Direct Service or Community Organizing?

March through Boston's Back Bay to demand full-time jobs. Photo by Amy West

Direct Service or Community Organizing? choosing a model for change

by Rachel Van Thyn

I originally hail from the world of direct service – getting into the trenches and getting my hands dirty, doing the work on the front lines. The results are immediate and you feel like change is possible because you see it every day.

But in a class offered to seminary students through Jewish Funds for Justice and the Center for Jewish Organizing, this year I was presented with a different model: community organizing. This involves a slower process of building social capital through taking on a set of one-to-one relational conversations, learning what makes a person tick, what they care about, and the issues upon which they are motivated to act. Once you have gathered multiple stories from various people (which can be done in a salon or house meeting), you figure out what issue people have in common and leverage it to enact change in the immediate community.

“While we do need to provide food to people who are hungry, providing that kind of direct service again and again does not actually challenge the root causes of poverty. We have to work for systemic change,” said Marilyn Sneiderman, executive director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, a one-year trans-denominational program for young Jews that involves anti-poverty direct service work, community building, and study. “You can’t address the causes without engaging and organizing those who are suffering from society’s inequities. By integrating service work and organizing for systemic change, we can help people move from poverty, hopelessness, and despair to become activists who seize control of and change their lives, their communities, and society.”

As far back as the Torah, we have stories and laws surrounding care for the widowed, the hungry, and the stranger in our midst. “There has always been hunger and homelessness, and there is a long history of people who have dedicated themselves to serving the poor, and others who have fought against injustice… Core religious values inspired and guided their actions,” Sneiderman said.

Community organizing, too, has been around as long as there have been people acting collectively towards a common goal. However, in the 1940s, Saul Alinsky looked to what was happening in the world of organizing and saw room for change. Previously the focus had been on gathering individuals and building groups one person at a time. Alinsky saw the wisdom and power of institutions. He wanted to develop a model based on institutions, not individuals, to demonstrate to people that they have more power than they think, and to show that “power” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. In the 1960s, this approach was being used in congregations and faith-based organizing.

By the 1990s, there was a new shift, with more and more individuals taking on roles of leadership with a sense of ownership and mission, rather than just focusing on gathering members into their congregation. Today, the focus is also on sustainability, reaching out to young people, and adapting to changes in technology and communication.

“One question is, as young people are they are having in direct service opportunities, are there then going to be institutions they can be a part of as they get older that reflect the same sense of mission and fundamental values?” asked Meir Lakein, a community organizer with over 20 years of experience in the field, who is currently part of an effort to build a new national center for Jewish organizing being led by both the Jewish Organizing Initiative and Jewish Funds for Justice. “If a young person gets really passionate about direct service and then gets older and feels synagogues are stale, then we lose all that potential and energy… Our organizations need to be able to draw in the new talent and potential.”

Lakein has his own ideas for how to achieve that goal. “For the Jewish world, if we really want to transform things… we can’t just look at organizing as or social justice project. We have to look at it as how we can collectively live out these ideas… taking what we’re learning and applying it to strengthen the whole of our lives, and the lives of our children and families.”

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, who serves at congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, NJ, talked to me about putting in practice the integration of the community organizing model into his congregation, which is also well-known for its contribution in the world of direct service. When I asked how this balance between community organizing and direct service worked, he shared, “One aims to address immediate needs and the other attempts to get at root causes… Both are needed and both are models that speak to different self-interests that people have, different levels of patience and tolerance… It’s not really competing for the same core of people like sometimes happens in synagogue life… It increases the number of people doing justice work.”

The future of the social justice movement offers different but not contradictory approaches to build and leverage power to create lasting change. “What is exciting is that more and more young Jewish adults are paying attention to the world around them, seeing injustice in the world and wanting to do something about it. And it manifests itself in different ways,” Sneiderman said. “There are people who are outraged that, in the richest country in the world, people can’t afford for their kids to go to the doctor or receive the education they need and deserve; there are young people saying, ‘I want to get in there and make a difference.’”

What matters is that we continue to pursue tikkun olam and fight against injustice, with whatever model speaks to us the most.

Rachel Van Thyn was an AVODAH Corps Member in 2004-2005. She is currently studying for rabbinic ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is passionate about chaplaincy, the arts, social justice, and Jewish summer camp.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.