“It was special and I’m really going to miss it”: Avodah Justice Fellows reflect on the power of community

Published Jun 20, 2024
Headshots of Justice Fellows Sam Katz, Lili Ashman, and Stephanie Kane

This month, dozens of Avodah Justice Fellows in New York and Chicago will celebrate the powerful community they’ve built over the past year. 

The Avodah Justice Fellowship is a deep learning and community-building program designed to build the field of Jewish social justice leaders working effectively and sustainably in Chicago and New York City.

Justice Fellows reflect the diversity of the American Jewish community. Each cohort brings together Jews from a variety of backgrounds, ways of observing, viewpoints, and interests to build a truly unique and pluralistic community. 

We asked three of this year’s Fellows to reflect what brought them to the program, and what they will be taking with them.

Why did you join the Fellowship?

LILI: I wanted to reconnect to the social justice work that I cared about doing and learn more about my Jewish faith, what that means to me, and what that would even look like to be sort of more participant and observant in a Jewish community through Avodah.

I didn’t have these quintessential Jewish experiences growing up—I never had a bat mitzvah and my hometown Santa Fe, New Mexico is not a very Jewish place. Because I didn’t have a Jewish community, the Fellowship was my first time intentionally coming together with other people identifying as Jewish. 

There was something really significant in having this community of people where we could have really hard conversations, and people were supportive of each other and open to hearing what everyone had to say. For me, it was a way to not feel as isolated and recognize that there’s going to be different perspectives no matter what, especially in the Jewish community. 

I’ve been glad to have this place to come and have these conversations in person. Being able to sit with other people and have these kinds of conversations has been really meaningful. The rhetoric on social media and online is just so bad – you can’t have a meaningful conversation with someone that way. 

In the Fellowship, even if I don’t agree with someone, I’ve met them, and I know them and I can empathize and see where they’re coming from. That helps me when I’m outside of the Fellowship to try to continue doing that with others who aren’t Jewish and have other points of view that I may not agree with. Being with everyone in a room and hashing things out together showed me what’s possible when people can come and listen and work with each other. Which is so much of what social justice work is. 

It was really hopeful to be a part of that.

STEPHANIE: My colleague at Lab/Shul specifically recommended it to me because in the Jewish space and in the nonprofit space more broadly, there are so many opportunities for early career professionals, like internships, or 1 year long programs, that are really for people who are 22 years old or younger, and less for people with my level work experience. They had a really positive experience when they did it and felt like it really gave them more skills in the kind of unique field of justice-oriented Jewish nonprofits.

SAM: I think I really was looking for more connection with my lefty Jewish peers. I was also really excited about the potential of doing more Torah study that wasn’t for my bar mitzvah, which is really the only other opportunity that I’ve had personally in my Jewish education to do that, certainly as an adult.  

I was also looking for a clearer sense of who I am and how my unique skills and identities and privileges and spirituality could all kind of come together and integrate those different aspects of myself: my career stuff, my spirituality, my politics, my relationships. And I felt like this was a unique space where all of that was kind of able to coexist and be held.

What have you learned?

STEPHANIE: I have learned more specific theories and modalities about social justice and about policy and organizing in ways that are clarifying. 

It’s helpful because we’ve lived in this era of online activism where the most outlandish and the most pretty and well curated and slogan-oriented work gets a lot of attention because it latches onto the algorithm. 

But being in the Fellowship helped me zoom out and looking at the big picture, and realize of all the different ways that change happens, and it happens slowly, and it happens because of the long work of many different people has really helped me reframe the, the feeling of ‘oh, well, if it’s not going viral or if it’s not people duking it out in the comment section, then it’s not important or it’s not impactful’.

I genuinely believe that people don’t join movements. People join people. So being invested in an interpersonal community and being respectful and not shying away from hard conversations, feels like a much better use of my time than yelling and screaming at people I don’t know on the internet.

I’ve also really appreciated that that lens has been intersectional. We have done readings and had guest speakers who are Jews of Color, who are queer Jews, who are Jews with connections to the ultra-Orthodox community, because otherwise it can be very easy to center the mainstream Jewish voice. 

I really appreciated that we’ve been latching onto Jewish concepts, but really entering it from different angles. That is another thing that you don’t always get, no matter how invested you are in Jewish community space.

What have you gotten out of the program?

SAM:  I think one of my takeaways is that the Jewish community is just so much less monolithic than I thought it was. I met people who all had come to their Judaism and to their social justice work from really different places than I even conceived of.

There is something that was really powerful about hearing, you know, about one of my cohort-mates who organized rural farmers in Missouri, or worked for the EPA, or as a lawyer for a large union. And we all grew up with totally disparate experiences of what sect of Judaism we were from, and how much Hebrew we spoke. It gave me some hope that there really is a place for everyone within the Jewish community, even folks that might not feel like they fit.

As somebody who’s not in grad school and probably won’t go to grad school, it was really meaningful and important for me to have this space that worked with my life and my schedule and my identities, to be where I could come together and be with people who I care about, and that care about me, and where we can study Torah together, and have hard conversations, and eat burritos.  

It was special and I’m really gonna miss it.

STEPHANIE: I’ve gotten a lot of very lovely things out of being a part of the fellowship. I’ve really enjoyed the community. It’s a group where I only knew one person prior to the Fellowship, which was shocking.

I kind of expected to know everybody because Jewish community is so small, but it’s been really great to meet new people who are also coming to this work from different backgrounds and different professional backgrounds and religious backgrounds. 

Because we’re a small community that already has trust in community guidelines we’ve actually been able to have conversations about things that are really hard to talk about and not scream at each other. I am in many Jewish communities and non-Jewish liberal communities where the conversations have been intensely polarizing or sterile. 

And I think we were entering those conversations throughout the course of the Fellowship, we knew that in many ways we share the same values, but we’re not all coming from the same lived experience. I think that helped us really lead with respect. I have not had conversations that were successful in any other settings, even in intimate spaces with people who I know very, very well. The trust and community that was built in the Fellowship allowed me to lean into hard conversations authentically, even when it was hard.

Lili Ashman headshot

Lili Ashman is a 2023-2024 NYC Justice Fellow. Lili is dedicated to working on matters that are based on mutual understanding and cooperation, human rights, peace-building, and social justice, with over a decade of experience. She is currently serving as Executive Associate with Doctors of the World-USA and is a Founding Partner of Lead Integrity. Previously she was Executive Officer and Special Assistant to the Secretary General of Religions for Peace. She was a founding member and Advancement and Partnership Director for CubaOne Foundation, an organization that takes young Cuban Americans to Cuba to connect with their rich heritage and serves as a platform for reconciliation within the Cuban American diaspora. She has lived and worked internationally, including in Ireland with Smashing Times Theatre Company, using applied theatre as a tool for conflict resolution and social change responding to challenges such as ‘The Troubles’, Dublin’s heroin epidemic, teaching English and financial skills to women -immigrant communities, and suicide and mental health issues within the Irish youth. She is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) having served in Ethiopia in the Education sector. She holds a degree from Drew University and lives in New York.

Stephanie Kane headshot

Stephanie Kane (she/her) is a 2023-2024 NYC Justice Fellow. Stephanie is a professional theatre artist and educator, and currently works full-time as the Youth and Family Programs Manager at Lab/Shul, an everybody-friendly, artist-driven, God-optional, experimental Jewish community based in New York City. As a Jewish educator and eternal camp counselor, she has worked with kids of all ages and abilities at Camp Ramah in California, JCC Pittsburgh, and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Her theatrical homes past and present include Center Theatre Group, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Santa Cruz Shakespeare, The Public Theater, The Workshop Theater, and the Jewish Plays Project. Stephanie holds a BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon University and currently lives in Brooklyn on sovereign Lenape land, although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, a fact that shocks people because she’s pale, walks fast, and hates the beach.

Sam Katz headshot

Sam Katz (he/him) is a 2023-2024 Chicago Justice Fellow. Sam Katz is a Chicago-based video producer who enjoys making grown-ups cry with his heartwarming human stories. A certified Nice Jewish Boy™ hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah, his videos have raised money for sexual abuse survivors, racial equity, and trans rights, and have been featured online by the likes of Melinda Gates and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. He is most at peace riding his bike through the woods or snuggling his dog Amabel.

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