By Ben Goldsmith
On July 10th, I was thrilled to attend Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ first daylong community organizing training for members. On a clement summer Sunday, 30 JCUA members spent eight hours learning the nuts and bolts of organizing, connecting with each other, and discussing what a Jewish voice in social justice organizing sounds like. The strength of member interest in this training says a great deal about the appeal of JCUA’s contributions to the University of Chicago trauma center campaign and the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights campaign to members of the Jewish community. It says that members of Jewish communities throughout Chicago are connecting with JCUA’s vision and are hungry for opportunities to work for social change by organizing Jewishly. For most members in attendance, this was the first formal organizing training. As a full time tenant organizer, I have gone through Organizing 101 types of trainings in the past but I had never trained in community organizing with an emphasis on Jewish values, or what JCUA calls “organizing Jewishly.”
The training was led by JCUA’s Director of Organizing, Marla Bramble, Jim Field, Director of Organizing with Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and Aryeh Bernstein, a JCUA member and consultant. JCUA members learned about building and leveraging people power, and equalizing power relations to change the minds of decision makers. This included practical skills, including the basics of organizing an accountability session with an elected official or other decision maker, and the effective framing of an organizing campaign. Members also tried their hands at the all-important 1-on-1: the bread and butter of community organizing. In a 1-on-1, the organizer builds a relationship with a community member through…an intentional discussion about the roots of that person’s values, their vision, and what moves them.
As Jim Field articulated, JCUA’s relevance in the organizing landscape is dependent, not just on the efficacy and impact of an organizing campaign, but on contributing with a Jewish voice. Aryeh Bernstein led religious text-based discussions on Jewish social justice values as well as the legacy of Jewish organizing, secular and faith-based, from the labor movement to the boycott of Nazi Germany, to the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. The discussion, often passionate, left me with the sense that those who had come to this training saw the work of JCUA as a continuation of these traditions. They saw their involvement in this work, their unique Jewish voices, as part of the greater Jewish voice for social justice that Jim Field had underscored.
Each of us was brought there by our values and we each brought our values with us. Many of these values were rooted in our various Jewish experiences and histories, and as someone who has had some engagement with the basic principles of community organizing in the past, hearing this Jewish voice, participating in the discussion, and getting to know what moves other members to act, was the greatest appeal of this daylong training.
Indeed, the training afforded more than practical organizing skills. Members were encouraged to share and reflect. The day began with an exercise called “step in, step back”. The facilitator made a statement about a Jewish experience, and the participants, gathered in a circle, step forward each time they identified with the statement. The commonality of many experiences were striking; having family who survived or did not survive the Holocaust, for example. The diversity of experiences was striking as well; having family roots in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, in the slave trade, having family who spoke Yiddish or Ladino.
New and deepening relationships between members at the training were fostered by the reflection and sharing activities and a number of members set 1-on-1’s with each other that very day when the training closed. I walked away with a couple scheduled myself! Together, we committed to applying the tools and methods learned in the training within our own communities to help build and amplify the Jewish voice in Chicagoland’s social justice organizing landscape.