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JustCity Leadership Institute

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

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

Organization website
Prize category
3 – 5 years
Target audience

Each summer, JustCity brings rising high school juniors and seniors together to live on JTS’s New York City campus, take college-level courses, engage in social justice work, and build community through vibrant Jewish programming. Our participants learn first-hand from change makers throughout New York City, gain the tools to make lasting impact, and create personal action projects to lead when they return home. They do so while exploring the Jewish values that impel us to transform society and forming lasting friendships within a diverse network of ambitious teens from around the country.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

At JustCity, we take seriously the notion that being Jewish obligates us to act as partners with God to build a better world. From day one of our program, we impart upon our participants the responsibility of Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, that “It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it,” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). In our daily text based course, “Jewish Principles of Social Change Leadership,” taught by Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, we demonstrate that not only does Jewish tradition (of past and present) compel us to be social change agents, it provides diverse ethical sources, ranging from the spiritual to the legal, for how to think about and implement necessary and long-lasting change.

Each day of our program is dedicated to exploring a specific issue of injustice or inequality. JustCity’s participants learn to discuss those issues while exploring the core Jewish concepts for how to treat ourselves, each other, and our physical world. For example, we teach about Bal Taschit (not wasting) and its implications for environmental justice while thinking about what it means to be stewards of the earth (Shomrei Adamah). We discuss the prohibition against withholding wages and oppressing hired laborers (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) in the context of pursuing justice (Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof). We talk about tzedakah and supporting those who are vulnerable through the lens of acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut Hasidim) and about repairing systemic injustices (Tikkun Olam). We teach about the root causes of inequality, including, racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism in the context of honoring the dignity of all living creatures (Kavod Habriot), loving our neighbors as ourselves (V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha), and acknowledging the divine nature of diversity (Tzelem Elohim).

In keeping with the wisdom that Judaism is a lived tradition, we encourage our participants to see themselves in conversation with Jewish sources by adding their own opinions to the tradition. Through daily chevruta and small group presentations, our participants learn to study and explore Judaism and social justice in deep relationship with one another. Our goal, in both our course content and teaching methods, is that JustCity participants become equipped to be courageous, smart, and responsible Jewish leaders who, together with others, engage in tochecha, the righteous rebuke of injustices they see. Within the context of our program, which involves daily field work and designing of social change projects, we rely on the age-old Talmudic argument, “Which is greater, study or action?”, to frame all our conversations and activities.

We also take pride in the pluralistic makeup of our community. JustCity participants and staff come from all over the country and from various Jewish and ethnic backgrounds. At JustCity, we transmit the idea of Elu v’Elu, that different approaches to texts, issues, and Jewish religious life are all the words of the living God. Participants learn to approach their peers and staff with humility and open hearts and minds, furthering our mission to pursue justice and peace, and to foster Jewish creativity within the JustCity community and beyond.

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

The Jewish wisdom grounding our work is applied every day. It is not esoteric or talked about in abstract terms. We put our learning directly into action to make it relevant. Our participants spend each morning discussing a timely social issue through the lens of Jewish text and then go out to meet with change makers in New York City who are directly addressing that issue. For example, on our Economic Justice Day, our participants spent the morning studying Jewish texts about fair wages and treatment of workers and then met with Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah to discuss T’ruah’s community organizing efforts with the tomato farmers of Immokalee, Florida. Then, through a hands-on workshop with Rabbi Jacobs, they learned tangible skills for community organizing and advocating for systemic change. On our Environmental and Food Justice Day, our participants discussed Jewish property laws and Talmudic ideas around public property and communal responsibility. We then spent the afternoon with a community organization in Harlem called The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, where we learned about urban pollution and food deserts by taking a “toxic tour” and then worked alongside their teens to advertise for an upcoming farmer’s market.

To show our participants that both systemic and direct change are part of our Jewish obligation to repair the world, we (1) provide workshops on advocacy and methods of social change in collaboration with organizations like AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and (2) offer ten hours of community service at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and home visits with the elderly. At JustCity, our participants not only learn about how to address a social injustice, but they also see it happening in real life and become an immediate part of the solution.

As a leadership development program, our participants take what they learn and put it into action. Throughout JustCity, our participants work with PresenTense to develop tools in social entrepreneurship to directly apply Jewish sources of wisdom, various methods of social change, as well as their unique perspectives to a project relevant to their home communities. Our students come up with a variety of inspiring enterprises, which they expertly pitch to a panel of social change experts in our culminating “Shark Tank” event. This year, some projects included: a community organizing plan to incorporate LGBTQ acceptance into one student’s school culture, a mental health resources app for high school students, and a community project for local rabbis and Jewish community leaders to become more aware of, and equipped to address, domestic violence.

JustCity participants further exercise leadership and learn how to build a thriving, pluralistic, and diverse community by organizing and facilitating many aspects of the program including our daily prayer/reflection, Shabbat experiences, and nightly community meetings.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

We are extremely proud of what we can accomplish in only a two-week period. Each year, participants report a positive change in their self-perceptions, outlooks, and interests. As Sarah E. writes, “When I wake up now, I’m thinking about not only the issues around me but the possible solutions. JustCity has inspired [me] to go out and do something. . . JustCity provided me with more self-confidence in my ability to both lead and collaborate with others.”

Through detailed evaluations, a majority of participants have reported that after exploring models of leadership and exercising new leadership opportunities on our program, they increasingly see themselves as leaders, each in their own unique way. Josh C. said, “I feel a higher level of preparedness after the program to take on the world. To me, a leader is someone who is unafraid to do what they think is right.”

Many participants have reported that they feel more confident to speak up and do something about issues they care about, even though they are still in high school. As Hayley K. said, “Just City has taught me many valuable leadership skills. I also learned that just because I’m a teenager doesn’t mean I cannot make a difference in my community.” This is the kind of youth empowerment we instill at JustCity, and the type of learning that stays with teenagers when they return home.

The dynamic classroom and community experiences lead many of our participants to value debate and the difference of opinion. Many have stated that they learned how to listen to others, how to respectfully disagree, and how to reevaluate and refine their own points of view. “I learned a lot about being inclusive and accepting of others and that having a Jewish community is important to me. . . I didn’t agree with every text, and that was tremendously helpful,” Jacob S. stated.

As Sophia S. notes, “The program has helped me grow and learn to look at issues through a Jewish lens. I’m taking away knowledge of Jewish text and a new skill – being able to analyze religious text and relate [it] to my life.” Participants also reported having more knowledge of, and appreciation for, the varieties of Jewish expression and beliefs they encountered and are inspired by Jewish tradition to continue doing social justice work, which has been confirmed by our mid-year meetings with past participants.

Most of all, participants highly valued the open and supportive Jewish community at JustCity and seeing their own hand in creating it. Anna G. says, “My favorite thing about JustCity were the opportunities to lead in either Avodat Lev, community meeting, or during Shabbat va’ads. After learning about and inheriting leadership skills we were able to use them out in the “real world”. . . .” Each year, our participants make strong bonds with one other and continue to deepen their connections through our growing network of JustCity alumni and staff.

As Emily K. poetically expressed, “It only took 2 weeks to completely change the way I thought about leadership, Judaism, friendship, humanity, and social justice. . . It only took 2 weeks to change my life.”

This is the kind of impact we make at JustCity.

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

Participants must be empowered to apply Jewish wisdom themselves in order to take full ownership of that wisdom. Time and again, JustCity participants have told us that we have showed them that teens can be leaders, and that they are never too young to put their passions into action. We have learned that giving our participants a deep look at Jewish sources of wisdom, actual models for how they can be applied, and the tools to create an intentional spiritual community, is what makes our program meaningful and impactful.

This empowerment must occur from day one of the program. The curriculum must include ways to directly apply the Jewish learning, so that the learning is not just about sitting in a classroom but about doing and going out in the world. Accordingly, we entrust that Jewish wisdom with our teens, provide space for them to debate with text and one another, visit leading social justice organizations, and give teens opportunities to make the wisdom directly applicable to their interests.

Our participants come to JustCity interested in social justice and eager to make a difference. We provide the understanding of how Judaism speaks to their interests in relevant ways and a set of like-minded Jewish peers with whom they can explore their relationship to Judaism and social justice. This framework, our intentionally designed curriculum, and our expert educators enable an environment where teens are asked to think critically, form their own opinions, and become leaders while attending JustCity and upon their return home.