by Leah Koenig | October 26, 2011 | 0 comments
Anybody who thinks they are too young to change their communities or the world should talk with Daniel Lesser. Just 25-years old, Lesser is a rising star in the fields of justice and community organizing in Massachusetts.
An alum of Repair the World grantee-partner, the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI), he is the current Executive Director of Essex County Community Organizing (ECCO), a grassroots organization of 10 diverse religious congregations and institutions coming together to create change in their communities.
Daniel took a minute from his busy schedule to talk with Repair the World about catching the community organizing bug, how he helped expand a parent-teacher initiative from one to five schools, and how Judaism taught him to see the divine in all people.
Have you always been passionate about service and community organizing?
Growing up, my family had strong values around participating in the community. The temple I went to did tikkun olam work, things like volunteering in soup kitchens. So I had early experience with thinking about other people and how to help.
I began to think more about systemic policy change through my own experiences. My parents are professors at UMASS Amherst. When I was younger I was in special education classes – and my parents worked really hard advocating for me, tutoring me, and making sure that I got the assistance I needed. When I graduated high school, I realized I was the only person from my special ed classes going to college. That really angered me. I realized that it wasn’t really about how smart you were, but about who your parents were and where you fit into the system. I thought a lot about what could’ve happened to me if I didn’t have the supportive parents I had.
How did you find JOI?
At Oberlin College I got really into social justice work. While in school I worked at Oberlin high school and noticed a huge divide between the mostly white, high socio-economic standing white students and the less privileged African American students. The two schools were only a mile apart, but they were completely different worlds. They had poverty issues and violence that the college never saw. It was hard to go back to the college world and see so much experimenting and excitement and challenges happening, and know that it was not accessible to everyone.
When I graduated, I wanted to work as a community organizer. I started looking around online and found JOI – it seemed like a great fit for my interest in policy and my Jewish identity. The Jewish piece, at the time, just seemed like a nice bonus because I didn’t have a real sense that my interests in community organizing had anything to do with my Jewish experience. I quickly learned it did!
Where did you work during your JOI year?
I was placed at an organization called United Interfaith Action (UIA) – it’s a broad based community organizing effort of 18 congregations and 15,000 families in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I worked there for three years, working with a diverse group of white, Portuguese, African American and Latino communities, as well as different churches and synagogues. I had a chance to do exciting work around education reform, supporting and strategizing a program where teachers are paid to visit parents at home in an effort to increase parental involvement and strengthen communication between parents and teachers. That program is now expanding to five schools this year.
What did JOI teach you?
JOI was a great experience. It taught me good community organizing skills and helped me go through a personal faith journey to understand how Judaism plays a role in justice work – things like the exodus narrative, and the idea of covenant and obligation to community. Finally, the type of organizing I do is about building relationships and trust with the congregations I work with. JOI helped me realize that in Judaism, we think of all people as created in the image of the divine. Having that concept has helped me see the divine in all people and create stronger relationships.
Why did you start working at ECCO?
For me, it felt like a new challenge and a new environment. Like UIA, ECCO works with congregations, helping them to think regionally about the issues that impact their communities and figure out how best to respond. As Executive Director I have to fundraise more and think more strategically, but it’s been exciting to think with people about what it would look like to have congregations doing interfaith community organizing work. Congregations are typically very good at doing soup kitchen volunteering and food drives, but they’re less used to thinking about addressing root causes. Once they think about it, it can be a little scary – but it’s also very exciting.
Do people ever tell you you’re too young to be an Executive Director?
I’m 25, which I know is young to be an Executive Director, but I believe that one’s confidence and how they hold themselves really sends a signal to people about how they are.
Post JOI, how do you connect your Jewish heritage with your service and social justice work?
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I operate on the understanding that Judaism calls for justice. JOI also gave me a language to talk about my faith. I tell my story a lot as part of my work – sharing my Jewish journey helps people from other faith traditions understand where I’m coming from.
by Leah Koenig | October 5, 2011 | 1 comment
Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar’s most sacred and solemn day, begins this Friday night. The first thing most people think about when they think about Yom Kippur is fasting. And for good reason – many Jewish people refrain from eating and drinking throughout the 25-hour holiday.
But what we sometimes forget to ask is, why do we fast? What purpose does it serve – either for our own spirituality and for the world? One of the verses we read and recite during services on Yom Kippur is a passage from Isaiah, which dives into this very question. It reads:
Is such the fast I desire a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share the bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin.
In other words, fasting one’s body may be an important way to connect to the holiday. But the real fast that God desires is for people to work for justice: to shake up the status quo of oppression, share bread with the hungry, take the poor into our homes and clothe the naked. According to the text, these actions are the truest and most profound way to “fast.” Not eating on Yom Kippur, then, is an intense physical reminder of the type of work we should be doing all year round.
This year, take your Yom Kippur fast to a new place by committing to serve, volunteer or donate for justice. Here are some ideas to get you started – both during the high holiday season, or throughout the year.
Let the oppressed go free
- Donate to or volunteer with Repair the World grantee-partner American Jewish World Service, another international development organization working for justice.
- Advocate for rights and justice. Get involved with community organizing, either locally or through an organization like Repair the World grantee-partners, the Jewish Organizing Initiative and the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice.
Share bread with the hungry
- Volunteer with City Harvest, a food rescue organization dedicated to feeding New York City’s hungry people.
- Donate to Mazon, a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to preventing and alleviating hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds.
- Donate to Hazon Yeshaya an Israel-based humanitarian network dedicated to feeding, healing and training the country’s poorest residents.
- Check out Hazon’s Food Guide, a compilation of resources and practical ideas to help Jewish people and institutions make good, healthy food choices. (There’s a whole chapter dedicated to food justice)
Learn about the 2012 Farm Bill, a bill passed by congress that impacts the lives of farmers and eaters (especially people in low-income communities and people who rely on food stamps and other forms of government food assistance) across the country.
Take the poor into your home
- Volunteer with or donate to Dorot, a Jewish Federation-supported organization which, among other services, offers safe transitional housing for Jewish seniors who are facing homelessness.
- Donate to Coalition for the Homeless, or another advocacy and direct service organization working to help homeless men, women, and children.
Clothe the naked
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- Donate your gently used clothing to Project Machson, a Jewish federation-supported clothing center on wheels that brings new clothing directly to the poor in their neighborhoods. Or find another Jewish clothing donation organization in your neighborhood.
- Volunteer with Dress for Success, an organization that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing them with professional attire and career development tools to help them thrive in the workplace.
- Donate your next haircut to Locks of Love, and organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged kids suffering from hair loss from cancer treatments and other medical diagnoses.
by Chava Hassan | November 29, 2010 | 0 comments
“Community organizing means developing leaders and bringing people together to form powerful organizations that allow people to act on their own behalf to make systemic changes in their lives.” —Jewish Organizing Initiative
When I applied to the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI) in spring of 2005, I had never heard of community organizing. I was finishing up a Master’s degree in modern rabbinic literature and several years of struggling with being Modern Orthodox and a feminist. By the age of 23, I knew that feminism had won out and that I could no longer identify as Orthodox. So I searched for a place outside of the academic world where I could maintain two sets of values in a mutually inclusive way: my commitment to justice and my commitment to Jewish community. The former grew out of my experiences as a feminist Orthodox woman and the intense alienation and disempowerment I had encountered there. And the latter had been inbred in me since I was a small child, the daughter of parents who built their lives around synagogue life and whose unfailing dedication to their community has often seemed unparalleled.
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by Leah Koenig | April 26, 2010 | 1 comment
Eliza Parad has social work in her blood. Literally everyone in her family – her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brother and even sister-in-law – are committed social workers. And while, like her family members Eliza graduated college with a deep commitment to social change, she found herself growing deeply frustrated with the model of direct advocacy.
This past year through a bit of “right place right time” luck, Eliza became a fellow at the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI), a Boston-based organization that runs a year-long fellowship that engages Jewish activists in their 20s-30s in fostering “community organizing as a strategy for social change.” Over the past year, the JOI experience has surprised Eliza in more ways than one, and enlivened her enthusiasm for both her work and Jewish life. Eliza took a moment to speak with me about the importance of building power in a community, finding strength in numbers, and her experience co-leading her family’s seder for the first time.
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