What steps can Jewish camps take to advance social justice?

Published Feb 21, 2023

Last week, senior staff and directors from Jewish day and overnight camps from around the country gathered in Georgia to begin exploring this question. The retreat kicked off an 18-month training program through a partnership between Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Avodah Institute for Social Change. 

Over the course of four days, the 18 participants in the Leadership for Social Change cohort discussed their own social justice journeys and delved into topics such as the foundations of social justice in Jewish thought and anti-Black racism. 

The interactive programs and lectures were led by expert faculty members, including Catherine Bell, a non-profit consultant and coach; Caroline Rothstein, a poet, writer, and educator; Yoshi Silverstein, founder and executive director of Mitsui Collective, a non-profit that builds resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and somatic anti-racism; and Yehudah Webster, program director at the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, which provides social justice leaders with the tools of Jewish spirituality. Sarra Alpert, the Director of Avodah Institute for Social Change, served as an educator, along with guest teacher Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Atlanta, Georgia.

Left: Avodah Institute Director Sarra Alpert leads a session on Avodah's framework of social justice; participants are seated as Sarra stands next to an easel with chart paper Right: Cohort members and faculty engage in a session on somatic antiracism led by Yoshi Silverstein; people are spread out on a basketball court in pairs

“I feel like I got more from the program than I know how to express,” one participant said. “I will be sitting with and exploring these thoughts and feelings for a long time.” 

The program was based on several of the Institute’s core principles. One such principle is that racism, and anti-Blackness specifically, are at the roots of all injustice in America. Therefore, leaders who wish to practice social justice must learn about the roots of systemic biases while embarking on their own personal journeys.

Also core to the Avodah Institute’s vision is the understanding that transformational, liberatory, visionary work takes time and care, and that it is necessary to practice accountability while giving people room to learn and grow. In order to guide and support participants in a practice of self-reflection and deep growth, the program offers peer and individual coaching. During the retreat, participants had one-on-one coaching sessions with their faculty coaches, which allowed them to set the stage for the growth to come. They will continue meeting with their faculty coaches throughout the remainder of the cohort experience.

Cohort members also learned about somatic anti-racism and embodied social justice leadership, with the goal of developing new insights into how justice and injustice show up in the body, mind, heart, and actions. Over the course of the program participants will learn to use spiritual and somatic tools as they navigate their social justice journeys, both personally and communally.  

Avodah launched the Avodah Institute for Social Change in response to movements for racial justice and urgent calls for more diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities. The primary goal is to help staff and leadership at Jewish organizations learn how to center tzedek (justice) in their work and programs. Over time, the in-depth learning is expected to ripple out and contribute to the broader movement for social change.

Last year, Avodah partnered with Hillel for a six-month pilot program. Avodah lengthened the program to add more training. The partnership with Federation for Jewish Camp will culminate with participants designing and implementing social justice programs at their camps in the summer of 2024.

“We’re truly inspired by the number of camp leaders who are willing to commit to this long-term, in-depth process of centering social justice both in their own leadership and in their camp environments,” said Sarra Alpert, Director of the Avodah Institute for Social Change.

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