Don't Meet Them Where They Are

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November 1, 2010

In the organized Jewish world, the catchphrase of 2010 may well be, “Meet them where they are.” At a time when twenty- and thirty-something Jews are not joining synagogues, not donating to Federations, and otherwise disaffiliating from traditional Jewish organizations, many have reached the conclusion that the Jewish community is simply not offering these young people what they need or want. In response, organizations are increasingly deciding to turn the tables, and meet these young people “where they are.”

The Jewish social justice world would seem to be somewhat immune from this particular expression of engagement angst. Since 2008, when the Nathan Cummings Foundation published its Visioning Justice report, the social justice field had become recognized as one of the few Jewish spaces actively desired by a disaffected generation (the others being non-institutionalized expressions of spirituality like Mechon Hadar; the “New Jewish Culture” of bands like Matisyahu and Axum; and the guilt-free communal Jewyness of organizations like Moishe House).

Yet, despite already appealing to “the next generation,” Jewish social justice organizations are increasingly designing programs to “meet them where they are.” When asked why the focus is on volunteers’ desires, those in the justice community argue that effective justice work has always been based on personal engagement. The idea is that if you offer potential volunteers a project that is personally appealing, they will become engaged in the larger mission of an organization and step up their involvement.

Even if we agree that personal engagement is needed for effective social change work, it is also the case that such engagement can take many forms. Community-based organizing also starts with the individual, except instead of offering volunteers what they think they want, community-based organizing asks volunteers what they most need. I want to suggest that this difference between “want” and “need” may also be the difference between programs that are simply self-serving means to enhance Jewish engagement and programs that actually change the world.

Justice Resonates

In many respects, the players in the social justice field already do meet the “next generation” where they are. As the Visioning Justice report suggests, “[Jewish social justice organizations are] resonating with younger Jews, who find in [them] a meaningful way to connect their Jewish identities with their progressive politics. Jewish social justice groups are …creating new pathways for Jewish influence in the world, providing venues where Jews of Generations X and Y can talk, volunteer, and advocate.” Many younger Jews express a strong desire to live one whole authentic life, with no separation between religious identity, political identity, and social identity. The aim is to gather all your friends and all your causes on one page. Faith-based social justice groups appeal directly to that need by offering opportunities that foster Jewish identity, build community, and give Jews an opportunity to put their politics into action. Furthermore, justice groups offer that comprehensive experience in a milieu that does not make divisions based on denomination, parental or spousal religious status, race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other dividing lines often so present in the organized Jewish world, as Adam Bronfman recently explained in a letter to Jack Wertheimer in the Jewish Daily Forward:

“[Dear Jack,] You argue that creative leaders and innovative programs have failed to engage large numbers of Jews, and that we must move on to new (or perhaps old) solutions. But you fail to acknowledge that strategies of engagement, which meet Jews where they are, have yet to be implemented across wide swaths of the Jewish community. …In most communities, established Jewish institutions still generally speak a language that is foreign to many participants in today’s culture. We live our lives in an integrated society and yearn to share our opportunities for meaningful Jewish experience in a language and environment that is familiar and compelling. All Jews, regardless of background or life choices, must feel welcomed and embraced by the Jewish community.”

Justice organizations are the kind of innovative programs that offer “opportunities for meaningful Jewish experience” within the context of “an integrated society”; such organizations generally welcome Jews of all “backgrounds and life choices” and offer an outlook in which spirituality, politics, and ethnic identity are united. Yet, despite already appealing to the demographic most coveted by the Jewish organized world, the Jewish social justice field has increasingly begun to shape programs especially designed to “meet them where they are.”

“Where they Are” as a Virtuous Circle

Social justice organizations are not supposed to be primarily about engagement. Instead, their aim is supposed to be to build a more just world. Most of these organizations explicitly attempt to turn volunteers into what Pursue, the alumni program of AJWS and Avodah, calls “change makers” – people who will not just provide service but will actively work to make change happen.

For justice organizations that have advocacy as a primary goal, engagement is one piece of a larger theory of change. As Pursue explains, “By creating opportunities to come together around shared values, we equip participants with the skills, resources and sense of purpose necessary to collectively advance social change efforts and to sustain long-term commitments to that work.” In this grassroots model, real change happens when you start from personal engagement, moving from the individual to systemic advocacy.

The theory is simple. Very few people willingly sign up to lobby governors, circulate petitions, or demand corporate change just because it’s the right thing to do. People today have very little time or energy. All that changes, however, when politics becomes personal.

How do you make politics personal for the average Jew? The fact is that the Jews who are most accessible to Jewish changemakers tend to be middle or upper class, well-educated, and, frankly, fairly well-off. In 2004, only 14% of Jews were low-income, while our median income was 16% higher than the average American (NJPS, Economic Vulnerability in the American Jewish Population). A 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life claimed that Jews are the “highest-earning religious group in the United States, with 46 percent of the population earning a six-digit figure every year.”

Given these numbers, most Jews don’t seem to have a personal need for the kind of political activity—welfare reform, wage reform, immigration reform—usually associated with justice work. Here is where the aims of justice organizers and Jewish peoplehood funders have met: to the justice organizations’ theory of change, funders have brought the message of engagement, of “meeting them where they are.”

Since we Jews don’t really “need” anything, the thinking goes, the road to engagement must lie in giving us what we want. In this model, young Jews are portrayed as relatively passive consumers, who must be “met” just as consumers of products must be “met” by sellers of such products. The idea is that if organizations conduct market research on the interests of young Jews (on “where they are”), they will be able to identify what those Jews want, fill those wants, and thus draw them into what business gurus call a “virtuous circle,” offering an ever-expanding set of opportunities that will draw the next generation into deeper engagement with both Jewish justice work and Jewish peoplehood.

Sustainable, Organic, Local—and Self-Serving

What happens when you conduct market research to discover what most interests relatively well-off younger Jews? Judging from the recent activities of a number of Jewish justice organizations, the results are in and are, frankly, unsurprising: we Jews care a lot about food.

Indeed, as Ari Hart noted in the Huffington Post, Jews’ interest in food has swelled into a Jewish Food Movement, whose goal is to “promote social justice, spirituality, and environmental sustainability through food.” Signs of this emphasis on food are everywhere. Both Pursue and the Progressive Jewish Alliance adopted “food justice” as their themes for 2010. Hazon, which began as an organization devoted to environmental justice in the broadest terms, has since refocused on food justice. Uri L’Tzedek, begun as a justice organization for Orthodox Jews, also has focused over the past two years on food. Jewish farms, promoting sustainable and kosher agriculture, are sprouting up on both coasts, and we’ve seen the rise of Jewish organizations devoted solely to sustainable, fair-trade, organic and kosher food, such as Heksher Tzedek.

As Hart points out, food is an essential element of economic and environmental justice. Ensuring food access to those in low-income urban ghettos, supporting the rights of low-wage and often undocumented food workers, and combatting global warming by emphasizing sustainble and local food agriculture are just a few of the justice issues that can be tied to food consumption. Social justice organizations like Pursue try to keep the focus on these broader issues by publishing articles on topics like international food aid. Yet, it’s hard not to notice that what really excites the troops is the chance to take field trips to sustainable farms and to eat local, organic food at events like “Chewing on Food Justice” (featuring vegetarian appetizers).

In no way do I want to dismiss the value of these events. What concerns me about the focus on food is the way so many of these efforts seem designed to appeal to the volunteer as a relatively passive consumer (eat delicious food while hearing a lecture on food justice!).

Educating consumers and creating change-makers are two very different goals. Food-based events are terrific ways to educate individuals about their food choices, a valid and necessary project in an era of global warming. These settings also may be useful in offering disaffected Jews a way to connect with Judaism and with other Jews in a setting that recognizes and respects their political and personal choices. However, offering participants a chance to spend two days on a farm, or to eat a delicious locavore meal, hardly seems likely to create the kind of active engagement in justice work that these organizations claim they seek.

As Aaron Dorfman points out in this issue, even inviting people to participate in weeks- long service trips can backfire, turning into a kind of entertainment (I built a house in New Orleans! I survived a summer in the Congo!) rather than the basis for a long-term commitment to justice work. Dorfman’s concerns should sound a warning bell to all justice organizations currently swayed by the idea of “meeting them where they are.” By “meeting them where they are,” by focusing on our targeted population’s wants, aren’t we only reaffirming prosperous Jews’ privileged role in society? aren’t we reifying that class difference in food that the poor cannot afford? By treating prospective volunteers as passive consumers of justice, how do we expect to turn them into justice activists?

Who Will Be for Me?

There is an alternative. Dorfman talks about the importance of creating “productive discomfort,” of bringing agency back into the server-served equation. He also talks about context, and the importance of volunteers seeing those they serve as more similar to themselves than different. Dorfman is suggesting that the key to truly engaging volunteers in a way that leads to activism is by connecting volunteers’ needs to the needs of those they serve. Justice organizations should not ask, “how can we meet you where you are?” but “where are you”? Not, what can we do for you, but what can you do for yourself?

Richly-resourced organizations like AJWS and Avodah have worked carefully over the years to develop rigorous programs for their cohorts that lead them from self to other. For organizations without their resources, however, there is another option. Community-based organizing (often called CBCO, congregation-based community organizing) is rooted in Hillel’s precept, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” This type of organizing has demonstrated, successfully, that we can engage even prosperous Jews by focusing on their needs, and that, in doing so, we can more readily teach them to climb the ladder from “my need” to “your need,” from engagement with myself to engagement with the other.

What could prosperous Jews possibly need? To answer, we need an expanded theory of change that acknowledges the issue at the heart of all social justice work: structural inequality.

Most of those who work in the field of social justice believe that simply increasing the money and volunteer hours donated to the poor will not eliminate poverty. Instead, they believe the causes of poverty are deeply woven into the very structures of our society, that our laws, our politics, our economics are designed to privilege some over others. The idea behind “social change,” as justice work is sometimes called, is to change these social structures in order to bring more fairness to the system as a whole.

Why does a theory of structural inequality matter? If inequality is structural, that means its effects are necessarily global, impacting the rich as well as the poor. In this theory, even though the rich may be immune from many of the specific problems of the poor, such as malnutrition, inferior housing, and so forth, they will experience the effects of these problems on the larger economy.

One example that sticks with me comes from Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of Just Congregations. He discovered that his well-to-do congregants were angry about the very poor care being given their elderly parents. When he arranged for his congregants to meet with the caregivers, however, they discovered the source of the problem: underpaid and overworked, the caregivers had no incentive, and most of all, no time, to help out the elderly patients in their care. Worse, the caregivers had financial incentives to get their job done as quickly as possible. By helping caregivers win higher wages, better hours, and more benefits, Pesner’s parishioners were better able to help their own elderly parents.

There are many other such examples, though not all can be linked through such a simple equation of cause and effect. And there are many areas where both well-to-do Americans and impoverished Americans share the same complaint—for example, the difficulty in obtaining health care (whether because you lack funds or you have a pre-existing condition); concern about our system of public education; and the fear that our jobs will be outsourced (whether those jobs are building cars or programming computers).

In a society with such rampant inequality, there are few of us who have no fears about the future. By holding one-on-one and small group conversations, community-based organizing gives us access to those fears and helps us to see our commonalities. A skilled organizer can help us understand what we need for ourselves, and then help us see that in order to be for myself I must also be for others. In the community-based organizing model, we move from personal to communal engagement, but through need, not through want.

What Am I?

Several Jewish justice organizations, particularly Jewish Funds for Justice and the Religious Action Center’s Just Congregations, use community-based organizing to engage and mobilize Jews around pressing issues. Other organizations, like Chicago’s JCUA, use an older form of advocacy-based organizing that brings people already excited about an issue together with those most deeply affected by the issue, which deepens their motivation and engagement. AJWS and Avodah achieve the same impact by using Jewish text study and self-scrutiny to problematize the relationships between server and served, leading volunteers to seek a deeper form of engagement with the people they are sent to aid.

In all of these models, organizations do not attempt to meet participants “where they are,” as if participants are passive consumers of a justice product. Instead, these advocacy and organzing-based models invite participants to scrutinize themselves, and to actively draw parallels between what it means to be “for myself” and to be “for another.” They assume that “where you are” is also “where I am,” that we are on the same grid despite our apparent differences. By making the means of engagement active, rather than passive, these methods offer the very model of the engagement they see to create.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? –Hillel

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