Not everyone has a direct path to the Jewish Social Justice world – some people end up there through a simple twist of fate. Julie Chizewer Weill’s story is a perfect example of how the right moment of connection can lead to a career fighting for social change. As the outgoing chair of AVODAH Chicago’s Advisory Council, Julie brings a wealth of experience and strong roots in the Jewish community to serve as a leader within our network. She has a deep sense of what it means to be an effective changemaker, and draws on that knowledge to advance AVODAH’s mission in the Chicagoland area.
Julie’s social justice story began in 1993, as she was planning the next steps of her career. She happened to attend a lecture by Jane Ramsey, then the Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs (JCUA). Julie found that JCUA’s work of fighting local poverty and racism resonated with her core values and presented the ideal professional path. Soon after, Julie became JCUA’s Director of Outreach and Education, creating the Associate Division, which engaged more than 1,200 young adults in hands-on community projects and raising awareness around poverty.
Recognizing the felicitous nature of her introduction to JCUA, Julie draws on that original good fortune to inspire her leadership with AVODAH: “When I was getting started, I never knew that Jewish social justice organizations existed…that was luck. I got involved in AVODAH so that young people would not have to rely on such luck to find their way toward working for justice as a Jew. We have created an intentional, organized path for young Jews who are figuring out who they will be, [to imagine] what they can do and to get training, experience, and support as they forge their way. It’s not left up to chance anymore.”
Julie went on to spend several years as the Director of Organizing and Education at Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ), now known as Bend the Arc. During her time at JFSJ, she began her work in congregation-based community organizing, where she learned some powerful lessons about what it takes to build a movement within the Jewish world. Among many other key lessons, Julie learned the importance of listening to and sharing stories with each other and diverse allies, and how often that practice results in the discovery of common issues of concern and shared struggles.
Julie continues her work in congregation-based community organizing to this day, serving as the Coordinator of Institutional Advancement at Just Congregations, a project of the Union for Reform Judaism. Just Congregations inspires Reform Jewish communities across the country to harness their collective power towards advocating for change on a local, state, and national level. The initiative has trained 260 congregations in 32 states to date, and Julie takes particular pride in the fact that these communities have “worked in partnership with churches, mosques, and other community organizations to achieve scores of victories on issues that are important to the Jewish community: access to affordable health care, immigrant rights, affordable housing, gun violence, sex-trafficking, and others.” If you were to place Just Congregations’ key issues into a Venn Diagram with AVODAH’s placement partners, it would serve as yet another example of the connection between Julie’s professional work and her lay leadership.
Hearing Julie’s advice for AVODAH corps members and fellows, it’s hard not to get excited about the potential that our communities have to make lasting change:
“Believe in the importance of the Jewish community as part of a broader coalition. Although we are a small percentage of the American population, we have an important role to play. Sweeping change has occurred when fights have been fought by movements that reflect the full diversity of our country – the poor and the prosperous; progressives and centrists; Americans of every race and creed. Today’s inequities demand such audacious partnerships. The American Jewish community, like every community, can bring its unique array of relationships to the effort. Cultivating the relationships of the ‘particular’, and combining it with the relationships of the other ‘particulars’ is what leads to the collective power we need to make the changes we seek.”
While a stroke of luck led Julie to her work for a more just world, there’s no doubt that we’re all lucky to know her. AVODAH is proud to benefit from Julie’s leadership, and we’re looking forward to honoring her as one of our Partners in Justice this spring. If you’re in the Chicago area, keep your eyes peeled for a save-the-date!