On September 15, Repair the World is hosting Service Matters: A Summit on Jewish Service in New York City. This exciting gathering will convene leaders in the fields of service and social justice – both within the Jewish world and beyond – for a day of idea sharing, case studies, and conversation. In advance of the summit, we are opening up the blog to some of our inspirational speakers and giving them a platform to share their experiences and wisdom from the field. First up, Abby Levine – Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of 52 organizations pursuing justice from a Jewish perspective.

How did you end up working in the field of service and social justice?
I believe that this work of making change from a Jewish perspective is about, to borrow a phrase coined by the late, great Leonard Fein, “fighting for the soul of the Jewish people.” The Jewish values of siding with the underdog, working to make the world better, and seeing each person as having value, motivate everything I do. They were instilled in me by my parents, sisters, and extended family. This work is what I was raised to do, and I am forever indebted to that support and legacy.

How does the JSJRT encourage service and civic engagement across its network of organizations?
We provide trainings and support to all 52 of our organizations to help them do their work better. Most recently we held a training for staff and board leaders about how to build a strong board of directors with nonprofit expert Joan Garry. We also strategically build the visibility of the Jewish social justice field. We organized and released a letter on behalf of Jewish justice organizations denouncing racist and xenophobic rhetoric in July which successfully shifted the public debate. We believe that letter spoke for the majority of American Jews and their reaction to the disturbing trends in our current moment. Making those concerns public, grounded in Jewish values and experiences, is an example of the Roundtable at its best.

Could you share a lesson or piece of wisdom gleaned from your own experience about how organizations can most effectively engage in service and/or social justice?
One piece that I’m thinking about now is how important it is to not assume we know what is needed from our constituents or stakeholders, but instead to ask questions and listen deeply. I think of myself as a good listener but it is an ongoing skill to hone and develop.

In your own words, why does Jewish service matter?
Jewish service is a critical part of the spectrum of making change in our society today – particularly within a learning context and in community with others. Jewish service learning grounds social change work in the lived realities of people struggling with poverty, powerlessness and oppression.