Editor’s Note: “On a Just Path” is a series of stories about former JCUA employees, where they are now and the impact JCUA had on them. Interviews were conducted and edited by Nathaniel Seeskin, AVODAH Organizing Fellow at JCUA.
Q. When were you at JCUA and what was your position?
A. In 1989-91, while I was a student at the University of Chicago, I served as the Associate Outreach Director at JCUA, working under the wise leadership of Jane Ramsey, Alan Goldberg, and Bruce Elder. I helped to organize the first Winter Break College Urban Mitzvah Corps, supported community development partnerships on the South and West Side, and helped connect synagogues and youth groups around the region to JCUA’s work.
Q. Tell us about your time at JCUA.
A. Social justice work rests on building deep relationships, and JCUA taught me that it is only possible to build those relationships while looking honestly at hard issues of race, power, and inequality.
From Alan Goldberg, I learned a lot about how to be an ally in supporting grassroots organizing and community development in communities of color – that it is essential to respect and support local leadership of people directly facing injustice, and that it is possible to find spaces for honest conversation while engaged in the work.
From Bruce Elder (now the long-time rabbi at Hakafa), I learned about how to engage diverse Jewish communities, meeting people where they are, rooted in shared Jewish values, history, and experience, being open and appreciative to the remarkable diversity and difference among Jews, and engaging in ways designed to help people see broader perspectives.
My fondest memories are of the week-long Urban Mitzvah Corps we created for college students, which combined hard work on a Habitat for Humanity site, community-building, studying Jewish text, and some real soul-searching with social justice professionals about what kind of work has long-lasting impact.
Q. What impact did your work at JCUA have in the community?
A. Wow, that one is a little hard to answer, some 25 years later and half-a-continent away. We painted many public housing units and built some Habitat homes that I hope are still providing affordable housing today. We helped provide capital to not-for-profit community development groups on the South & West Side, that was invested in small businesses and affordable housing, investments that I hope have helped low-income families thrive amidst so much neighborhood change.
But most of my work was outreach work that I hope helped people – especially young people – see both the joys and the obligations of the mitzvot of engaging in tikkun olam and pursuing justice in diverse coalitions. I think the work we did, both through the Urban Mitzvah Corps, and in outreach with synagogue youth groups, helped to lay the foundation for the incredible Or Tzedek work that JCUA does today.
Q. How would you say your work at JCUA impacts what you do now?
A. My work at JCUA had a deep impact on my career in public service. To be honest, I’ve never really escaped it! I’ve spent my life working across diverse communities at the intersections of community development, affordable housing, urban poverty, inequality, and social justice.
It was at JCUA that I discovered community development – and I then went on to a 15-year stint in affordable housing & community development, running a community development corporation (the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn) and working at a think tank (the Pratt Center for Community Development) both confronting issues of gentrification, creating and preserving affordable housing, organizing tenants, and promoting equitable economic development.
For the past five years, I’ve been privileged to serve as a Member of the New York City Council, representing communities in Brooklyn including Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Kensington, and Borough Park. I helped to found the Council’s Progressive Caucus, and to elect the progressive Mayor (Bill de Blasio) and Speaker (Melissa Mark-Viverito) we have today. I’m now the City Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy, and chair the Rules Committee and our Policy Working Group. I also helped found Local Progress, a national network of progressive local elected officials.
So much of my work has been rooted in values I learned at JCUA: confronting discriminatory policing (I co-sponsored NYC’s bias-based profiling law and the creation of an NYPD Inspector General), bringing “participatory budgeting” to NYC to support new models of community development, establishing mandatory inclusive zoning for affordable housing, promoting more effective campaign finance laws, and addressing climate change in ways that work for all communities.
All along the way, my work has been rooted in Jewish values and traditions I learned at JCUA. I represent the second most Jewish district in NYC, with Jews across the widest possible spectrum from left (progressive Jews in Park Slope) to right (ultra-Orthodox Jews in Borough Park). While these communities disagree profoundly on so many issues, I’m proud to have worked with all of them to fight poverty.
One of my proudest moments was in the month after Hurricane Sandy struck NYC, when we housed 500 frail elderly evacuees on the drill floor at an old Armory (converted into a YMCA). Instead of the astronaut-rations provided, we made sure they had a hot-meal every night, provided alternately by our kosher soup kitchen, run by a Hasidic Jew and staffed every night with frum volunteers (Masbia) and a local Reform Jewish congregation (Beth Elohim). Together, we provided art, music, drama, absentee voting, and an incredible range of activities, all from volunteers, to help people survive a dark time. The “thank you note” we received from one of those evacuees, Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, comparing her rescue from Sandy to her escape from anti-Semitic Europe in 1935, is perhaps the most beautiful one I’ve ever received.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to mention?
A. That time after Hurricane Sandy led me to a remarkable book by Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Rise in Disaster. Solnit writes of the extraordinary power of people coming together in the wake of tragedy (she looks at five, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, and at the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 that took so many lives) to act collectively, take care of each other, and build powerful communities of relief that offer “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.” “The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure,” she tells us, “is the great contemporary task of being human.”
Another way of thinking about this is given to us by the Jewish poet Adrienne Rich:
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? —
You yourself must change it. —
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? —
You yourself must change it. —
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it means to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
To me, these are deeply Jewish words … and ones that resonate with the teaching I learned from Jane, Alan, Bruce, Lew Kreinberg, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, and Rabbi Bob Marx in my time at JCUA: that we Jews, as a “people in-between,” with insights and opportunities and history and text and commandments to fight for social justice, share the deep, sometimes painful, but often joyous responsibility to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
Brad Lander serves on the New York City Council, where he represents the Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Waterfront, Gowanus, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Named one of “Today’s Social Justice Heroes” by The Nation magazine, Lander is the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy, and chairs the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections. He lives in Park Slope with his wife and two children.