The Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI) in Boston is a year-long fellowship that teaches the next generation of Jewish leaders about community organizing: helping empower under-served communities to organize themselves, build leadership from within, and bring about systemic change. Many JOI participants are new to the idea and/or practice of community organizing before joining the program. And many alumni say that their exposure to these techniques and philosophies deeply impacted them during their fellowship year, and continue to influence their work and life after the fellowship ends.
We asked four JOI alumni to share their thoughts and perspectives on how community organizing has shaped them as practitioners of tikkun olam. Below the jump: find out what they had to say:
“Community organizing has given me a lens for seeing and understanding how I can make the most meaningful impact on the world around me. Like many American Jews, my first foray into tikkun olam was volunteering for a soup kitchen at a homeless shelter. This experience exposed me to a world of suffering and deprivation, pushing me to try to make a connection with others across a gulf of difference. Yet I also felt pained and confounded by the seeming futility of my efforts to create lasting change.
Today, working as an organizer, I identify people who seek to shift the structures of power in their lives. I support their leadership in creating change in their own communities. For example, I worked with a lesbian Jewish day school teacher who was at risk of being fired because her school lacked an inclusive non-discrimination policy. Together, we identified allies in the parent community who successfully lobbied for the passage of a proposal to the school board to add sexual orientation as a protected category of employment. This work is often painstaking, slow, and full of setbacks, yet a step forward can mean enduring change. Handing a bowl of soup to a hungry person is an act of tikkun olam without a doubt. But what community organizing has taught me is that engaging in sustainable change from the ground up will create the just world I believe in and ensure its survival over the long term.” — Idit Klein / JOI ’98-99 / Executive Director of Keshet
“Community organizing provides me with a framework for doing Tikkun Olam. What has captured me [about community organizing] the most is the value placed on the development of leaders and the attention to people as a key element of the work and an essential element in creating more justice in our world. I have seen myself and other leaders grow in so many ways. Through this growth, we’ve been able to stand together and do amazing things that have changed the politics and power dynamics of our state and region.” — Lisa Vinikoor / JOI ’06-07 / Lead Organizer at the Merrimack Valley Project
“Community organizing has shaped my work as a practitioner of Tiikun Olam by basing my practice in relationships, in building power and in fighting for long term, systemic change. It has given me the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world, to fix it through building relationships with an incredibly diverse and wonderful group of people-from teens in Dorchester to Rabbis in Newton, from environmentalists to youth workers to lawyers-I have been able to build relationships with all sorts of different people and leverage those relationships to change the things I care about it.
This process has helped me build the capacity to shape the world in a way that I feel is more fair and more just. Lastly I have been able to fix the world, practice tikkun olam in very concrete ways. For instance, I have been able to win more funding, two years in a row to fund after-school jobs for teens in Dorchester. —Dan Gelbtuch / ’07-’08 / Organizer for Youth Force at the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation
“Community organizing has shaped my work of Tikkun Olam by teaching me about power and leadership. The dictum of “it takes a village” did not have deep meaning for me until I saw that entrenched power structures are unwilling to change unless they are confronted by an equal force of organized people. I have experienced that alone I cannot repair the world, I can only dabble at the edges by helping a small number of people. However, being a community organizer, I have seen how by identifying leaders, teaching leadership skills, and acting together we can begin the process of rebuilding our communities.” —Dan Lesser /JOI ’08-09 / Organizer for United Interfaith Action