The American Jewish World Service-AVODAH partnership wants you to self-define as an activist. Last night’s Inside the Activists’ Studio conference in New York (co-sponsored by Jvoices.com) set out to celebrate every kind of social consciousness, from choosing to buy fair trade coffee to going door to door for housing rights. Well over 100 Jewish activists came out to meet one another, share skills and celebrate each other’s work at a panel discussion of featured Jewish change-makers, and seven skill-share workshops.
“We want to honor people who are living their values on a daily basis,” said Audrey Sasson, a Program Officer for AJWS-AVODAH who organized the conference in New York. Many of the people in the room identified themselves as just beginning their lives as activists, and Sasson hopes that by coming together within a community, newcomers will feel supported and inspired to become more involved. As participants went from identifying themselves with the high school they attend to identifying themselves with the service trip from which they’d just returned, I could see the magic happen.
A fresh-faced crowd of teens and twenty and thirty-somethings reflected AJWS-AVODAH’s youth-focused mission, but a few older activists said they came to share skills and offer themselves as mentors. “I’m glad to see an intergenerational aspect” said Sasson, scanning the room. Panel moderator Cindy Greenberg agreed, “people need the chance to cut their chops, and learn from older activists. There’s a kind of constant fetishization of people in their 20s that isn’t about support, it’s paternalism.”
The idea of fostering supportive, non-paternalistic relationships was a theme of the panel and workshops. When a young woman who worked with a secular organization in Harlem told the panel that her synagogue members weren’t interested in supporting her work with non-Jews, Daniel Marks Cohen offered to meet with her and talk about how to get Jewish leaders onto her organization’s board.
Asked who she wished were more represented in the crowd, Sasson discussed an effort to increase the representation of Jews of color at the conference. “I’ve made connections through this conference too,” said Sasson, who hoped that some of the more than 100 Jewish social justice activists she contacted for this conference could help increase representation at next year’s event.
While the crowd was in some ways homogeneous, the issues under discussion were anything but. The night kicked off with a panel of featured Jewish change-makers talking about their roots in activism and what keeps each of them going in their work. Despite all hailing from among the chosen people, there was enough dissonance of values that when asked who he considered his nemesis, Sam J. Miller, organizer for Picture the Homeless, pointed playfully to the real estate developer (i.e., capitalist) and philanthropist to his right.
“Part of what we hope happens is that there’s networking,” said Heidi Winig of AJWS-AVODAH. She hoped that skill-sharing would foster connections across issue-lines. “You might work for the environment and I work for homeless youth, but we both need to know how to facilitate a meeting,” she said.
I talked to Batya Schwartz-Ehrens, immigration rights lawyer and panelist, about activism across organizational affiliation in the Agriprocessors saga. Asked if she felt food-focused and immigrant rights-focused activists had come together over the raid and its aftermath, she expressed disappointment. She noted that many kosher-keeping Jews don’t recognize the Heksher Tzedek movement in conservative Judaism. The energy of the conference was about connection, however, and someone quickly handed Schwartz-Ehrens a flyer about Tuesday night’s meeting of orthodox leaders to talk about ethics and kashrut.
Group sessions covered everything from how to develop successful fundraising campaigns in a movement where wealth is an uncomfortable topic, to tips on leading a sane, healthy and, therefore, long career in activism. Andrew Boyd taught a packed room how to add guerrilla marketing to their tool box, while Chelsea Gregory discussed her new theater project, The 6 Project, and led participants in a conversation about white privilege in Judaism.
Next steps varied, with some newer activists looking to get involved in service work through their synagogues, or to join one of the several Jewish social justice organizations tabling at the event. Abby Bellows of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition had me wanting to organize a conversation around abusive Jewish landlords in New York by the end of the night. Organizer Katie Goldstein, who works with JFREJ and Tenants and Neighbors was interested in building connections among even more specific facets of the community. “Lets get all the burnt out activists together, lets get together all the religious Jews working in secular organizations who don’t feel supported,” she said.
Inside the Activists’ Studio is new to NYC, but the conference brought together roughly 55 locals in DC last week, and will hold its sophomore event in San Francisco in February. You can go to whoinspiresyou.org for details as they come out.