Tag Archives: social justice

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End Trafficking Now

Sex trafficking is the exploitation of human beings through either forced or coerced sex work.  Anyone involved in sex work who is under the age of 18 is considered to be trafficked.  Contrary to what the name might imply, a person does not need to be smuggled or transported from one location to another in order to be trafficked; trafficking can and does occur to individuals within their own communities.  Though every victim’s story looks different, there are several trends in trafficking narratives.  In the United States, victims are often teenage girls of color coming from broken homes, and many are tricked, coerced, or threatened into sex work by older boyfriends.  Victims often suffer from physical and emotional abuse, and find it difficult to leave the sex work either because of threats from a pimp or because of a lack of other viable options.  There is a significant population of LGBT trafficking victims, which stems from the issue of homeless LGBT youth.  While it is less common for boys to become victims of trafficking, it certainly happens and usually goes unreported.

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.  After spending the first 3 months of the year discussing human rights issues ranging from racism to child soldiers to gender discrimination to environmental injustices, a majority of my students voted to spend the rest of the school year advocating on behalf of sex trafficking victims.  The campaign is multifaceted: They will be spreading awareness of sex trafficking in their school with informational posters, a video that depicts the typical sex trafficking narratives using their own skits, poetry, and music, and a school assembly to present their project.  They will also be selling wrist-bands that say “Put an end to sex trafficking!” in order to both spread awareness and fundraise for an organization that provides support for victims.  We hope to also incorporate a political advocacy component by having them write to or call politicians demanding better support systems for trafficking victims.

Last semester, the format of the class helped me to develop my teaching skills, and this semester, coordinating the campaign has pushed me in new ways.  It’s always a challenge to find a balance between giving the students enough freedom for them to take ownership of their advocacy campaign, and providing enough structure for them to work efficiently and stay on task.  Additionally, I’m constantly thinking about ways to continue to engage and inspire the students, because we are now focusing on just one main topic for several months.  These are questions I’m still grappling with, and like many things, I’m finding that they require a good deal of trial-and-error.

The human rights lessons last semester opened our students up to a range of various human rights issues occurring at home and abroad.  This semester, one of my goals is to help them develop useful skills through running an advocacy campaign.  We taught a lesson on effective internet research and finding reliable sources, and then devoted a few class sessions to active research in the school’s computer lab.  Students found informational material to put on their awareness posters and in their video, as well as organizations that address the issue of trafficking.  A few students were assigned the task of e-mailing the organizations and asking what they might be able to do to get involved in the issue.  The Advocacy Lab provides some funding for the students’ campaign, but in order to obtain access to the money, the students must submit a grant proposal outlining the goals of the campaign and the funds they’ll need for each part.  This required students to articulate their goals and make the case for why their campaign is important.  For most students, research, outreach, and certainly writing grant proposals, was new.  It was exciting for me to see my students improve and gain efficiency each day we went to the computer lab, knowing how important these skills will be – especially for the students that go to college in a couple years.

Teaching/facilitating has been a new adventure every single day.  I am so grateful to have the opportunity to learn from my students, and share with them my own passion for human rights.

Trafficking has been in the news lately as the world cries out after nearly 300 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from a boarding school and sold into “marriage.” To learn how you can help, this article is informative: http://abcnews.go.com/US/people-world-kidnapped-nigerian-girls/story?id=23623297. To learn more about Judaism’s response to sex-trafficking, check out this AJWS D’var Tzedek written by Rabbi Lisa Gelber, Associate Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School.

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“Who Cares?” Environmentalism on a Human Scale

Faces blasted with shrill air, ankles clad in snow and ice, many around the nation this winter witnessed a seeming reversal of climate scientists’ insistent, most dire warnings. Many a blogger and political cartoonist lampooned the predictions of climate science, pointing to the hoarfrost as evidence that global warming is, if not a hoax, then far less pressing a concern than we’ve imagined. In some ways, the climate debate has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that such quips can read as harmless jokes, the bone-shivering cold an irresistible target when we have come to expect record highs. Yet, at heart, these peanut-gallery protestations point to a deeper dynamic operating at the center of our society’s “climate debate.” The punchline of many a cartoon-strip from this January plays on the notion that direct, layman observation counters the absurd and abstract arguments of distant scientists. Beyond the polar vortexes, this notion has appeared time and again: in the debate over fossil fuel consumption, the operation of coal-fired plants, trash runoff into oceans, and beyond. Somehow, climate change remains of little to concern for almost half of Americans and invisible for 23% of the country’s population.[1]

This is, of course, an issue of scale, both spatial and temporal. While human lives and environmental degradation both proceed each day, the human scale is tied inevitably to what we can perceive directly. We sense changes either over short intervals or through distinct comparisons to past events (when we say, for example, that this winter is colder than last). Similarly, our senses only entitle us to a small window into the complex web of Earth’s natural systems. The instruments and methods that uncover these processes must abstract and quantify data in order to present them. As a result, there is a seeming fissure between how we live and how our planet operates on its largest scale.

At present, catastrophes seem the only way to bridge this gap on a large, public scale. Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City a sense of green urgency, and in its wake the Mayor’s Office has introduced a number of sweeping initiatives intended to reduce the city’s environmental impact. NYC Recycles appeared in April, 2013, and in December the city introduced a ban on the use of Styrofoam food packaging. These initiatives are laudable, but their arrival only after the hurricane points to a dangerous mindset that goes hand-in-hand with our general attitude towards climate change.  Rather than act to prevent disaster before it arrives, we only react viscerally to crises. Given a catastrophe on a larger scale, such a strategy is far from tenable.

Our crisis-minded approach and the immense scale of climate change are linked. How futile does recycling a cup seem when 1,000 new coal-fired plants spring up in China each year? The lack of large-scale impact of green efforts thus far can seem daunting and, yes, disheartening. Yet, seeing individual action as minute, incremental, and only effective in the aggregate is a fundamental misunderstanding of the essence of environmentalism.

Certainly, the big picture remains important, and efforts in that arena shouldn’t cease. The end-goal of green activism and action, though, is to ensure the continued, self-sustaining health of our natural systems and environments. This goal has clear large-scale implications, but it also facilitates a reorientation of environmentalism as we imagine it. Ultimately, we are the beneficiaries of a cleaner, healthier planet. Conversely, environmentalism need not be only an abstract, global concern. Instead, we might imagine several scales, descending from global to personal, each characterized by their own sets of actors and actions.

What would personal, individual environmentalism look like? First, it would still be a lifestyle connected to larger-scale work. Recycling and turning off unneeded lights aren’t bad ideas. But, in order to be personally rewarding, more needs to happen on an immediate, observable level. One approach may lay in a combination of self-sustainability and the beautification of one’s own environment. In suburbs, gardens and ground cover can replace lawns. In cities, rooftop or window gardens are personal and communal endeavors. Both serve as examples of work that bring one into contact with the natural world. These allow one to view climate not as a variable on charts but as an element in life.

A lingering question is the value of this personal investment versus the returns of such activity. Global Green, where I intern, models a profitable, market-driven approach to environmentalism on a regional and national level. They show businesses that waste recovery and sustainable products are, indeed, valuable. Yet, what of the individuals at the end of each supply chain? Do such initiatives simply leave them disconnected to the greater issue at hand? Looking to a personal model, need monetary reward be the primary motivator? Though I applaud Global Green’s model, I’m left wondering how best to engender broad, personal investment in the environment.

Eric is a participant in our Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship spending the year creating short films for Global Green USA and the Coalition for Resource Recovery. Read his previous post here.


[1] http://www.weather.com/news/science/environment/more-americans-dont-believe-global-warming-happening-survey-20140117

Father

Fatherhood: Presents, Presence, and Poverty

Fatherhood presents a learning curve for most, but in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty – where violence, incarceration, stop & frisk, and rigid gender roles are the norm – figuring out how to parent in an emotionally responsible way can be a major feat. The participants at the Midtown Community Court’s Workforce and Fatherhood Program, under its new name “UPNEXT,” will speak to these challenges freely during group sessions.  Through my internship there, I recently facilitated a workshop of my creation called “Navigating Parenting Challenges,” which borrowed its ideas of emotionally-attuned parenting from Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting From the Inside Out.

As the workshop took its course, it became very clear that the most immediate challenge our fathers face in raising their children is that of material resources.  The employment market is presently a picnic for no one, but for men of color who are balancing some combination of poor educational background, a criminal record, mental health issues, substance addiction, military trauma, and so on, finding and sustaining a job can be, frankly, unrealistic.*  Attaining and keeping employment is a near miracle for the previously incarcerated male population of color in this country.  For a frighteningly fascinating study on that, see Devah Pager’s “The Mark of A Criminal Record” https://www.princeton.edu/~pager/pager_ajs.pdf., which finds that black men without criminal records fare worse in the job market than white men with criminal records – and that black men with criminal records fare the worst of all.  This reality is part of why providing materially for one’s children can be a daily struggle for the fathers with whom I work.

I marveled at the ways in which being a parent can act as a motivation to clean up one’s act, to serve as a role model, and to stay out of prison.  But just as surely, becoming a parent presents real financial burdens that push many parents back to their old criminal means of making money.  During the course of our conversation, many fathers recalled painful conversations with their young children in which the child needed a new winter coat or shoes, and the unemployed father returned to his past habits of selling drugs the very next day in order to pay for what his child needed.  These paradoxical implications of parenting often happen simultaneously within the heart of the same person; many fathers expressed increased guilt and shame over their deviant behaviors after becoming fathers, even as they described the increased need and justification for doing so.

The group discussed how emasculated they feel when they’re unable to provide for their children – a sentiment which is in line with the patriarchal norms of much of American society.  And when it comes to winter jackets and shoes, the material needs of children are critical and urgent.   But as the workshop continued, the reality of being unable to “provide” materially for one’s children devolved into a conversation about Christmas presents, iPads, and a new pair of Jordans.  In short, the conversation struck me as materialistic, even frivolous, and I struggled to steer the conversation toward the emotional needs that children have and how those needs might be met despite limited financial means.  One participant, N, saw where I was going and shared about a conversation where his daughter simply said “I know you can’t afford any Christmas presents this year, but dad, you’re still gonna come, right?”  Other fathers marveled at the story and muttered that they wished their own children had that type of understanding.

Providing emotionally, though, is as much as structural question as it is a cultural one. Being emotionally attuned to one’s child means something different within a stable family of privilege than within a family of custody battles and frequent bouts of absence due to incarceration, and these are what comprise the structural piece, for which we are all responsible to combat.  But the tendency for parents (and especially fathers) to be unsure how to emotionally reach their children, and the temptation to subscribe to materialistic ideas about love by buying toys instead of giving words of affirmation – these behaviors pervade our culture regardless of class.   This conversation with the dads, although disheartening at times, was an important reminder to me about the ways in which we are all tied up in the struggles of our fellow citizens, and that liberation in a vacuum is no liberation at all.

For a great Op-Ed on the indelible impact of strong fathering, check out Charles Blow’s recent piece on the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative – a new program to empower young men of color. “We can and must,” says Blow, “break the cycles of pain for young men of color, building better boys and repairing broken men.”

*I want to underscore that not all of the fathers meet all or even most of the conditions described here, but as a cohort, these are the issues that present barriers to them. 

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What’s Jewish about Adoption?

What about adoption is Jewish? And how does Judaism view adoption?

I pondered these questions last semester as I began work on a B’nai Mitzvah project for HelpUsAdopt.org, where I intern. The Development Director at HelpUsAdopt.org had previously worked on other B’nai Mitzvah projects and planned to create a Mitzvah project for HelpUsAdopt.org, and I asked to help.

HelpUsAdopt.org is a non-profit that provides grants of up to $15,000 to families and individuals looking to adopt, either domestically or internationally. HelpUsAdopt.org does not discriminate, define family, or charge an application fee, unlike other organizations. By providing grants, HelpUsAdopt.org not only helps parents create their families but also helps children in need find loving homes. All year long, as part of the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, we have been asking ourselves “what’s Jewish about social justice?” While I already viewed my work at HelpUsAdopt.org as social justice work, and feel that social justice work is a central value of Judaism, I wanted to figure out how Judaism and adoption are directly connected. Thus, my research began.

At first, I had difficulty finding Jewish sources about adoption. My initial research provided general information about adoption in Judaism and showed me that adoption is definitely considered permissible but that Jewish leaders and scholars have not written much about it. However, I finally found sources providing concrete examples of adoption and its permissibility:

The Bible includes examples of cases in which legal guardians cared for orphans: Pharaoh’s daughter found and raised Moses, and Morchedai raised his cousin Esther. Pharaoh’s daughter and Mordechai took on the responsibilities of parents even though Moses and Esther were not born to them.

Tractate Sanhedrin 19b of the Babylonian Talmud states: “Now as to R. Joshua b. Korha, surely it is written, And the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul whom she bore to Adriel. — R. Joshua [b. Korha] answers thee: Was it then Michal who bore them? Surely it was rather Merab who bore them! But Merab bore and Michal brought them up; therefore they were called by her name. This teaches thee that whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him.

”Exodus Rabbah 46:5 states: “he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth.”

These sources show that one can be a parent through adoption, and an adopted child is seen the same as a biological child; they explain how Judaism views adoption.

I looked to Biblical sources to figure out what is Jewish about adoption. The quote, “Be fertile and increase,” (more commonly cited as “Be fruitful and multiply”) can be seen in various places in the Bible, including Genesis 1:28, 9:1, and 9:7. Those who cannot have children through natural means can fulfill this mitzvah by having children through adoption. The Bible also warns us not to mistreat widows or orphans (Exodus 22:21-22). This implies that we should take care of widows and orphans, and adoption is one method of caring for orphans.

By doing this research for the B’nai Mitzvah project, I gained a better understanding of the Jewish values associated with adoption, and I confirmed that adoption is allowed and supported in Judaism. The knowledge I gained through my research validates my work at HelpUsAdopt.org as a form of Jewish Social Justice (and helps me see the Jewish elements of my personal experience – please see my previous blogpost at: http://blog.jtsa.edu/changemakers/2013/09/18/adoption-for-all/).

For more information, here is a link to HelpUsAdopt.org’s website: http://helpusadopt.org/. This is the basic kind of information I found about Judaism and adoption during my initial research (before I found the sources quoted above): http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/adoption.html

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Creating Shared Value

When most people think of “social justice,” they think of grassroots non-profit organizations with big dreams and small budgets. These people want to change the world from the ground up and are fighting against “the man” to do it. Social justice is reserved for the altruistic who believe that their lives should be devoted to helping those less fortunate than themselves, expecting little or nothing in return.

My social sustice experience is extraordinarily different from anything described above, and is rarely associated with social justice or social entrepreneurship at all. And, although it is recently making headlines most people don’t even know that it exists, and even fewer know that it serves as the engine behind many organizations in today’s social sector.

I’m talking about “corporate social responsibility,” or “CSR,” for short. CSR involves large for-profit companies “giving back” by giving money in the form of grants, in-kind donation, or giving time through employee volunteer programs. Many of this country’s largest companies give away millions of dollars a year and thousands of hours of volunteer time to help non-profit organizations all over the globe solve pressing social issues. And notably, many of these large companies approach the social sector with a keen business eye, which helps organizations run more efficiently and successfully.

Through the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, I work as an intern at Alcoa Foundation. You might not have heard of Alcoa, but it’s actually one of 125 largest companies the United States, and you’ve certainly come in contact with it. Alcoa mines most of the aluminum that we use every day. If you’ve ever been in a building made with aluminum, driven a car that has aluminum, flown in an airplane, or even had a drink from a can of soda, you’ve certainly come in contact Alcoa’s product. Alcoa Foundation is also one of the biggest corporate foundations in the world, with an endowment of over $530 million. In 2012, Alcoa Foundation donated over $25 million to NGOs around the globe. Alcoa’s 61,000 worldwide employees donated 800,000 hours of their own time volunteering in their communities.

The numbers are certainly impressive, and every day during my internship I come in contact with people and organizations that have been affected by the work of Alcoa Foundation. I have come to take great pride in the work that Alcoa does to promote volunteerism and community service, and see the company as a truly responsible citizen in the for profit space.

Of course, we have to ask why. Why do companies that exist for the purpose of making money and delivering to shareholders, just give it away? Over the course of my internship, this has been the question that plagues me every day. On the one hand – and this is where things get tricky – corporations participate in philanthropic and social efforts in order to maintain what we call a “social license to operate.” Customers will associate positively with brands that are publicly giving back to their communities. And these companies aren’t shy about their own giving back. At Alcoa, for example, the Foundation features prominently on the front page of the website, even though their CSR work is such a tiny portion of what the company does. Still, Alcoa wants anyone who comes to the website to instantly see that they “give back.” Consumer-facing companies (that is, companies who sell to the general public, unlike Alcoa which only sells to other companies), create television commercials and print ads that display their philanthropic efforts.

Every year, corporate foundations get their name into the social sphere by attending benefit dinners (and paying handsomely for them), complete with their logo in the ad book. Corporations understand that they have a poor reputation – especially after the recent recession – and they use philanthropy to bolster this reputation. This depiction of CSR is cynical, and grim. Sometimes, it makes me question what I do.

But there’s an upside, and this has been my greatest takeaway from my work at Alcoa Foundation. Even if there is a PR side to CSR (and there certainly is), at the end of the day, corporations give billions and billions of dollars to charity every single year. There are a number organizations I can think of (but cannot disclose) that would simply be unable to do the work they do without the help of Alcoa Foundation. Non-profit work on any level simply cannot exist without the support of donors, corporate or personal.

This is why I am extremely proud of the work that I do at Alcoa Foundation. My social justice work involves wearing a suit and tie and working on Park Avenue. My social justice works for “the man,” not against him. And although people question the altruism of the work I do, I undoubtably engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, one organization, one project, one employee, one dollar at a time.

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Bring Passion Back

Over the last 12 weeks, I have been exploring the relationship between politics and social justice at the Advance Group, a political consulting firm in the city. I came into this internship hoping to gain some insight into how individuals and organizations committed to social good use the political process to create systematic change. However, now that I have survived the craziness of election season, I’m left with more questions than answers.

Throughout this entire experience, there were three components of the electoral process that were brought up over and over: donations, endorsements, and votes. These three make up the holy trinity of a successful political election. As a political consulting firm, it’s our job to make sure all of our clients get as many donations, endorsements, and votes as possible. Seems pretty simple, right? Actually, working on these campaigns was pretty simple. Campaigning consists of a lot of phone calls, emails, letters, flyers, posters, and canvassing.

Okay, I admit this is a grossly oversimplified explanation of what my firm does. Trust me, a lot of thought, planning, and effort is put into each campaign that we work on. And as intern with no particular expertise in New York City politics, I’m 100% positive that even more was done that I’m not aware of. So why am I saying that political campaigns are simple?

I think it’s because looking back on these twelve weeks, I’ve been dissatisfied with the disconnect that exists between elections and social change in mainstream culture. I came to this realization when passing out political literature and making phone calls on the two election days (primary election and general election). Many of the canvassers that I worked with didn’t even know anything about the candidate they were advocating for. Additionally, most of them said they didn’t vote because it didn’t matter; politics wasn’t going to make a difference in their lives. Although I felt like many voters had a strong opinion about the mayoral candidates they were voting for, most didn’t know anything about the city council candidates. When it came to these smaller, more local candidates, they were just voting for the name they recognized the most and/or the candidate affiliated with their political party.

This gets to the heart of the issue I’m struggling with. Donations, endorsements, and votes are key to winning a political race. But there’s so much more to politics. The political process is meant to be a means to ensuring liberty and justice for all. Although getting the votes in order to make change is obviously extremely important, it becomes somewhat meaningless when the votes become based on name recognition instead of values and pursuing social justice.

This is not to say that I think politics is void of social justice. That is not the case at all. Many of these candidates’ campaigns were deeply rooted in social justice values and once elected, politicians help create progress and social change.  In fact, many of these candidates started working towards change even during the election! I learned that many of my firm’s campaigns hired canvassers from the community in order to provide income to those struggling financially.

However, this does not change the fact that there seems to be a loss of political passion among “the people” when it comes to elections. With events like the government shutdown and the Zimmerman trial, many people are becoming disillusioned with politics. And with tragedies like the typhoon in the Philippines and the shootings across the U.S., many people are also becoming overwhelmed by the amount of social justice work that needs to be done. So how do we bring the passion back to these two important systems? How do we empower individuals to feel like they have access to these systems? In other words, how do we return to feeling like a government of the people by the people for the people? Like I said, I have more questions than answers. But what I do know is that political candidates and advocates for social change should work together to make political elections and social justice feel more accessible and engaging.

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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

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Adoption for All

Social justice. Everyone has a different idea of what this term means, and no single definition can fully express its meaning. Helping those in need, pursuing equality, seeking fairness, and working to make the world a better place can all be considered aspects of social justice. During our orientation for the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, Dean Aliyah Vinikoor presented this definition, from the Social Justice Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley:

Social Justice is a process, not an outcome, which (1) seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities; (2) challenges the roots of oppression and injustice; (3) empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential; (4) and builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.

This semester, all of us in the Fellowship are interning at organizations that do some form of social justice work, and I’m hoping that we all learn and grow from contributing to this process.

I am interning at Helpsusadopt.org, whose mission statement reads:

HelpUsAdopt.org is a national non-profit 501(c)(3) financial assistance grant program providing qualified couples and individuals -regardless of race, ethnicity, marital status, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or disability- with grants of up to $15,000 towards their domestic, international, foster, or special needs adoption expenses.

The costs of adoption are staggering, ranging from $30,000 to $50,000 if not more, including but not limited to the costs of a home study, travel fees, legal fees, agency fees, and placement fees. HelpUsAdopt.org raises the funds for grants from donations, events, and the sale of jewelry and tote bags; all of the profits from the sale of merchandise go to HelpUsAdopt.org. This organization’s work creates families, helping children in need find homes and helping adults who long to become parents, and they are the only organization that provides grants without discrimination and does not charge a fee to apply. Providing families with the resources to adopt without discrimination, advocating for adoption reform, and promoting awareness of the problems and needs of potential adoptive parents are some of the ways that HelpUsAdopt.org is a part of the social justice process, as defined above.

Adoption is an issue personally important to me. My little brother is adopted, and now I cannot imagine life without him. He’s four, and I love spending time with him. His sense of humor, his love of sports and superheroes, and his love of Harry Potter (my personal favorite) are some of his special characteristics but I still cannot explain what he means to me. Although my family was fortunate enough to be able to afford adoption, others are not, and it saddens me that they cannot experience the joy that I do simply because of financial obstacles.

HelpUsAdopt.org represents a way for these families to get something like what I have. And it represents a way to provide a better life for children in need. To date, HelpUsAdopt.org has helped 81 families adopt. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to work with an organization that makes such a difference in people’s lives.

If you would like to know more about HelpUsAdopt.org, please visit http://HelpUsAdopt.org/testimonials.html. Here are two more great articles about HelpUsAdopt.org: http://HelpUsAdopt.org/Word/People_Sept2011.pdf and http://edition.cnn.com/2011/US/05/19/cnnheroes.becky.fawcett/