Not only does organizing have an impact on the outside world, on power relations and on policies. It also shapes our inner lives and offers us the potential to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness.
One of the most sacred moments of my life took place in the balcony and halls of the New York State Senate on June 1, 2010. In my mid-20s, I spent somewhere between two and 20 hours a week of my free time on a legislative campaign to pass the first state bill of rights for domestic workers in the country. After 10 years of tumultuous campaign organizing (I was fortunate to join in for the final three), the state senate voted and the bill passed.
Electric elation rippled through the chambers as we were hushed by officials, reminding us that they were in session, and much more formal than we were. Unable to contain our ecstasy, we rushed out of the senate chambers, spilled into the halls and spontaneously broke into “Solidarity Forever” — that 1915 union anthem critiquing capitalism and celebrating what is possible when we work together. It felt like the conclusion of Yom Kippur — that joyous moment when we have made it through 25 hours of fasting and praying, celebrating by declaring God’s unity with the Sh’ma and sounding the shofar one final time. While I did not have the language for it at the time, it is now clear to me that God was with us in those legislative halls.
The first time Torah describes something as “not good” is when speaking of the situation of the first human, God says, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) Living in an age of isolation and loneliness exacerbated by the current pandemic, most of us know this truth all too well. When our days involve more time facing a screen than facing another person — and we work more hours in a week that we ever have — we know what it is like to feel like the only human being in existence. We have become like Jerusalem, described by the prophet Jeremiah in the book of Lamentations, “Bitterly she weeps in the night, her cheek wet with tears. There is none to comfort her of all her friends. All her allies have betrayed her; they have become her foes.” (Lamentations 1:2) Not only are we socially isolated like the first human. Many of us feel politically betrayed, and are despairing at the state of our nation and our world. Institutions, leaders and policies that many of us once believed were our “allies,” and were in place to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, have revealed callousness, cruelty and materialism to be the driving forces of our “foes.” In this time in our nation, I have often struggled to hold onto hope, to believe that meaningful change is possible, and that anything I do may make any significant change to either my personal sense of isolation or my political sense of despair.
As the Jewish community has grappled with this reality, many Jewish organizations have taken on the political practice of community organizing. In large part thanks to the wisdom, labor and leadership of Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the Jewish community is experiencing an organizing renaissance. While the term “community organizing” emerged into national discourse along with the rise of President Barack Obama, an understanding of what organizing is and how it works remains obscure to many. One of the leading scholars and trainers of community organizing, Marshall Ganz, describes an organizer’s work this way:
“Organizers identify, recruit, and develop leadership; build community around leadership; and build power out of community. Organizers challenge people to act on behalf of shared values and interests. They develop the relationships, understanding, and action that enable people to gain new understanding of their interests, new resources, and new capacity to use these resources on behalf of their interests. Organizers work through ‘dialogues’ in relationships, understanding and action carried out as campaigns.”[fn]“What is Organizing,” by Marshall Ganz. Social Policy, Fall 2002.[/fn]
While somewhat technical, this description of what organizing looks like makes clear that the work of organizing is primarily relational work. Whether one is steeped in the theologies of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud or Melanie Klein, or is just someone who loves schmoozing, it is clear that our relationships shape us.
In my own life as a community organizer for the past 13 years, I know that who I am as a person, Jew and rabbi has been shaped by my experiences as an organizer. One of the most common things I witnessed, and in turn experienced as an organizer, was burn-out. Pushing too hard, for too long, without support and care has led many organizers to step away and take long breaks from the work. In response to this, there has been an emerging response from the Jewish social-justice field to ground and support Jewish organizers with the wisdom and practices of our tradition. Projects like RESET, IOWA and Jewish Women of Color Resilience Circles have become essential parts of our movement ecology, supporting organizers to find spiritual nourishment. In my own life, it has been essential to have spiritual practices that ground and sustain me as I try to show up for justice work for the long haul.
At the same time, I have also come to experience organizing itself as a spiritual practice. Not only does organizing have an impact on the outside world, on power relations, on policies. It also shapes our inner lives and offers us the potential to cultivate a deeper spiritual awareness. Spiritual practice, as I’m defining it here, are behaviors that we engage in regularly that instill within us a spiritual consciousness and cultivate particular, sacred traits within us. Cultivating a spiritual consciousness alongside middot, soul-traits like humility and patience, are all part of the sacred, spiritual work that organizing does on us as humans. It is my hope that highlighting some of the dimensions of spiritual consciousness, as well as some of the middot that emerge in organizing, we can more intentionally lift these up in ourselves and in each other as we strive to do the work of building a more just and compassionate world.
Belonging and Interdependence
One of the primary spiritual needs we have as people is to feel a sense of belonging — a sense that we are in this world, not to fit in and conform, but to be wholly celebrated in all that we are. With this, we can cultivate an awareness that we are beings who are part of a vast array of networks and connections. We need to belong somewhere in this world, and no matter where that is, it connects us to everyone and everything else. Community organizing offers a spiritual path to this kind of consciousness.
In Moses’ own development as a leader for liberation, he begins by acting from a place of isolation — having no one with whom to share his anger. Seeing the oppression of his fellow Israelites for the first time, he lashes out and kills an Egyptian. The Torah tells us, “[Moses] turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, a 19th-century German commentator, says that Moses was looking for a fellow Israelite to take action in this moment. Moses was looking for a partner in justice. Without one, he acts rashly and ends up not only killing someone, but alienates the very people he was fighting to protect. (Exodus 2:14) It is not until later that Moses partners with others like Miriam, Aaron, Yitro and God to achieve collective liberation with the Israelites.
The very nature of organizing work is grounded in the impossibility of doing the work alone. A social movement requires relationships and networks to activate the power of the people. In doing so, organizing can be an antidote to the personal and political loneliness that so many of us experience. It is the work of building community with a purpose and building our power together to change the world.
Anavah/Humility and Hutzpah/Audacity
Community organizing is a political practice of those who have less power. Large corporations, presidents, pharaohs — those who already have power and privilege in the existing social structure do not need to build mass movements to make the changes that are necessary for their survival or flourishing. They, and people in similar positions, have designed the social order for their benefit.
To step into the work of community organizing is to acknowledge that we are not, as individuals, the primary power holders in our society. To practice organizing is to live the words that Avraham spoke to God as he attempted to negotiate saving the people of Sodom, humbly stating, “I am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) To organize is to acknowledge the limitations of our own power as individuals. Even when groups of people with privilege organize (e.g., white people opposing racism), it is through the collective body, not the individual, that we realize our power. In this way, organizing instills humility within those who organize.
At the same time, the midrash reads Avraham’s statement about being “dust and ashes” (Genesis Rabbah 49:11) to mean that Avraham is acknowledging that without God, he would have been reduced to dust and ashes in the wars he had previously fought. To ask God to change God’s mind when you know your very life depends on God is a bold move. When we organize to change the very institutions that also provide us with public resources like education, park, and health care (as flawed as they may be), it also requires hutzpah, or azut d’kedushah, holy boldness. Particularly for people who may be more aware of their dependence on the state (e.g., people who receive direct financial assistance for things like food and housing), it requires holy boldness to demand more from the powers that be. Organizing offers us the possibility of cultivating what the Rambam called shvil ha’zahav/the golden path — that middle way between arrogance and self-effacement, that balance of humility and hutzpah, to acknowledge both our power and our limitations.
Emunah/Firmness and Tikvah/Hope
Organizing work requires emunah. Usually translated as “faith,” the Jastrow dictionary lists the first definition as “firmness,” in addition to faith, honesty and surety. “Firmness” is less about belief and more about being committed to, or aligned with, a set of ideals or practices. In this sense, we can understand emunah as the firm commitment to be engaged, with honesty, surety and faith, with practices that seek to increase love and justice in the world. Emunah is something that is both necessary and cultivated in the work of organizing. Campaigns can take years. There are twists, turns, failures, bumps, bruises, and sometimes, there are wins. The small details of organizing work that includes having coffee with strangers, knocking on doors, holding public actions, lobbying legislators, writing op-eds, phone-banking, crafting email subject lines and deciding on the right number of chairs for a meeting — all of these parts of organizing can feel disconnected at times and like they might not lead to anything. This slow work requires a belief in something that is greater than ourselves. It requires a belief that change is possible, even when it is hidden, even when it may not happen in our lifetimes.
In the Shabbat morning Amidah, we say “we are waiting for You — when will You dwell in tzion? Quickly, in our days, for all eternity, may You dwell.” For thousands of years, many Jews have recited these words, aligned with the hope, firm in their aspiration and dedication to God’s return to tzion. Organizing means staying firm in messianic longing, striving for a perfected world. As German philosopher Hermann Cohen wrote in his essay on “The Messianic Idea,”
The fact that things are today as they were yesterday does not necessarily mean that they have to be like that tomorrow. Nor need the future be envisaged as a repetition of the past or as shrouded in mythological twilight. Rather, the future is a postulate of religious faith and indeed its most wondrous flower.[fn]Reason and Hope: Selections from the Jewish Writings of Hermann Cohen, translated by Eva Jospe (Hebrew Union College Press, 1997), p. 126f.[/fn]
A firm alignment with the idea that the future will be different from the present, and that we have the power to shape that future to grow a “most wondrous flower,” is part of the soul-shape of an organizer.
Tzedek/Justice and Avodah/Divine Service
As we learn from the prophet Isaiah, “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) To devote oneself to justice is to devote oneself to God, to sacred service. Again and again in our tradition, we learn of God’s desire for a world that is organized around principles of human dignity and care for the earth. Much of our post-biblical legal codes (Seder Nezikin in rabbinic literature[fn]The talmudic tractate, “Damages.”[/fn], Hoshen Mishpat in the Shulchan Aruch[fn]The Code of Jewish Law by R. Jacob Karo, 16th century.[/fn] and much more hold up this tradition as they articulate ways to enact these values through law. Doing the work of organizing communities to bring these principles into the structures and policies of our society is a way of honoring both our textual tradition and God’s desire for justice. It is our best attempt at fulfilling a Divine vision for the world, and in doing so, brings us closer to our Source. As the Rambam (Maimonides) wrote, “All who give food and drink to the poor and the orphans from his own table can call to God and he will be answered with joy.” (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:16.) If direct gifts of food and drink bring us closer to God, all the more so for the highest level of giving, “The greatest level, higher than all the rest, is to fortify a fellow Jew and give him a gift, a loan, form with him a partnership, or find work for him, until he is strong enough so that he does not need to ask others [for sustenance].” (Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor 10:7.) When we partner with others to create opportunities for people to no longer need tzedakah, we are engaged in Divine service. We have the opportunity to be close to God.
The visible work of community organizing is largely external. We see rallies, hashtags, strategy meetings, email blasts and more. My hope is that this essay begins to make some of the internal work of community organizing legible. This is not an exhaustive summary. Additionally, organizing carries spiritual risks in addition to burn out, including cultivating arrogance and judgment. Being grounded in the possibilities of growth in the context of brokenness can help us mind the broken pieces more carefully. The spiritual work of organizing is varied and deep for each of us. As Michael Walzer famously wrote in Exodus and Revolution,
We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught … about the meaning and possibility of politics: first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
As Genesis 2:18 teaches us, “it is not good for the human to be alone.” Fortunately, we are in a moment of people yearning to join together and march through the wilderness. May this work continue to transform not only our society, but our souls as well. May love and justice fill us, surround us, and bring us together in the long march ahead.
Rabbi Alex Weissman (RRC ’17) serves as the Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA and as the Rabbinic Organizer at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Previously, Alex served as the senior Jewish educator at Brown RISD Hillel, where he taught Torah and Jewish practice, and fostered creative approaches to Jewish life. While a student at RRC, Alex served as a rabbinic intern with Avodah, piloting a new model of Jewish and spiritual support for young activists. He worked with JOIN for Justice as their Philadelphia Area Coordinator, exploring new opportunities for JOIN. He was also a Social Justice Rabbinic Intern with Congregation Rodeph Shalom and POWER, supporting their multifaith congregation based community organizing, and was a summer fellow with T’ruah. Alex also served two synagogues, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and Temple Shalom of Newton, as a rabbinical intern.