Billy Kaplan moved to Washington, DC in August, 2009 from Los Angeles to join AVODAH. As a Program Associate at Thurgood Marshall (TMA) Public Charter High School, he organizes a legal mentoring program, after school tutoring opportunities and serves as faculty advisor to the school’s Anti-Defamation League peer training program.
When a group of ninth grade students approached me asking for help with their homework, I assumed they needed assistance with Algebra, Biology, or some other very typical facet of a generic ninth grade curriculum. When they told me they had chosen to research Judaism for their religion project, I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle. I came into this year hoping to struggle to find the nexus between Judaism and Social Justice, to ground my work at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School (TMA) in my Jewish upbringing. Just like that, six freshmen had done it for me.
My intention in participating in AVODAH was not simply to locate specific snippets of Judaism’s entrance into my work, but rather to be able to find such a link on a daily basis. Growing up, I was always engrained with the notion that being Jewish implies a commitment to justice and equality and that education is of paramount importance. In joining AVODAH to work at TMA, I believed I would be able to reflect on and mold my notions of Judaism as it pertains to these ideals, using experiences from my work. Of course, the links between Judaism and my own idealistic principles are not often as explicit as the example I reference above. I am certainly glad that they aren’t. It is when I am forced to reflect on my more subtle daily interactions and experiences that I am able to find meaningful Jewish resonance in my work.
As faculty advisory for the school’s Anti-Defamation League student group, arguably the most fulfilling of my many responsibilities, I am able to engage students in dialogue about effective ways of combating discrimination, bias and prejudice. I get the opportunity to explain to a group of dedicated students how the very organization that we are now a part of was founded nearly 100 years ago by Jewish progressives as a means to combat anti-Semitism. We confront issues that affect our communities, both those at school and at home, using a framework that is a direct result of my Jewish heritage. As I watch students delve into deep discussions of tolerance, equality and creating safe spaces for everyone, I feel proud to be part of a program like AVODAH, one that allows me to explore two aspects of my identity I had always hoped to. I always defined my Judaism in terms of the need to support those less fortunate and strive for a more just society. I never knew until this year, however, just how intertwined they truly are. AVODAH has helped me to see that Judaism and social justice are not two separate endeavors that can occasionally overlap, but really are, on many levels, congruous and directly related. I wholeheartedly believe that Judaism, at least my version of it, only exists if its tenets imply, urge and necessitate a striving for a more just world.