expectations. Our participants want to learn, work and engage—young people especially are tired of being treated as childish consumers just waiting to be handed things.
Second, we have learned how to ensure that people feel a part of a larger Jewish learning community, even when learning in an online setting. The best learners in an offline setting often struggle with an online context. It is simply too easy to drop out if no one is paying attention. To address this, we spent significant time researching the best online learning practices, and merged them with Jewish learning staples such as chavruta. We used section meetings, buddy systems, homework assignments, discussion forums, and skilled instructors to keep people engaged. All of this enabled students to feel they were not alone in their journey.
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