Monthly Archives: November 2013

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Who’s Got Rights?

This year my internship placement for the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship is with The Advocacy Lab (AdLab), an organization whose mission is to empower youth to take action around human rights.  Twice a week, I co-facilitate a human rights course in a Brooklyn public high school to help 10th graders learn advocacy tools to fight for their own rights as well as for wider humanity.  During the first half of the year, we discuss various human rights issues including racial discrimination, children’s rights, environmental rights, gender and LGBT equality, and sex trafficking.  For each unit, we do an “Action Through Arts,” in which we incorporate an arts project so students can explore creative forms of advocacy. In December, the students will choose an issue we’ve been studying, and spend the rest of the year running a campaign to address it.

Working at AdLab uniquely combines many of my different interests.  I’m a Human Rights major at Barnard and I believe that everyone should be informed about human rights violations, so it’s really exciting to get to bring the topics I’ve been studying in college to a public high school classroom.  Public education is another one of my interests – this summer I participated in the Urban Education Leaders Internship Program with DC Public Schools, and I may want to go into education after college – so I jumped at the opportunity to get to become familiar with a NYC public school.  Most of my teaching experience before this was with younger students, so I wanted to try teaching high school students to find out if I like the older age group (turns out I do!). Lastly, the arts have always been an important part of my life, and I love that AdLab incorporates the arts into each unit as a way to spark students’ interest, as well as utilize their diverse talents.  Over the last two months, these classes have often, if not always, been the highlight of my week.

The school where we work is located in a low-income area, and my 10th graders are at a 6th-8th grade reading and writing level.  About half have learning disabilities, several are immigrants, and many have attendance problems.  One thing that’s special about human rights education is that unlike math, science, or literature, anyone can relate to the material, regardless of skill level.  It’s so inspiring to see the students that I know struggle in other subjects participate in our discussions and offer their understandings of various human rights issues.  In our unit on racial discrimination, many of the male students offered anecdotal comments about their experiences with Stop and Frisk.  I was beyond impressed with their Action Through Arts projects that week – they designed T-shirts with images or phrases protesting racial discrimination.  I was moved by both their artistic talent and their wit.

At our Fellowship orientation as well as in subsequent meetings, we’ve discussed how we each relate social justice to Judaism.  I feel that as Jews, we have a unique ability to relate to other groups that face oppression, discrimination, and other types of hardships.  Every Jew knows that his/her people spent most of history facing some sort of persecution, discrimination, or marginalization.  Fortunately, I don’t think I have ever experienced anti-Semitism or under-privilege because of my Jewishness, at least not directly.  But because memories of such hardship is so vivid in the Jewish collective memory, I feel both an ability and a responsibility to connect with groups currently going through such hardships.

We’ve also spent time in the Fellowship discussing the various “levels” at which we can engage in social justice.  I like working with AdLab because I feel I’m doing social justice work at two different levels.  One is that I’m working with students who are receiving less than adequate education.  The other is that the content of our course addresses serious human rights issues, and my students are taking action for them.  Two weeks ago, they wrote letters to the UN asking that all countries ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  Next semester, during the campaign part of the course, they will spend three months working for social justice themselves.  Thus, through my students, I hopefully will be able to impact a larger social issue.

To learn more about AdLab, check out this great YouTube video! Amnesty International has also created a youth arm to bring young people into human rights advocacy – visit their site here to find out how high schoolers and college students are getting involved in this important work. For information on creating curricula that help teach human rights, the Carter Center has several high-school level lesson plans that are offered to as a free resource to teachers. 

Morgan at the NYBG

Radical Amazement and Environmental Stewardship

“Can you see why this place is my salvation?” I overheard this from a visitor while putting up signs for the New York Botanical Garden’s Kiku poetry walk, and it affected my beliefs about the role of environmental social justice.

Growing up, I knew that the earth – a precious resource that had become a dumping ground by society – needed to be saved in order to ensure our survival and that of the rest of the ecosphere. Like many environmentalists, I focused on global warming and recycling, crucial work that highlights the urgency to take action around our current environmental crisis. But being taught to love the environment is something that’s often lacking in the environmental movement. This is something that strikes me over and over again when I witness awestruck visitors at the NYBG. How we engage with nature is so connected to our dedication to the earth, and to our own personal well-being.

I never really thought of environmentalism as an example of social justice. I’ve always associated the term “social justice” with addressing social issues such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger. But social justice is more than just helping people – it’s also about solving problems caused by society. How those problems are addressed is up to interpretation.

Environmentalism in the Bible is also up to interpretation. From my understanding, in Genesis God commands Adam to be a steward of the land, and not have dominion over it like some critics point out. However, Adam didn’t have to deal with pollution, so when he took care of the land, he just took care of his own land. If Adam lived when people were polluting the land and rivers to their own detriment, how would he have acted? Does stewardship also mean protecting the land from people? I think so. And that, among other reasons, is why environmental action is a Jewish social justice.

I feel that my placement at the NYBG is interesting in the context of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. My position as an exhibitions intern is not about addressing environmental injustices -  instead I am teaching about the environment and nature through various special exhibits. Some of the events I have worked on are the Giant Pumpkin Weekend and the Holiday Train Show (an exhibit that opens this week and is going to be great – you should check it out!).

Earlier in my life, education did not seem like a real way to execute social justice, but as I have matured, I realize that if people don’t know about something, they aren’t going to care or act on it. But just providing facts isn’t the way to inspire change, which is why the NYBG and botanical gardens everywhere are such an asset to society. People come to the garden for all sorts of reasons: as a field trip, for bird watching, even to run the trails. I never realized how much of a place of salvation the garden can act for some people. The New York Botanical Garden is a place of environmental wonder, teaching its visitors to love nature. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

One of my Columbia professors says that if everyone loved nature, the environment, and the planet, environmental legislation would pass more quickly. Not only would it be a completely obvious focus of voters, but it would be a primary focus of politicians too because of their own love for the environment. Participating in the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has helped me connect this sense of amazement to my environmental work, as well as to the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam. It has been inspiring learning from socially and environmentally progressive organizations such as Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat about their organizational models and how they foster social good in their individual communities. One day I hope to start an organization of my own, and having learned the importance of radical amazement in achieving social change from the NYBG, I will be sure to incorporate this into my work every day.

Danielle being surprised by her fiancee while at the Israeli Consulate for ReThink Israel

Who is Jewish Social Justice For?

As part of the JTS Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, we have been engaged in a number of social justice-related discussions this year.   Two particular areas of ongoing discussion that relate directly to the work we’re doing in our internships revolve around: what’s Jewish about social justice and who Jewish social justice is for. Since our 2013-2014 cohort convened in August, we have spent a lot of time teasing out what, specifically, is Jewish about social justice.  We ask questions ranging from what elements of Jewish tradition call for social action to why we consider social justice a Jewish value.  Secondly, we look at the question of who should be the beneficiary of Jewish social justice.  If our goal is to ease global suffering, but we feel the need to do so in a uniquely Jewish context, should Jews primarily benefit from social change efforts or should we cater to a more universal market?  I find this second question exceptionally fascinating, and would like to explore this inquiry further.

It is interesting to note that out of ten fellows in this year’s Fellowship, only two are working for specifically Jewish social justice organizations.  I am one of these two students, working for a new social media-based Israel education campaign called “ReThink Israel” – shameless plug alert!: check us out at www.rethinkisrael.org.  I chose to work at ReThink Israel as part of this Fellowship because Israel allows the Jewish people the freedom to self-determination.  As a Jew, I find this issue to be of central importance for two reasons.  Firstly, self-determination provides Jews with a stronger defense system against persecution, and allows Jews a level of sovereignty they have not experienced for thousands of years.  Secondly, self-determination also allows for many Jews to connect with their Judaism on a deeper level.  This latter idea particularly resonates with me, as this contributes to a person’s development of a deep-rooted Jewish identity.  Whether physically, politically, religiously or culturally, self-determination is a crucial element of social justice that cannot be overlooked -  and why working for Israel is so important. Through Rethink Israel, I hope to educate and energize young American Jews around Israel and Israeli social justice through targeted, social media-based pitches. By using new technology to widen Israel’s support, ReThink Israel is committed to assuring Israel’s self-determination in the future.

The personal Jewish motivations behind my internship choice are obvious, as well as my belief that the safety of Israel should be a top priority for the Jewish people.  Therefore, sometimes I struggle with the focus of some Jewish organizations on efforts that – while noble and necessary – are not uniquely Jewish.  Each week I hear of the amazing work that everyone in our Fellowship cohort is doing at their various internships, as well as the overall importance of their respective organizations.  Yet, I wonder if these are efforts we as Jews should pursue, especially over Jewish causes – many of which are also devoted to social justice.  After all, while many Americans donate to the Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund, Jews are the primary supporters of Jewish social justice efforts.  Without Jewish support, Jewish social justice initiatives that many Jews around the world benefit from will cease to exist.

Over the course of the Fellowship, we have discussed this big question at length and in great detail.  First we looked at the Talmud’s opinion regarding the matter, and concluded that while the Talmud clearly states a need to prioritize helping Jews over non-Jews, other Talmudic passages assert the exact opposite notion.  Additionally, different contemporary rabbis have used these sources to support his or her particular opinion, thereby leaving us in the same state of doubt.  We are left, then, with the same questions.  How should a Jew decide which organizations to support?  Where to proceed from here?

The need to ask these questions is one of the greatest take-aways from my participation in JTS’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship.  While we each intern for organizations that serve different populations and tackle different social problems, we are all striving to define our work from a uniquely Jewish perspective.  No matter what our experience, we infuse it with Jewish meaning that will enhance our lives – and the lives of those we serve – in multiple ways.  Perhaps then, maintaining this balance may be enough, no matter what type of social justice we try to pursue.

What are your views on how Jews should enact tikkun olam? For some differing opinions on the particularism versus universalism debate, check out these articles:

Danielle was recently proposed to while on the job at ReThink Israel! Her fiancee surprised her at the Israeli Consulate, which wrote a story about the event here