Eight modern Hanukkah rebels
Chanukah may be a complicated holiday, but one of its clear messages is about the value of resistance. To celebrate the brightness of Chanukah in dark times, please meet eight shining lights of the Jewish world who are giving their all to make change and participate in the holy work of tikkun olam.
The Bridge Builder: Joanna Ware
Five years ago, Joanna Ware started to have a frequent thought: someone needs to organize the money. A veteran of social justice work and a Shusterman Senior Fellow, Ware was familiar with the world of Jewish philanthropy. In organizing she also saw the needs and priorities of the Jewish left: the progressive, even radical, movements toward social justice and equity.
Today, Ware is the director (and a founder) of the Jewish Liberation Fund, a participatory fund with a steering committee of all Jews of Color that guides JLFs priorities. “We’re working to build an organization that embodies the commitment to working collectively,” said Ware, “and that can lead by example to lay out a path for the rest of Jewish philanthropy. It doesn’t have to be scary to widen the tent and diversify decision making.”
Ware identifies herself within Jewish space as a bridge builder. “I’ve always moved easily both in more traditional or moderate Jewish spaces,” she said, “and also in more radical or political ones, and I often found myself… explaining them to each other.”
Ware attributes some of these skills to her organizing background, and some to her identity as a queer femme who isn’t necessarily read as queer. “I’m friendly and accessible, but also as a queer femme I’m easier, in some spaces, for people to accept. It becomes ‘Oh! I wasn’t afraid of you, and now you’re saying these things that challenge me, but you didn’t seem scary at first so I gave you a chance.’” Ware notes that many of her collaborators and co-conspirators who have very different gender presentations don’t always get that first chance.
With her new job helming Jewish Liberation Fund, Ware is most excited about building and sustaining grassroots movement work. “We’re funding the work,” she said, “that contributes to the spiritual and cultural resilience of Jews.”
The Coder: Ari Sokolov
19-year-old Ari Sokolov of Los Angeles is the CEO of a tech company — which isn’t that unusual in this day and age.
What is unusual is that where her colleagues are coding games, Sokolov is coding support — specifically, support for LGBTQ+ students. When her best friend came out as bi in high school, she had a hard time finding the support and courage to come out. Sokolov worried even more when she learned that LGBTQ+ teens attempt suicide at a rate of over 40%, four times that of straight teens. So, as part of a coding challenge, Sokolov and a team created Trill – an app that allowed LGBTQ+ young people to share their feelings and get support.
That initial idea was strengthened when the team started researching teenagers and mental health, and learned that a non-judgmental space to feel heard and respected was an important key to wellness for young people – something that many LGBTQ+ teenagers had difficulty accessing. Now they work with researchers in adolescent health to understand how to make the best user experience for connection, wellness, and support.
Sokolov began marrying her love of tech and her desire to make change during her Bat Mitzvah project, when she volunteered at a local senior center, teaching elders how to use computers.
After a stint at Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp, which supports entrepreneurs who are underrepresented in tech spaces, Sokolov emerged with the confidence and connections to grow her project to encompass a wider community of young people. Now, with 100,00 users across the globe and a robust system for providing crisis resources to teens who feel hopeless or helpless, Sokolov’s Trill Project allows its users to both get and give support – and, crucially, to connect with each other.
“That’s an amazing thing sometimes,” Sokolov said, “We have a user in Saudi Arabia who met her best friend in Ohio on the app. It’s beautiful. Knowing that this project has helped so many people feel less alone is amazing.”
The Fixer: Jennifer Heiser
When Jennifer Heiser recounts the path that brought her to disability justice work, she begins with a sigh. “Like a lot of people,” Heiser said, “I started trying to gain access for myself — in school, in organizing spaces. As my hearing deteriorated, the ableism and audism I experienced increased, and the harder it became to participate where I’d previously had access.” Heiser, who is Deaf and neurodiverse, gained some success in creating access for herself, but she wasn’t satisfied with that.
Today, the DC resident owns Yes & Also Consulting, a firm that helps organizations transform their process, product, and culture to be as usable as possible for all people, regardless of ability.
The Americans With Disabilities Act puts the onus on people with disabilities to ask for access,” Heiser says. “They’re not actually required to make everything accessible.” That’s where Yes & Also begins its work; helping organizations that may not have any Deaf or disabled people among their leadership to think about not just compliance, but actual usability _a much more exacting standard, Heiser explains.
Born in Colorado, Heiser was interested in social justice early in life. As a pre-Bat Mitzvah student, she took issue with her home congregation’s expectation that elaborate bimah flowers be present at every Bnai Mitzvah. Considering their cost, and the obvious poverty and homelessness in downtown Denver, Heiser advocated that families have the choice to forgo the expensive flowers and turn the cash into hygiene supplies and other forms of support for Denver’s homeless population. “There was… an argument,” she says, with amusement, “but I won.”
Now, Heiser has found her calling in social justice: helping organizations and institutions focus on what she terms “cultural compliance,” that is: making their processes and products broadly usable by people with a variety of access needs. In particular, Heiser helps leaders grow their cultural knowledge about disability..
Heiser points out that “because we’re always having to ask, we’re seen as a burden. Never as full participants with valuable perspectives. But when there are Deaf and disabled people in the planning to begin with, the end result is better for everyone. Abled people don’t realize how far past their capacity they’re asked to push, until they experience an event designed with disability justice at the forefront and they understand: oh. I’m not sore from sitting, I’m not brain-fried from trying to think about one thing for so long, I don’t have eyestrain, I did need a snack. This is much better for me, too.” Which, Heiser says, is the surprise joy of her work: it makes things better for far more people than an organization expected when they hired her, and she relishes it.
The Strategist: Jordan Berg Powers
Jordan Berg Powers would like you to know that he fails, a lot.
It may sound like a strange statement from the executive director of Mass Alliance, a man widely credited with major roles in legislative victories like getting guaranteed paid sick time passed and thwarting the privatization of education in Massachusetts.
But Powers, 39, insists failure is key to his success. “Most of how I have learned to be effective as an organizer, besides watching more seasoned people, has been to fail, and then learn from my failures so I can do a better job the next time. I need people to know that making change isn’t linear and no one is good at all the parts of it, but there’s a part they would be great at if they wanted to try. As for the failures? They teach you.”
Mass Alliance functions as a connector and a capacity builder for political and advocacy organizations that work together to build a progressive Massachusetts, and Powers takes an active role: conducting trainings across the state on campaign strategy and management, candidate recruitment, progressive messaging and bringing underrepresented voices into politics.
Powers also helps to create issue-based coalitions that can expand, writes briefs and drafts of legislation to address crucial needs, and helps residents with a political idea to understand the political process to address it, and provides much needed encouragement when, as recently, politics has felt deeply inhospitable.
In particular, Powers makes strong cases for the projects Mass Alliance takes on, marrying emotional appeal and political horse sense, crafting clear and strong messages that resonate with voters. When Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans seemed to be making a bipartisan project of allowing the state’s educational system to accept considerably more charter schools in economically challenged districts, Powers and Mass Education Justice Alliance (an affiliate organization of Mass Alliance) pushed back hard, calling the expansion of schools “…the end of opportunity for Black children, for children from low income neighborhoods. Why would Massachusetts allow a permanent underclass,” Powers challenged, “of kids who are taught to wear a uniform, sit quietly, repeat what they’re told and live in fear of being sent away? That’s not what school is for.” Mass residents ultimately agreed.
“For me,” Powers says, “there’s nothing clearer about where Jews are at in the world than the need for us to connect our action in making the world a better place, to Torah. There are so many places the world pushes back, trying to disconnect our actions from our beliefs. But as Jews, we cannot – or we should not – allow it. Are we the People of the Book? Great. Then books for everyone, the best books for everyone: equally, not just for those who can afford it. Now expand that to everything, and that’s Torah.”
The Liberator: Stephanie Skora
For Stephanie Skora, a self-described “politics nerd of the highest order,” the opportunity to help people navigate the morass of Chicago politics is what started her and collaborator Ellen Mayer on the path of writing the popular voting guide “Girl, I Guess.” The opportunity to be both funny and cranky about politics is what has kept her going. “As a Jewish lesbian, it’s identarily and culturally very satisfying when people think I’m funny. But also it’s an opportunity to treat politicians like anyone we might disagree with on the street or at a rally. They’re regular people, with ideas, and some of those ideas are frankly terrible, and someone needs to tell them so.”
Skora, who is also associate executive director at Brave Space Alliance (a Black-led, trans-led organization providing support of many kinds to Chicago’s LGBT2Q+ community), struggled at first to find ways to apply her particular talents – policy, operations, and finance; the least “sexy” parts of social justice work.
“I thought I might go to work in the labor movement or in Jewish movements after college,” she said. “I was neither a bearded communist nor an ardent Zionist, and since I also wasn’t a cisgender person I’d clearly used up my deviance exceptions.”
Instead Skora took contract consulting work while co-organizing the Trans Liberation March, the collective from which Brave Space Alliance was born, and for which she provided founding support. Now, she handles much of the nuts-and-bolts back end of running a community-based mutual aid organization, from grant writing to paying the actual bills, freeing founding executive director LaSaia Wade and other staff to give all their focus to the front line work.
“I hear many people say: ‘I wouldn’t vote if I didn’t have the guide,’” she said. They don’t believe in elections as a tool for change. They’re organizers and activists and they have better things to do. But with the guide, they feel like they know enough to vote responsibly. We’re never going to vote our way to liberation, but as revolutionaries and agitators we would be foolish to not use every single tool available for the movement. What it can do is provide an easier path to liberation. It can clear some of the obstacles.”
The Teacher: Kavitha Kasargod-Staub
To imagine justice, Kavitha Kasargod-Staub believes, one must first imagine the experience of a child. As an educator, school-builder, curriculum designer, teacher coach, and advocate for Jews of Color through JWOC Resilience Circle, Kasargod-Staub describes her work in the world as “helping young people become who they want to be. That’s partly about skills and knowledge, but it’s also about helping them see themselves. And a core part of that work is understanding and dismantling systems of oppression that they live arrounded and compressed and compelled by. It’s vital that we clear the path for them. That we empower them to do that dismantling work themselves, as well.”
Kasargod-Staub, now studying for a PhD at University of Maryland, believes that decolonizing education is at the foundation of liberation, and her efforts are broadly focused. She works directly with teachers as a teacher coach to help them see their students as co-builders rather than knowledge dispensers and designs courses that include narratives of history that are frequently erased from public education.
She has also been a founding educator of Oakland SOL, a new dual language school dedicated to serving the needs of multi-language learners, and remains vigorous in creating and holding space for Jews of Color within Jewish spaces. “We’ve never had the kind of multi-racial democracy that we all need,” Kasargod-Staub said “Now, under the leadership of these brown and Black women, suddenly we’re seeing this potential. So my question is: what is the role of education in building that democracy, and where in education are we prioritizing justice, as these young people deserve?”
For Kasargod-Staub, it’s not a simple matter of inclusion. “It’s about reframing the entire project of Jewish identity to recognize: there have always been Jews of Color,” she said. “So how can that inform us? How can it improve us? How do we embrace that? What does that make possible, if we say: ‘Jews have always been everything, every kind and color of person’? There’s a reason we don’t have an image for God. We don’t subscribe to that because Judaism asks more of us than that.”
The Mechanic: Chaya Milchtein
“People sometimes forget, I think, how much access to a car equals access to opportunity,” said Chaya Milchtein. “But it does. It’s an opportunity to choose from a much wider range of jobs, it’s an opportunity to spend more time with family instead of riding three busses to get to work. It’s not being written up for lateness because the train is late, again.” But Milchtein, who is an automotive educator through Mechanic Shop Femme, remembers too well her experience of buying her first car shortly after aging out of foster care.
Charged with managing all her own needs at age 18, she bought a car so she could get to work, but it immediately had problems and was then totalled in an accident, leaving her a large bill to pay because she owed more on the note than the car was worth. “A few dollars a month for gap insurance could have prevented so much difficulty, but I didn’t know,” she said. “And I never want anyone to be in that position again.”
Milchtein, who is now based in Wisconsin, offers online classes to private groups, through libraries and community organizations, and even universities — all on a sliding scale, in order to make sure that people who have the least room in their budget for mistakes can still access the knowledge.
This sliding scale is made possible, as Milchtein emphasizes, by people with higher incomes paying more so that she can offer free spots in her classes to low-income women and people of color, while also making a decent living leveraging her skills and knowledge. Beyond that, Milchtein donates 10% of the gross revenue from each class to a rotating selection of social justice causes endorsed by – and sometimes recommended by – her students.
She doesn’t teach people how to maintain their own cars, but how to shop for a used car, how to find a good mechanic and communicate effectively with them, how to use and prioritize routine maintenance, and quite a bit more.
“People are safer when they know how to evaluate a car and keep it running with a trusted mechanic,” she said. “They have more choices about what work they do. Sometimes it’s women in their 50s or 60s, divorced or widowed and sometimes it’s teenagers ready for their first cars. I’m here to help them all.”
The Artist: Ella Cooper
Artist, curator and cultural worker Ella Cooper of Toronto is the founder or creator of many artistic projects in photo, dance, film, including Black Women Film! Canada – all of them created with love and joy at the heart of them.
“The work that I do comes from a place of embodied, elated resistance. I want to address the history of negative images that plague a lot of Black, Indigenous and people of color’s experiences. My own Blackness wasn’t celebrated when I was young, and I wanted to shift that – for myself, but also in the visual landscape for others,” she said.
Much of Cooper’s film and photo work centers on creating non-objectified, non-sexualized images of Blackness and Black women in particular, sometimes created in a multi-generational group.
Cooper has many artistic projects on the go simultaneously, all of which are aimed at transcending the negative experiences of racism. “I notice that I have a better vision of justice, of social change, when I am in a place of joy myself. So I’m always asking, not just how do I want to be seen in the world, but also: how do I want to be celebrated in the world?” While not all of Cooper’s work is necessarily focused on joy, her work is deeply concerned with catalyzing emotions and conversations.
A current project, WITNESS, was created during her time in Berlin working with practitioners of Butoh, a form of theatre that emerged after World War II in Japan as a way of grappling with the enormity of loss. Cooper captured the images during performances she made inside vintage photo booths across Berlin, and then printed them — and with them her emotions—larger than life-size, where they hang in street-level windows as a pandemic-safe art gallery called Fentster.
“How can it stop people to reflect?” is a question Cooper asks often. “In everything that I do, it’s always about how the work could lead to conversation, and what might flow from there?… I sometimes refer to myself as a Jew Incognito, because my practice is private, it’s something I engage with my family, and Jewish culture is something I’ve always felt outside of because of my Blackness. But the experience in Berlin making WITNESS, considering the atrocities of war, witnessing the loss and grief, it had an impact.”
S Bear Bergman is a writer, storyteller, educator and advice columnist. His 9th book SPECIAL TOPICS IN BEING A HUMAN is forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press this fall.