Until a few months ago, when she was named the new associate dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay was splitting her time between AVODAH: the Jewish Service Corps and JOIN for Justice (the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network). At AVODAH, which trains Jewish leaders for anti-poverty work, she focused on creating networks and developing skills among alumni of the AVODAH service corps and fellowship. At JOIN, she worked on training clergy in congregation-based community organizing.
In November, at USCJ’s 2015 Convention, JOIN will launch an initiative to train clergy and synagogue lay leaders jointly in community organizing skills. Ruskay thinks this approach, which emphasizes building relationships, will strengthen both congregations and Conservative Judaism as a whole.
CJ: For a lot of synagogues the challenge is finding new leaders and volunteers. Is congregation-based community organizing a way to help with that?
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay: Yes, because it’s all about developing and cultivating leaders and helping them act on the things that are most important to them in partnership with other congregants.
CJ: What’s different about this approach? What makes it effective?
SR: Sometimes in the Jewish community we’re afraid to talk about power or about self-interest. Community organizing involves a willingness to think about and discuss self-interest. It’s the idea that people really will work on something for a long time if they see it as in their self-interest and can articulate why. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
CJ: Can you explain that a bit more?
SR: Often with leadership opportunities at congregations, a person might think there’s a lot that needs to be done, so they’re going to go look for someone to help do it. And if you’re persuasive you can convince people to do things. But you can’t necessarily convince them to do things for a long time and in an effective way. With community organizing, it’s not about convincing people to do things you want them to do, it’s about understanding who they are, and what they care about, and how working together you can craft something that will help them act on the values they care about in the world.
CJ: What’s the process?
SR: It’s relational organizing, which means that relationships are at the center. So you need to get to know people. People set up one-to-one meetings, or house meetings with small groups, and at those meetings you get to know what moves people and what motivates them. You see what they might have energy to work on. Also, you come to know who some of the leaders in a community really are, which doesn’t necessarily mean the people who are already the leaders.
CJ: Why are these leaders not known?
SR: In shul, we might see people frequently, but we don’t know what’s actually going on for them, what they care about and what the challenges in their lives are. When you take the time to do that, people feel heard, and if they know you’re going to work with them, that you’re invested in their leadership and success, then they’re going to show up for you, especially when you’re working on something that’s of prime importance to them.
CJ: How were you introduced to community organizing?
SR: When I was in rabbinical school, Jewish Funds for Justice was doing community organizing training for rabbinical students. It was one of the most impor-tant set of skills I learned in terms of thinking about my own leadership and helping me dream about what the Conservative movement could be in the next 25 years. [The Seminary Leadership Proj-ect was later taken over by JOIN for Jus-tice; Jewish Funds for Justice is now called Bend the Arc.]
CJ: JOIN is starting a new initiative with United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly. What will it involve?
SR: In 2013, we trained 44 Conservative rabbis. We found that even if people had training in rabbinical school, that doesn’t mean they have the expertise to work in a community, where the stakes are very high. Also, we know that those clergy need partners. So for this initiative, which will start at the USCJ Convention in November, clergy members who did our training will join with lay leaders to learn together, and everyone involved will have the benefit of being part of a network.
CJ: What’s different about the community organizing approach and traditional synagogue social justice work?
SR: Traditional social justice work is often focused on helping the “other.” However, self-interest is really at the heart of the organizing model. When you ask a group of 10 people from your shul, “What keeps you up at night?” you might see that a lot of them are worried about health insurance or home care for their aging parents. Social justice committees often discuss international issues, racism, or other challenges facing us today – community organizing is not a substitute for working on those issues. However, part of what’s great about it is that once you uncover people’s concerns, you have a model for working with other organizations, which is really powerful. The shul can’t solve the problem of health insurance on its own, but if all the religious institutions say this is a problem, they can work on the solutions together.
Organizing is also a helpful, transformative model for communities, and I believe it will transform our synagogue cultures, making them more relational and making our move-ment as a whole more relational.