Tag Archives: JTS

children

Courageous Classrooms

“A few Januarys ago, I took out a book about Martin Luther King Jr. to read to the students. One girl – the only Black student in the class – puts her head down on her desk and complains, ‘Why do we always have to read this book?’ I was a little taken aback and explained to her that the topic is very important. She starts to cry and says, ‘I just don’t want to do it.’”

This story is an example of a teachable race moment. Similar situations happen in classrooms every day, but they often do not get addressed. Talking about race can be uncomfortable, awkward, and scary, even for adults. As difficult as these situations may be, they are also incredible opportunities for dialogue and learning.

This year I am interning with Border Crossers, an organization that trains educators to be leaders of racial justice in their schools.  Border Crosser’s “Talking About Race with K-5” workshop provides teachers with skills and resources they can use to talk to their students about race. Part of the workshop focuses on ways to respond to scenarios that happen in the classroom, like affirming a student’s comment or asking clarifying questions. Additionally, the workshop empowers teachers to initiate conversations about race and diversity throughout the school year.

This workshop has a significant impact on its participants. Through reading post-workshop evaluations and creating reports on the effectiveness of the workshops, I have seen the concrete strategies teachers gained through Border Crossers. And through attending the workshop myself, I have been even more amazed by the passion and determination teachers wanted to bring back to their classrooms.

Racial inequality can seem like too large of an issue to tackle. We see examples of it in everything from healthcare to housing. I believe that ensuring children feel comfortable speaking up against injustice is the first step to tackling these issues.

Investing in children is a personal value for me, but it is also a Jewish value. Isaiah 54:13 says, “And all your children will be taught of the Lord, and great will be the peace of your children.” A popular midrash on this verse explains that the word meaning children (banayikh) should be changed to builders (bonayikh). This midrash teaches that our children quickly become our builders; they are the ones who can shape and make changes to society. As a participant in List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I feel lucky to connect these Jewish values with practical efforts on the ground to effect racial justice.

As Border Crossers trains more and more teachers each year, their message of racial justice spreads to more and more students. These children, who learn to have tough conversations about race at a young age, will hopefully continue these conversations as adults. The children Border Crossers reaches will be the builders of an equal and just society in which conversations about people of other races are not limited to talking about Martin Luther King Jr. in January.

In 2012, The New York Times ran a sobering series on the scope of racial disparities in the NYC school system – this article featured some of Border Crossers’ work.

To learn tools on how to talk to children about race, read this great blog post by Border Crossers Executive Director, Jaime-Jin Lewis. Additionally, here is a powerful video on the creator of the Courageous Conversations About Race curriculum, which is used all over the world to engage students in these kinds of discussions.

Environmental Justice Field Trip

Last Friday the Fellowship went on an environmental justice field trip to visit Greyston Bakery and Rocking the Boat. We spent the gorgeous day outdoors and learning from these innovative organizations about how they affect change and address environmental injustices in their local communities.

Environmental justice is the movement that focuses on building healthy communities in the areas most affected by environmental health threats – consistently poor communities of color. Environmental justice activists are committed to increasing accessibility to clean air, green spaces, good food, and green jobs. In doing so, they attempt to redress generations of environmental racism and poverty. To learn more about environmental justice work in the South Bronx, read Fellows’ blog post from last year. 

Founded in 1982, Greyston Bakery was one of the first social enterprises in the country. As the supplier of all the Ben & Jerry’s brownie chunks, their commitment to social good is reflected in their tagline: “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.” They serve their local Yonkers community through a number of innovative programming, such as an open hiring policy, workforce development training, and affordable housing. Greyston has a strong commitment to the environment as well – solar panels power the plant, they source fair-trade ingredients, and have implemented green operations such as single-stream recycling and a rooftop garden. Their foundation also maintains 19 community gardens to provide fresh produce to their employees and the surrounding area.

Rocking the Boat is a youth development organization based in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx – historically, one of the poorest and most polluted areas of the country. They use traditional wooden boatbuilding and on-water education to empower teens and restore the Bronx River. We got to tour their facility and learn about the history of the organization before hitting the water ourselves! Once on our boats, we learned about the efforts that Rocking the Boat together with other local green organizations, such as the Bronx River Alliance, are making to clean up the Bronx River, revive the indigenous ecosystem, and increase community access to the river. (We also developed some mean upper body strength by rowing against the river’s current).

It was inspiring to meet with each organization and learn about the social good they create in their local communities. We look forward to our next field trip – in the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow!

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Dare to Use the F-Word

I’ve never exactly considered myself a feminist, per sé – I mean, I’m all for equal pay for equal work, and I cherish the opportunity I’ve been given to receive a quality education regardless of my preferred gender pronoun, but a bra-burning man hater? Not quite my thing. And yet, a recent visit to our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship by Pippi Kessler, Program Director for Ma’yan, engaged me with a feminist perspective that I had yet to consider.  Ma’yan “provides feminist, social justice, and leadership training to teen girls and teaches vital skills to parents and educators,” and their statement of vision and values includes the monumental task of “striv[ing] to make our community and the wider world a better place for girls and women [and] envision[ing] a society where young people of all gender identities are supported and taken seriously by adults.”

Along those lines, we began our session with an activity designed to enhance our awareness of “male” privilege.  I say male with a bit of hesitation, because as we quickly realized, the array of privileges being described could often only be attributed to heterosexual, cisgender males.  Nevertheless, as we read the various statements aloud, I noticed, quite uncomfortably, how gendered the language was, how much I identified with many of the statements, how frustrated I felt as a woman.  Of course I was discouraged by the continued disparities between men and women that span both personal and professional life, but what angered me more was not the inequalities themselves, but rather, the underlying attitudes in our society that continue to perpetuate these pervasive inconsistencies.  As the conversation continued, we discussed various methods of change, from enacting large-scale procedures and policies, to modifying our lived behaviors, values, and beliefs.  I began to realize that though expansive gender equality legislation is essential, for maximum effect it is crucial to engage in honest, thoughtful dialogue at a personal level.

Which led us to the next part of the program.  After a passionate discussion about our initial understandings of gender inequality, Pippi screened for us raw footage of one of Ma’yan’s latest projects – in their programming specifically geared towards teenage girls, the current topic of conversation revolves around sexism in the media.  The unrealistic, and often unhealthy, expectations of young women in American society largely stem from the vast media culture in which the majority of Americans revel.  Young girls, now more than ever, face an increasingly-sexualized prepubescent existence; crop tops and miniskirts fill the racks of “tween” clothing stores, Miley Cyrus’ and Katy Perry’s “sexcapades” provide the soundtrack for their lives, and beauty regimens and fad diets are increasingly marketed exclusively for, and directly to, teenage girls.  And yet, when asked about how this affects their own beliefs and values, the teens honestly and thoughtfully linked their self-esteem and mental health with the barrage of media aimed at promoting an impossible standard by which young women strive tirelessly to achieve.  Furthermore, the participants in this film were not solely Jewish, and though Ma’yan is a Jewish organization, creating a space in which both Jewish and non-Jewish girls are able to engage with these difficult issues provides a key link between feminism as both a Jewish value, based on our sacred texts and fundamental practices, as well as an American value of equality of opportunity for all.

Issues of gender are often discussed on our campus (the bold, beautiful Barnard women and their equally bold and beautiful Columbia counterparts make sure of it), but never had I experienced the conversation in quite this way.  Our cohort’s conversation with Pippi was indicative of the intention of the Fellowship program – contemplating larger issues in American society through a distinctly Jewish lens, and understanding how this enlightened perspective allows us to go forth with a renewed sense of purpose in our social justice work.  My own work with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps is another example of this interplay in action.  AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps “strengthens the Jewish community’s fight against the causes and effects of poverty in the United States by engaging participants in service and community-building that inspire them to become lifelong leaders for social change, whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish values.“  In addition to the Service Corps program, AVODAH has created a new Fellowship for Jewish early career professionals working to alleviate poverty in the United States, where participants are given mentorship, training, community, and networking opportunities to enhance their work and encourage leadership in Jewish social justice.  (Plug for both programs – check them out here! http://www.avodah.net/apply/ and http://www.avodah.net/fellowship/)  Both of these programs provide unique experiences for young Jews committed to social justice to learn both from each other and the populations with which they work, and facilitate a deeper understanding of how Judaism can, and should, play a role in their social justice efforts.

I walked away from our meeting with Pippi unbelievably inspired. Our Fellowship cohort has had discussions about “What’s Jewish about Social Justice” and how our work is influenced and informed by Jewish values, but seeing how those conversations are put into action by Ma’yan, AVODAH, and other similar organizations has given me a renewed sense of purpose in my own social justice journey.  I know these incredibly meaningful conversations will continue to enrich our Fellowship experience.

To learn more about sexism in the media – and the ways women and girls are constructing counter-narratives – check out PBS’s Makers project, where you can watch groundbreaking media educator Jean Kilbourgh, whose work inspired Ma’yan’s teen filmmakers. For work happening close to home, The Barnard Center for Research on Women puts on symposia and events to link feminist research and practice and the Women’s Media Center makes women visible and powerful in the media. 

To take action yourself, join feminist artist Suzanne Lacy on the streets of Brooklyn this weekend as part of a large-scale performance art and community organizing event: http://creativetime.org/suzannelacy/

Fatherhood in Progress

“My kid calls his mother’s boyfriend ‘dad,’” an impassioned father, let’s call him D., recounts. “He calls him ‘dad’ and he tells him he loves him.”

We were in the midst of a fatherhood workshop at the Midtown Community Court.  D’s thoughts were in response to an open prompt that the facilitator had posed to the group of fathers about their experiences with what we refer to as “co-parenting.”  For single fathers looking to be involved in their child’s life in real ways, co-parenting presents a host of challenges.

D. continued, “But when I met with the judge, she says to me, ‘Sir, isn’t the more people that loves your son, the better?’ I was like, whoa.  She got me.  That’s what it’s about.”

From here, another of the dads, R., weighed in:“But that’s your kid. You don’t want him calling someone else ‘daddy’!”

D had the final word as myself, the social workers on staff, and the other five dads participating in the group, looked on: “But it doesn’t matter.  During any of the stuff I’ve got going on with his mom, and there’s a lot of stuff, he’s what matters.  Having people love him has to be what matters.”

This fatherhood workshop, called 24/7 Dad, is part of a six weeklong Fatherhood & Workforce Training Program run out of the Midtown Community Court and the Center for Court Innovation.  Elements of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), concrete skills such as interviewing and resume building, and practice with social skills and emotional management, are incorporated into the program’s daily schedule.  As an intern for the program through List College’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I’ve been able to watch many moments unfold like the one recounted above.  In observing the back-and-forth between the dads during sessions, and in sitting down with many of them individually, I’ve been struck by the common threads that bind one story to the next, and one father to the next.  Upbringings with absent or abusive fathers, youths interrupted by daily stop-and-frisk police profiling, entire neighborhoods struggling to make ends meet – these elements come up over and over, which is part of why these sessions can be so normalizing and therapeutic for the dads: it is comforting, on some level, to be understood intuitively by others.

But attitudes toward parenting differ considerably among the dads, and not only when it comes to the role of male figures in their children’s lives.  The fatherhood workshops unearth a wide array of philosophies on masculinity, what it means to be a good father, role modeling, discipline, and so on.  I’ve heard articulations of fatherhood that could have been taken right off the page of any mid-20th century conservative family values guidebook, for all their heteronormative, patriarchal, corporal punishment-supporting ideals.  But I’ve also heard robust defenses of egalitarian marriages, rants about parents who spank their children, and hopes for a time when they could express their emotions openly with their partners and children without being made to feel like less of a man.  For me, it’s been an important reminder that it is not only those in the ivory tower who worry about a generation of children growing up fatherless, but also the fathers themselves.

The alternative sanctions, rehabilitation, mental health services, and workforce training programs that operate out of the Midtown Community Court, do so out of a recognition that the criminal justice system is flawed.  Longstanding systemic barriers contribute to the justice system’s revolving door; many of the same men and women enter and leave the courts, only to re-enter again later on – all without acknowledgment of the many root causes of their behavior and the many hurdles in their way.

In Midtown’s conception of what positive outcomes look like, and in their methodology for reaching them, I hear reverberations of Judaism’s sense of pragmatism and empathy.  In the canon of Jewish text, we find more than an enumeration of laws, case verdicts, and principles.  We find guidelines for how to mitigate between the world as it is encoded and the world as it is lived, and as Jews, we have communally internalized the fact that reality does not always match the ideal.  Systems do not always work.  Halakha (Jewish law) self-consciously and continuously accounts for the fact that it is a lived system, lived out by flawed humans, and that provisions must be made for an imperfect reality. Even what is ‘beyond’ the system is made room for within the system.   Any philosophy that contains a special Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) for Yom Kippur, a day when in theory no one is eating at all, must necessarily extend the same dose of practicality to all human beings’ complex realities.  I feel it is my obligation to recognize these shortcomings, work within my capacity to make society more just, and above all, seek to understand the particular circumstances of each individual from a place of dignity and humanity.

For more information about these programs and other innovative programs being run out of the Midtown Community Court, visit: http://www.courtinnovation.org/project/midtown-community-court.This year the Midtown Community Court celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. To learn more about its inception, watch this video with John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and founding director of the Midtown Community Court.

To get involved in the intricately related and unjustly pervasive issue of “Stop and Frisk,” through a Jewish avenue, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s initiative: http://www.jfrej.org/campaign-police-accountability

Thanks for a Great Year!

The 2012-2013 Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship has come to a close. We wish this year’s fellows – Sara, Ari, Deborah, Sam A, Mirit, Dafna, Ariela, David, Sam S, and Allison – the best of luck on the next leg of their social change journeys! Please return here in the fall to celebrate the work and learning of next year’s fellows. In the meantime, below are some photos from our environmental justice tour of the South Bronx for your enjoyment. We spent a wonderful day hearing from local activists from The Point about their experience greening their community – and helped out on their urban farm.

To learn more about environmental justice issues in the South Bronx, visit The Point - a grassroots organization dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of Hunts Point. Sustainable South Bronx and Rocking the Boat are two other local powerhouses working to advance environmental justice while empowering young people to take a lead in their own community.

 

WHAT We Do and HOW We Do It

How do you build effective, innovative, and sustainable organizations? Our friend Nigel Savage, Executive Director of Hazon, outlines what he’s learned in the Jewish food justice organization’s first thirteen years. It may seem obvious, but he says the key to success is WHAT we do and HOW we do it.

I founded Hazon as someone who was – and still is – fundamentally an idealist. The word hazon means “vision,” and I continue to believe that vision counts for a great deal in changing the world for good. But as each year has gone by I have become steadily more interested in a wide range of organizational issues: a series of internal cultural attributes that have gradually become true of Hazon and that I believe account for some of our success, such as it is, these last thirteen years. As we continue to plan for the future sustainability of the organization, I have outlined a few factors that have helped Hazon advance organizationally.

His tips for other idealists hoping to maximize organizational impact:

  • Connect a large vision with incremental steps
  • Leverage key partnerships and relationships
  • Focus on systems
  • Deeply commit to iterative excellence
  • Engage in learning, of all sorts

What do you think? Do you know of other organizations that have developed best practices to connect their vision and internal operations?

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FTK – For The Kids

Every day is typically the same routine – wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, attend classes and meetings, eat lunch, go to work, do homework, eat dinner, shower and sleep. I find that we are so caught up in our own lives that we don’t necessarily stop to think of others or appreciate the small things in life until a traumatic event or school fundraiser occurs. This is exactly what I have been struggling with all year as I participate in the Fellowship in Social Justice Entrepreneurship, through which I’ve been interning at Kids in Distressed Situations, Inc. (K.I.D.S.) since September.

K.I.D.S. is a non-profit organization that distributes new brand-name products to children and families suffering from abuse, illness, natural disasters, and poverty. We offer partner agencies a 10:1 ratio of product for every dollar donated. This semester my main responsibility at K.I.D.S. involves grants—learning how to write letters of intent and apply for specific grants. I research foundations and the grants they offer, begin establishing a partnership with the foundation, and start working on the grant application process. The grants we receive support our cause and our programs. Since our founding in 1985, K.I.D.S. has donated almost $1 billion worth of new merchandise to 70 million children and families in need across the United States and abroad. This is an extraordinary accomplishment of which I am proud to be a part; however, our efforts and work just doesn’t seem like it’s enough.

According to a report by NPR, fifteen percent of the U.S. population, meaning 46.2 million individuals, live below the federal poverty line. How can I buy a new dress or a cupcake or see a Broadway show when there are millions of people who could use that money for basic necessities such as clothes, food, shelter, education, and baby products? How can I indulge in certain luxuries after I read thank you notes from children and families who received diapers or a new pair of shoes from K.I.D.S.?

To be honest, there’s no real answer. Living a life full of guilt is no life at all, but living a life full of appreciating what you have and helping those in need is a different story. Through my internship with K.I.D.S., I hear and read about stories of young kids who see families and children suffer in the news or in their local community. These kids have then turned to their parents and ask what they can do to help. Many have organized product drives and fundraisers. Others have asked their family and friends to make a donation to K.I.D.S. in honor of their birthday rather than giving them a present. I have been so inspired by these children and my work at K.I.D.S. that I have learned the question to ask is not, “How can I not feel guilty?” but rather “How can I get people involved in our cause?” Organize a fundraiser, hold a product drive, spread the word, or volunteer. Help us expand our partnerships with foundations and local agencies, and help us expand the communities we reach. Support our cause and make a difference in the lives of millions of individuals. After all, it’s for the kids.

In its 28 years, K.I.D.S. has provided nearly $1 billion  to 70 million children. For more information, visit our website at http://www.kidsdonations.org/. Follow @kidsdonations

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Embracing My Intern Diva

Anyone who has ever interned knows that sometimes your day consists mostly of gruntwork – you might spend hours staring at spreadsheets or organizing files, yet you’re still expected to be overjoyed by the opportunity to spend time in the “big leagues.” Luckily for me, I’ve never experienced this in my current internship with Diva Communications. Not only do I get to learn from folks at the forefront of filmmaking for social justice, I’m treated like a bona fide staff-person, rather than just a lowly intern occupying a cubicle for a few months.

Thanks to The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I have been interning with Diva Communications since September. Diva is a one-of-a-kind, unorthodox, workaholic-natured multi-media company specializing in programming, production and post-production. The staff is dedicated to solving communication puzzles through the creative use of documentaries, news, corporate presentations and new media. They raise awareness of social issues otherwise not reported on in the mainstream media – often focusing on the intersectionality of justice-centered work and faith communities.

Diva Communications just released a documentary titled “Divine Prescription.” The film documents how people of faith can bring healing and wholeness to the lives of others through ministries of health care.  Though I missed the films debut while away on winter break, I returned to work  this semester to help promote the film’s airing on ABC network channels around the United States.

I love interning at Diva Communication because I feel as though I have the opportunity to learn something new every time I go into the office. For example, one Wednesday I was given a long list of local stations to call and ask when “Divine Prescription” would be aired – unfortunately, like many truth-tellers, our films are often relegated to the bottom of the TV schedule and air in the middle of the night. Though this task may sound like monotonous work, it certainly was not. I practiced my persuasive communication skills and learned how to advocate with a variety of different people, and was even able to get some stations to air the documentary earlier!

I am truly thankful for the time I have spent at Diva Communications thus far. It’s been incredible to see from the ground up how we can use media to raise awareness around various justice issues and build movements to address them, especially in faith communities. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow from the staff there.

What have your intern experiences been like? Leave us a comment below!

Want to learn how to leverage your creativity for the social good? Check out the Center for Artistic Activism and Paper Tiger TV, two NYC collectives that connect social activism and artistic practice. The Human Rights Watch Film Festival premiers international films on justice issues every summer. Also great is Kids Creative, an organization started by List College alum Adam Jacobs, that offers arts-based, peace education programs to students throughout the city.

Daring to Dream

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I’ve had the conversation thousands of times, with family, with friends, classmates, mentors. But never before had I had the conversation with a group of men whose lives had not been as privileged as mine has, men who have been incarcerated, homeless, and hopeless at one point or another in their lives.

There were many firsts I have found myself encountering in my internship position at Times Square Ink of Midtown Community Court.

Times Square Ink is a job training and placement assistance program that “helps participants improve decision-making skills and identity how their actions, feelings, and thoughts affect their behavior in everyday life” with the goal of presenting them with comprehensive programming that will provide them the necessary tools to enter the workforce and provide for themselves and their families.

Every six weeks we welcome a new group of men into our program, to help them process their pasts, build social support, and develop the skills needed to re-enter society with strength and healing. During the first session of each cycle, the men are posed with this question: what did you want to be when you were a child? It is such a simple answer for me. My earliest memories have me announcing to anyone who would listen that one day I was going to be the Prime Minister of Israel. Not just any Prime Minister, I was going to be like Golda Meir. Even as a young child, I saw in her the ideal of a strong and admirable woman, a determined woman who was able to create change against all odds. These were traits that at I was unable to articulate at the time, but held a power over me that lasts to this day. Yet as I sat in class with these men, sharing my own childhood dream and listening to theirs, my childhood aspiration seemed naïve and grandiose.

Participant after participant have spoken about their boyhood dreams of becoming the neighborhood pimp or the biggest drug dealer in Bronx.  One man said that all his life he wanted to be like his uncle, the neighborhood pimp, while another man spoke of always wanting to be like his father, a car mechanic, until he died from a drug overdose. Each man has his own story, and in relation my goal seemed to be somewhat silly.

Times Square Ink has given me the opportunity to work with a sector of the community that I previously had very few, if any, interactions with. Each session brings out new stories, traumas, jokes, and opportunities to learn between the men and myself, all of which force me to understand the deep-rooted complexities of their current situations.  The time I have spent at the Court has given me a larger understanding of the complexities of homelessness, the criminal justice system, and experiences of trauma.

But more importantly, my work at Midtown Community court has given me an opportunity to explore the inequalities that exist within our own communities. My experiences have forced me to question the relationship between power and privilege and how these two factors effect the communities in which we live in. It is only by understanding the roots of these issues that we can question how to break this cycle of injustice. These solutions demand that we are innovative and attempt not the easy path but rather the alternative path, and I am fortunate to have been given an opportunity to learn daily from those working on the ground how this path is forged.

Interested in hearing how other Columbia students are grappling with the Criminal Justice system? Check out information about the Beyond Bars, Moving Forward Conference happening on April 5th and 6th and featuring activists Angela Davis, Marc Lamont Hill, and  Soffiyah Elijah!

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Welcome!

Welcome to JTS Changemakers, the home of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship (FJSE) at List College of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The FJSE is a year-long intensive designed to help students develop and strengthen the skills needed to become effective changemakers. We are a group of nine List College juniors and seniors working with leading social-change agencies throughout New York City. Through on-the-ground training and service we help tackle a range of issues such as environmentalism, education, hunger, criminal justice, Jewish service, and interfaith collaboration. As Fellows we also participate in a seminar designed to help cultivate connections between Judaism, activism, and professional achievements. Through reflection, peer learning, team building, and project planning, we are developing concrete ways to put our passion for Jewish social justice into action.