This is what community looks like

True justice requires that we show up

In Short

The centrality of justice in Jewish life is not a given; it is a choice to recognize it as such and make that real again and again. And what we at Avodah have found is that many Jewish leaders are making that choice or want to.

Three years ago, I was with a Jewish delegation at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., led by the visionary JWOC (Jewish Women of Color) Marching. As we gathered to walk over, Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier drummed and led us in call and response: 

This is what community looks like.

This is what the family looks like.

This is what the Jews look like.

As I’ve worked toward the launch of the new Avodah Institute for Social Change, that moment has been coming to mind: the soul-filling warmth of shared purpose in dark times, the love found in collective action. Yes, this is what our Jewish communal family can and does look like, in all its beauty and complexity. Those of us who gathered that day did not all agree with each other or with everything about the event. But we knew we could still march together, work towards a better world together and continue to figure out the hard stuff as we went. The question for us at Avodah has been: How can we build more pathways to moments like that one, a clearer map of the many ways that more Jewish institutions can be a part of deep, sustainable, effective and accountable work for justice in all of its challenges and joy?

For a long time, Avodah’s work was focused on a smaller and more specific slice of the Jewish population: emerging leaders already committed to justice work. Through our Service Corps and Justice Fellowship, we developed and honed the key elements of our theory of change: that if individuals get to develop deep and trusting relationships, bring their full and complicated selves to their justice work, and both joyfully draw on and productively struggle with Judaism’s rich traditions and history, their leadership can change the Jewish organizational and communal landscape.

We’ve seen how those combined elements have helped our participants cement their commitment to social change, find an authentic place in Jewish community -even after periods of feeling alienated from it- and build skills to grow as leaders. We’ve also seen that impact ripple out beyond those individuals, bringing others in their lives deeper into engagement with issues from health care access to restorative justice to tenants’ rights and on and on.

Over the years, we have heard more and more from the wider Jewish community that they need these tools as well, that they want to bring justice into their work but “we don’t know where to start” or “we’re stuck in the book club phase.” And yet, while there is inspiring work happening across the country from our various partners in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, many Jews either don’t know about these organizations or haven’t yet found the right entry points to get involved.

So Avodah embarked on a research process to help us better understand that gap. Across our learning we found seven key takeaways. Specifically, we found that a large cross-section of Jewish leaders:

  • have come to see justice as integral to their leadership and want to better incorporate it into their work even if it’s not their organization’s explicit focus;
  • need a centralized hub for accessing relevant justice materials, case studies, training and opportunities for collaboration;  
  • believe their communities want more in-depth education that explores root causes of injustice with corresponding action steps;
  • want to better understand how to facilitate conversations about where antisemitism fits into a broader analysis of other oppressions; 
  • struggle especially with justice engagement when there’s overlap with anything relating to Israel/Palestine and feel they lack the tools to work through those challenges effectively;
  • and feel unfamiliar with evolving social justice language and terminology and want to be able to learn new terms and ideas without fear or shame.
  • Finally, we heard from the consultants and organizations in the Jewish justice field that there is still tremendous need for foundational work in the communities they’re training and organizing. We heard about racist microagressions in DEI committee meetings, skepticism of local partner organizations, and the hard work of uprooting deep-seated mindsets from white saviorism to “that’s not our issue” to “I have to care for my own first.” 

The challenges are big but not insurmountable. They need time and attention, care and healing, connection and learning. And most essentially, they require us to show up again and again, to work through deep discomfort and acknowledge culpability. We have to let ourselves be truly changed: the ways we think and act, where and how we spend and raise our money, how and what we teach and write and talk about.

Of course, there are many things that keep these challenges from being addressed – we get overwhelmed by guilt, fear, denial, questions, the sheer scope of the problems, or our personal pains, stresses and responsibilities. And the Jewish relationship to justice isn’t simple either. Yes, Jewish law does include visionary examples of wealth redistribution in tzedakah, the radical rest of Shabbat, instructions for how to treat others with constant dignity and respect and so much more – but it also includes underlying and sometimes explicit racism, patriarchal domination and preservation of the status quo. And yes, we learn the stories of deep Jewish involvement in labor protests, civil rights and so many other essential fights – and at the same time it is also true that many white Jews have stepped away from those movements as we became more comfortable and more protective of privilege. 

The centrality of justice in Jewish life is not a given; it is a choice to recognize it as such and make that real again and again. And what we at Avodah have found is that many Jewish leaders are making that choice or want to. There are many people out there trying to move projects forward at their organizations but who need collaborators and resources. There are also many who want to step into the work for the first time. With better support, they can work together to lay the groundwork for deeper training, additional justice programming, more meaningful responses to current events, participation in organizing campaigns, and organizational policy changes. 

The Avodah Institute for Social Change is aiming to meet those needs. We are building program models for long-term cohort work, in-depth training and support, and more and newly-organized resources. We want to help as many people as possible find their pathway into this work and the guides, teachers and partners who will walk with them.

I look through what we heard from people over this past year when we asked them their visions of powerful Jewish engagement with justice: 

“…when the Jewish community thrives by working towards thriving for all;”

“…the generational healing of uprooting our own harmful practices;” 

“…honoring the preciousness of all human beings through b’tzelem elohim, the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine.” 

These visions are within reach, and are in fact already being realized in so many pockets of Jewish life. Dr. Frazier’s chants – this is what our community, our family looks like – are both aspirational and real. Our hope is that the Avodah Institute for Social Change will help more Jewish leaders bring their particular slices of the community into that vision and find their place on the pathways of this map. It is a messy, imperfect, beautiful map with paths that go back far before us and will go on far beyond us, a vision imbued with the joy of showing up for and with each other. Join us.   

Learn more about the Avodah Institute for Social Change at www.avodah.net/institute.

Sarra Alpert is the director of the Avodah Institute for Social Change.