Socil justice

Community Leadership Immersive Programs: B’nai Mitzvah Projects in a Virtual World

By Tali Puterman

Le deseamos paz y luz en estas fiestas. Estoy agradecida de que pertenezcamos a esta comunidad y quisiera reiterar que estamos aquí para ofrecerle apoyo en estos momentos difíciles.”

Thiago in Lynn reached into his mailbox and cautiously opened this letter from BIJAN, the Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network. BIJAN, a network of faith communities, individuals, and other activist groups working to reduce the escalating harm of our immigrant system in the current political climate had been a major support to Thiago, but COVID-19 and the constant uncertainty of being undocumented begets a general sense of unease. The handwritten note in Spanish translated as, “Wishing you some peace and light this holiday season. I am grateful to be in this community with you and want you to know that we are here to support you in these difficult times.” The note, along with a $50 gift card, brought a smile to Thiago’s face.

For her Bat Mitzvah project, Eva Berkson, a 12-year-old student at Temple Israel of Boston was working to support immigrant families before the pandemic hit. After seeing the performance, “The Last Dream,” a play by children of TPS (Temporary Protective Status) holders at Temple Israel’s annual Tikkun Olam Day in her fifth grade year, she joined an organization to pass legislation enabling undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses in Massachusetts. Now in seventh grade, as the holiday season approached, she connected with Temple Israel’s Immigrant Justice Team and BIJAN to organize a project in which TI members would send handwritten notes and giftcards to undocumented families released from detention, or to those with family members currently in detention. Eva raised $1,800 – a perfect number for this endeavor, with the number 18 carrying spiritual significance in Judaism.

The COVID-19 pandemic sent our entire world into a tailspin. With schools fully virtual or in hybrid mode, parents laid off, loved ones falling ill and dying, and children isolated from their friends, what should the goals and expectations for b’nai mitzvah justice projects be? In a typical year, this is a question I consider carefully. As the Assistant Director of Social Justice Engagement at Temple Israel, I am acutely aware of the thin line we walk with b’nai mitzvah projects. When we ask our students to dedicate time out for their busy schedules to engage in a justice cause, are we providing local nonprofits with much-needed volunteer support and opening fundraising doors? Or are we dumping a group of semi-interested, unskilled tweens on small organizations? I hope for the former, I worry about the latter. The solution? Across-temple relationships.

Take for example Eva’s project (although there is no doubt of the impact she is making). Eva’s actions are connected to the Temple’s larger efforts for immigrant justice. Tikkun Central, TI’s organizing body for justice and compassion, includes an Immigrant Justice Team that works in relationship with BIJAN to provide start-up grants for asylum seekers, recruit lawyers to visit detention centers, provide translation services, respond to legislative campaigns, and most significantly, some TI members have welcomed undocumented immigrants into their homes and families, changing the lives of all involved.

Take another example: the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. Each year on Mother’s Day, our b’nai mitzvah students walk in community with thousands of our Boston neighbors in the Peace Institute’s Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace. We walk in memory of all those who have lost their lives to gun violence, and to demonstrate our commitment and responsibility to build just and peaceful communities. Joining our students attending this annual event, Tikkun Central’s Racial Justice Initiative organizes involvement from our full community. Additionally, we have integrated the Peace Institute’s PeaceZone curriculum into our religious school curriculum, their educators have led trainings for our teaching staff, Founder and CEO Chaplain Tina Chéry along with other members of their staff frequently attend our services, and we consider our two communities friends. We can only do the work of justice within and across communities, and while we have many friendships to celebrate, it is ongoing work to sustain deep and true relationships, and we still have far to go.

But what now? We cannot join with thousands of others, our voices raised in chants demanding peace with the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute. We cannot share smiles, games, and struggle over math equations at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center. We cannot meet in each other’s houses, sharing recipes and schmoozing over sandwiches while providing meals for Community Cooks. Some projects, like Eva’s, continued in the pandemic. For others, I created Community Leadership Immersive Programs (CLIPS).

The idea for CLIPS came in early June, soon after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. With the pandemic relatively new, summer options for kids uncertain, and a growing unity against racism, I created a virtual internship program for 5-7th Graders titled, “How to be an anti-racist.” Following its success, in September I launched a pilot CLIP, “Anti-racism and the High Holy Days” in which students created a kids’ #10Days10Ways Campaign for the Ten Days of Awe to accompany a Temple-wide initiative aimed at sharing personal stories from our members grappling with racism in our community.

With the support of TI clergy, I engaged two Temple educators to teach the CLIP and invited six older teenagers to support as mentors. Together, we created Jewish community for students wherein they built deeper connections with one another and Jewish professionals, provided meaningful space for teenagers to learn, grow, and practice leadership, and engaged young people in work focused on social justice through a Jewish lens. Now, we have multiple CLIP options each year, with a variety of topics including environmental justice and mental health awareness.

Many months have passed since we exchanged crowded train rides and early morning coffee runs with Zoom meetings in pajama bottoms. Here we are, still in a pandemic. We still need to engage our youth, meet them where they are, and develop the next generation of justice leaders to understand the importance of building relationships and interrogating the root causes of injustice. We still need to work to develop deeper, broader relationships with nonprofit organizations across Greater Boston. Most of all, we still need to act in the face of injustice, no matter what hurdles are thrown our way.

Tali Puterman is Assistant Director of Social Justice Engagement Temple Israel, Boston.