Meerkats are cute, the kind of that cute doesn't get old. What does? The burnout, pettiness and distrust that's all too common in organizing circles.
This past week, I was thrilled to read Yaira Robinson’s piece on how her spiritual practice sustains her activism work. As a community organizer and a future rabbi (b’ezrat HaShem), this is the work I hope to do in the world — supporting individuals, communities, and movements to develop and foster deep spiritual practices that sustain our work for a redeemed world. Yaira’s piece is a testament to what this could look like in an individual who is part of a community. I also want to think about what this means for whole campaigns and movements.
In 2009, I was an active member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and a leader in the Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers campaign. The goal of the campaign was to pass the first state Bill of Rights for domestic workers in the country — a group of workers largely excluded from labor laws. It was a year of unprecedented success, and we had the best chance of passing the bill yet. We were excited, expectant, and pretty sure we were going to win. And then, the New York State legislature fell apart. Individual legislators switched coalitions. Twenty-eight legislators walked out of session. The Secretary of the Senate turned the lights off in the Senate chambers and shut down the television broadcast. It was mayhem.
Not surprisingly, everything came to a sudden halt in an already slow-moving legislature. The bill we had felt so excited about passing, that Domestic Workers United and JFREJ had been organizing for over the past eight years, failed. We were heartbroken. We were devastated. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. While it was clear that we lost, I don’t think we were aware that we experienced a loss — something real and grievable. The future we had hoped for and worked so hard to build was not coming. It was, quite simply, gone. So, we did what most organizers would do and puttered around a little bit in our devastation and then came back to organizing. We successfully passed a bill the following year, followed by much celebration.
For me, and I believe this is true for many people, organizing is sacred, spiritual work. It has the potential to take us to the highest highs of justice, joy, and love. And it can take us to the lowest lows of despair, distrust, and cynicism. How do we support the psycho-spiritual needs of Jews (and all people) involved in social justice work to accompany organizers and activists along these ups and downs while cultivating spiritual depth?
First, we need to identify what the needs actually are and how to talk about them. For this, I turn to those wise people who know the human soul best: chaplains. Two summers ago, I had the pleasure of doing a chaplaincy training program at Hebrew SeniorLife outside of Boston. While there, I was exposed to what chaplains call a Spiritual Assessment Tool, developed by Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow and Rev. Mary Martha Thiel. The idea behind it is that when meeting with the residents of Hebrew SeniorLife, chaplains would use this tool to help identify what the needs of an individual might be. What I propose, is that we expand our vision to address not only the spiritual needs of individuals, but of whole campaigns and movements. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hebrew SeniorLife has also started a group called the Ruach Guild, a group of laypeople and clergy who are doing spiritual support with activists and organizers. I had the pleasure of being part of this group’s formation earlier this year.
Below, is just one of the seven needs from the spiritual assessment tool that I have most consistently seen alive for people in social movements.
LOVE and BELONGING – Chesed: The need to love and be loved; to belong; to feel a connection with family, friends, community, people, and/or God. This often presents as loneliness.
One of the major draws for people to be involved in a movement is to have connections and relationships with people, with a force, with the Divine. As God says in the Garden of Eden, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). With social movements, we don’t have to be alone. Coalitions mean we don’t have to be alone.
How are organizers and leaders ensuring a sense of connection, among members, organizations, and coalitions? What are rituals we could be integrating into our work to foster these connections? How do we cultivate loving relationships amidst the challenging work? How do we cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and one another as we learn and struggle with the hard work of organizing and anti-oppression, knowing that there are times we will stumble, fail, and just totally mess up. Cultivating chesed, love and a sense of belonging, allows individuals and movements to have more compassion as we see other fully created in the divine image and not just tools or pawns to reach a campaign goal.
The other needs in the assessment tool are Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Trust, Hope, Meaning, Gratitude, and Identity. For those of us involved in social justice work in its various forms, I imagine it would be pretty easy to think about how these needs play out in your own lives, organizations, and movements. For the sake of brevity, I invite you to take a moment to think about one of these and what might have been possible to meet this need.
According to Episcopal Priest Tilden Edwards, these needs are met differently for different people. Just as there are multiple intelligences, so too are there multiple spiritual types. We find God and spiritual nourishment in different places. For some of us, it is in the devotion of davening three times a day and adhering strictly to halacha. For some, it is in contemplative quiet stillness that we hear God’s quiet voice. For others, it is through learning and discussion that we find the fire that fuels us and softens our edges. There is not a single prescription for these needs. As the Kotzker Rebbe said, “God is wherever we let God in.”
At that moment that we lost the Bill of Rights in 2009, we needed to mourn. We needed to address the spiritual needs of hope (how to restore it), and forgiveness (forgiving ourselves and each other for not working harder/faster/more). We needed to gather together and weep and sing and share stories. We needed to grieve as a coalition and as people deeply invested in this cause. We needed to have a communal ritual. The movement was in mourning and needed to acknowledge that.
One of the first lessons I got in community organizing was that it was important to celebrate victories, even small ones. It gives people hope and encouragement on a path that is all too often tortuous and strenuous. The lesson I did not get, and wish I had, was that we also need to grieve our losses. We need to accompany our movements, tend to them, and treat them kindly. What would it look like to have rituals for leadership transitions, staff changes, visioning sessions, or every meeting? How would our work change if we marked the journeys of campaigns through the dips and twists and not only at the highs? Would our organizations interact with one another differently — with more trust, gratitude, and love?
Our movements need people to tend to the souls of our leaders and campaigns. Burnout, pettiness, and distrust are all too common in organizing. I’ve experienced them, both as giver and as receiver, and it is not cute. Redemption will only come if we also transform internally.
Psalm 89 teaches us “The world will be built on loving kindness.” This is the way to the world to come — only loving kindness will take us there.
Alex Weissman is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and has been doing community organizing and social justice work for over ten years. He is an alum of JFREJ’s Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship, T’ruah’s Summer Rabbinic Fellowship in Human Rights, and formerly served as the Social Justice Coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City.
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