Envisioning a Better World
In my training as a Community Organizer, we participated in dozens of workshops: campaign planning, leadership development, fundraising, etc. The most challenging training I participated in required the creation of a personal “vision stand.” Our mentors asked us to illustrate and articulate what the world we were working towards would look like. Most of us were at a loss. If we had been asked how to turn-out 100 community members to a rally or how to pressure an abusive landlord, we would have had plenty of answers. But when it came time to rise above the day-to-day, we were stuck. Organizing in this political climate has required constant defensiveness. We have been so busy trying to stop terrible things from happening, or trying to make terrible things just a little better, that we lacked the creative space or energy to actually imagine alternatives.
This exercise was meant to encourage the cultivation of a real vision for the future. Clearly, our imagination is a muscle that needs to be stretched and strengthened. I think of prayer and Shabbat as Jewish tools for this kind of mental expansion. The cycle of holidays in the Jewish calendar, too, forces us out of familiar patterns and habits. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, explains the impact of the upcoming holiday of Sukkot:
From the foregoing circumstances [that life in the wilderness was purer and freer than life in the civilization of Canaan], it follows that having the Israelites relive their wilderness experience on the festival of Sukkot [by living in a sukkah] was bound to place them in a frame of mind that enabled them to detach themselves from the order of life that they had come to accept as normal and to view it critically. – Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, (Wayne University Press) p. 208
Freedom to imagine
Sukkot is an exercise that helps to expand our imaginations. In the case of Sukkot, Kaplan posits it is the disruption of our domesticated existence that sharpens our ability to imagine an alternative way of living. In the case of Shabbat, it is our abstention from commerce that serves this function. Economy, the nerve center of so much of the injustice and inequality we struggle against, is seemingly ubiquitous. To most, a day without money seems impossible. On Shabbat we practice freedom from what appears to have us at its mercy. This disengagement allows us to imagine, and even practice the creation of an alternative society not based around production and profit.
You might say that I was drawn to living in Detroit for similar reasons. I have found that here it is impossible to pretend that everything is okay, and we are forced to believe that things could be different. We HAVE to be creative. We HAVE to think outside the box. Which is just what Congregation T’chiyah did when they dreamed up this one-of-a-kind position in which I am blessed to serve.
My role will be to add community organizing to the toolbox of the Metro Detroit Jewish community and facilitate relationship-building with other communities to work together towards common goals. I am busy connecting with Jews of all ages, affiliated and unaffiliated, city and suburb. I am listening closely to learn what issues they care about, how their Jewish identity informs their activism, and what role they would like the Jewish community to play in work for social justice.
Are you interested in a just regional transit system?
Development that considers the needs of residents?
Creating good jobs that pay a living wage?
I can’t wait to talk to you!
This Sukkot, let’s remember that it’s important to get cozy in the wilderness. Reliving the wandering honors extended processes of transformation, and reminds us that liberation struggles don’t end when you cross the sea. We explore the nature of the obviously temporary to remind us that, in fact, everything is temporary — which means that everything can be different.
Community organizing requires patience, a willingness to reach across lines of race and class, and the ability to imagine things could be different. Luckily, Sukkot gives us good practice.
Chag sameach. Have a wonderful holiday!
If you or your congregation are interested in learning more about community organizing, please be in touch! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org