As part of The Jewish Theological Seminary’s commitment to train students in the academic and professional disciplines necessary for religious leadership in the twenty-first century, students in The Rabbinical School and the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of JTS are getting first-hand experience in putting community organizing techniques into practice.
The goal is to help these future members of the clergy develop the leadership skills they will need to build strong, covenantal communities and effect meaningful social change within their congregations or larger Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
“Rabbinical and Cantorial Leadership for Public Life,” an inter-seminary Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) community organizing course taught by JFSJ organizer Jeannie Appleman and Meir Lakein from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, is offered to students at JTS, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). This year, students who participated in the course, together with class alumni from the past two years, launched house meeting drives—a community organizing practice—at each seminary.
At JTS, this effort was spearheaded by Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, who was ordained last month, and Iris Richman, a fourth-year rabbinical school student. Ten other students from the JTS rabbinical and cantorial schools served as student leaders.
Over the course of the spring semester, sixteen house meetings, each attended by six to twelve people representing students, faculty, and administrators, were held so that participants could share issues of personal concern about the JTS community. According to Richman and Rabbi Ruskay, these gatherings provided unprecedented opportunities for relationship building and meaningful dialogue among individuals who, typically, rarely come in contact with each other to share substantive concerns. Chovevei Torah and HUC held their own house meetings over the same time period.
The effort culminated in an inter-seminary assembly attended by 140 people, including JTS, HUC, and Chovevei administrators, deans, and faculty. Students shared personal stories that led them the point of addressing issues at each of the seminaries and offered an analysis of the issues raised at each school.
At JTS, the result was the formation of three action groups that will address the following issues: health insurance, spirituality and mentorship, and community and communication building across JTS’s five schools.
As second year rabbinical student Anne Lewis writes: “Praying and organizing, I am learning how we might transform our narrow places into narrative, and our words to deeds. Acting in relationship, we have the power to plant our hopes in the heavens and to rise to heights on earth.”