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A new project aims to help Jewish groups do social justice better

Avodah, a New York-based Jewish social justice organization, was hearing the same thing from Jewish group after Jewish group: They wanted to start social action projects, or see more concrete progress on ones already in place — but didn’t know how.

In response, Avodah launched the Avodah Institute for Social Change, a program that will coach Jewish professionals on organizational policy change, anti-racism and allying with other groups. It will also offer workshops and digital resources.

The project’s first cohort is 13 leaders from Hillel International who will gather online for small group learning, Jewish text study and one-on-one mentoring over the next six months.

It’s not the kind of teaching that can be done in a session or two, said Sarra Alpert, the institute’s director. “True justice education is not going to be quick, and we want to help people understand that giving that depth, time and space is actually a good thing,” she said.

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One member of the inaugural cohort, Adina Danzig Epelman, Hillel’s vice president of engagement and impact, is leading the partnership between Hillel and Avodah. She said the institute, presents a unique opportunity for Hillel leaders to grow their ability to fight racial injustice, antisemitism, climate change and food and housing insecurity.

It will also help leaders stay true to their beliefs in the face of pushback from other activists who would exclude them because of their support for Israel, she said.

“We want Hillel professionals to be able to answer this question: How can I lead with my core values and hold all of my core values at the front — including my commitments to the Jewish people and a Jewish, democratic State of Israel?” she said.

While the institute will look different for each of its organizational partners, Alpert said that the Hillel cohort will focus on personal leadership in the social justice sphere. By the end of the six months, participants will have written an essay or speech, led a program or assessed their own abilities to include marginalized people into their work. Participants will then take on larger projects with their teams and staff — implementing more inclusive hiring practices, for example.

The institute will also give Jewish professionals a network of support. “With justice work, you’re going to hit roadblocks — you’re going to have really hard moments and if you don’t have people to talk about that with, the work often stops,” Alpert said.

The institute has also designed its training to help Hillel strengthen its relationships with other groups on campus that share its values.

“If we’re not showing up to be a part of justice spaces, then there’s no reason for those other organizations to feel like they are truly in relationship with us,” Alpert said.

Avodah is currently recruiting for future participants in the Institute, which will meet virtually for now due to COVID-19. The institute was created in consultation with Jewish nonprofit professionals and leaders in the Jewish social justice field, including Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., and Ilana Kaufman, executive director of the Jews of Color Initiative.

It is funded by Crown Family Philanthropies, The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Irving Harris Foundation, Perlin Family Foundation and The Rakin Family.

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