Young Jews Learning to Serve and Lead: Organizing Jewish Teens in Boston

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Meir Lakein, Ilana Lerman, Beth Reisfeld, Dan Gelbtuch, and Chris Messinger, JOIN for Justice


In Greater Boston, 50 teens – Jewish and non-Jewish, white and African American – worked with organizers trained by the JOIN for Justice and organized hundreds of their peers and adult allies to advocate for the restoration of more than $3 million in state funds for urban youth jobs. In the process, young Jews built long-term relationships, as partners, with young people very different from themselves. They learned not only how to be activists but also learned how to lead – to engage their peers in working collectively and powerfully toward a common goal.  They trusted in their leadership and their allies and developed a strong sense of self-efficacy and possibility.  As they grow up, they will become the leaders that our communities need.

Full Article

This brief article describes how 50 Jewish and Black teenagers in the Greater Boston area challenged themselves to adopt a broad definition of service-learning and, in the process, organized hundreds of their peers to move mountains.  They became activists with the help of six young adult Jews who were trained by the JOIN for Justice, a fellowship to train emerging social justice leaders in the arts of organizing.

Although community organizing takes many forms, at its most basic it brings people together to identify themselves as a community, define a common goal, and act collectively to meet it.  The 50 Boston Jewish and Black teens were part of three programs for teens: the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) TELEM teen service program, which organized teens in synagogues around local issues that they identified as important to them; the Dorchester Bay EDC’s Youth Force, which organized Black teens from that neighborhood; and Sub/Urban Justice, which did political education work with primarily suburban teens.  Although the teens in these three programs had no opportunity to connect with each other, the organizers already knew and trusted each other.

A shift began after JOI fellows took the organizing positions in these programs. The teens in all three programs began to build their own relationships and discuss what they could do together. They seized upon the issue of recession-driven drastic state cuts in funding for urban teen jobs programs at a time when thousands of teens were out of work and struggling.

So began the Jewish teens’ “service” around the issue of urban youth jobs.  Although many continued to volunteer in direct service efforts (which had opened their eyes to larger social problems), in this effort they served the community in a different way.  Jewish and urban teens worked together, researching the issue, developing allies, and meeting with legislators.  The urban teen leaders had already been working on securing more funding for urban teen jobs programs and brought experience and political analysis that they shared with the suburban teen leaders, who had their own relationships with some legislators and organizations.

In their first year of work, they succeeded in restoring $1 million in cuts.  Their attempt to secure more funding was thwarted when an amendment in the Massachusetts State Senate authorizing additional funding failed by two votes.  The lesson the teens learned from that failure was not that their cause was “hopeless,” but simply that they did not yet have enough power. They then worked to build new alliances and identify which legislators had voted no whom they might be able to influence. To prevail, they needed to continually learn about the issue and how political systems worked and, with open eyes, evaluate their own work.  Fifty teens alone could not achieve such an ambitious goal of securing an additional $3 million in state funds; they needed to learn not just to act, but to lead, to engage their peers and other organizations and adults in their work.  To stay in a broad coalition together, they had to regularly reflect on what the issue meant to them personally and on how it spoke to their values and their vision for the world they wanted to live in.  Although their volunteer service may have been untraditional, it thus combined dedicated action around a community issue, engagement alongside community partners, and serious reflection and learning on the work and the formation of their own identities.

In May 2011, over 300 people assembled at Boston’s Temple Israel, among them  150 Jewish teens, some who had never set foot in a synagogue before, and 75  urban teens, primarily African American.  Leaders  told stories about the need for urban youth jobs, explained how the political process worked, recognized legislators who had pledged support, and showed a PowerPoint  presentation listing the names of state senators who were their long-term supporters, those whom they had convinced to support them, and those they still hoped to influence.  Finally, they made it clear that this diverse, powerful gathering was a beginning, not an end; they committed to working together and supporting each other around many issues in the years ahead.  One set of issues was societal problems; another was the way the Jewish and Black teens were divided from each other.  They would work on both.

Days later, the State Senate passed, by a 36–1 vote, the previously failed amendment allocating an additional $3 million for youth jobs.  The teens were widely and publicly credited as responsible for passage of this amendment.  One legislator who switched her vote from “no” to yes” said when casting her vote, “A group of young people visited me recently. They were articulate and well organized and would not let me out of my office until I agreed to help them. They were more impressive than any lobbyist I have had in my office all year. They are taking matters into their own hands in a very responsible way.”

This type of service required long-term work and relationships; the teens worked together over several years, and their organizers had even longer relationships with their leaders and each other.  It relied on a partnership between urban and suburban teens, nurtured by organizations and trained professional organizers.  In addition, it required flexibility; if the teens were to react to political changes, they could not confine their work to the same two-hour time slot every week.

This work was complicated and difficult. It asked a lot from teenagers who connected nervously across class and racial lines.  Limitations on teens’ free time, particularly the suburban teens with their full schedule of extra-curricular activities, posed a continuing challenge.

Was this effort worth it?  First, look at the scale of the impact.  Rather than a handful of urban teens finding work, thousands of teens worked last summer.  There is also the value of a real partnership of equals, as opposed to helper and helpee.  As one teen leader said at Temple Israel, “This isn’t about helping others – it’s about helping each other.”

Finally, we have seen the impact that the organizing effort has had on the teens themselves.  When we expose teens to large social problems that they had never previously experienced, we risk overwhelming them, leaving them feeling that they are too small to face such large, intractable problems.  However, when teens focused on what they could accomplish when they found allies and, together, they organized their peers, they developed a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of possibility, and hope for the future.  A Jewish teen leader stated that his leadership role “showed me that there is still room for hope, that there is still opportunity to effect change.  It wrestled me away from my comfortable shell of cynicism.  So, if through my organizing activities, I changed the world a little, those same efforts changed me tenfold.”

Two of the 17 fellows in this year’s JOIN for Justice class cut their political teeth as Boston Jewish teens in this organizational effort.  One, Sam Dreyfus, who now organizes at the JCRC, says,

Like many people who grow up in a sheltered home, I experienced a slow and excruciating heartbreak beginning around the age of eleven as I learned the gruesome details of the horrors of the past and was exposed to the hard facts of ongoing injustice. As I looked around me, I came to agree with my avowedly atheist uncle and grandfather that religion in public life could only do harm. I was deeply saddened, because I had always felt at home in my synagogue and my family’s practice of Judaism and felt that I would have to leave it behind to take up the full-time vocation of politics that I imagined for myself. When leaders in my synagogue invited me and several of my peers to take a class on organizing, I felt hope — here might be a way for me to engage in the work I felt called to in the place I had always felt at home. When I began to organize, I felt electrified – here was the connection I had been seeking with people from other communities so near and so foreign to mine and the power to make change, and it all seemed to grow so naturally from the parts of my Jewish upbringing that had always resonated most strongly with me. The support of leaders from my synagogue combined with the opportunity presented by the JOIN for Justice to draw me back home, and ultimately back into synagogue and youth organizing.

This is our dream for the impact that young Jews’ service can have on the world around them, on their own community, and on themselves.  If you are interested in reflecting on what our experience could mean for you, and how young Jews around you could begin to organize, we encourage you to get in touch with us.