A Study of Social Justice Leadership in Israel and the Greater Boston Area

Matt Robbins ’10 reflects on his independent study.

My independent study began as an opportunity to learn about the history of Israel, Boston-based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and Haifa, Israel-based NGOs. I originally expected to attend one or two LeadHaifa/Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) events and that was it. However, thanks to the LeadHaifa program, the Boston Center for Community and Justice (BCCJ), and the JCRC, my independent study evolved into the creation of a new program that will teach others the knowledge that I learned during the last trimester of the 2008-2009 school year.

The executive director of BCCJ, Todd Fry, first proposed the idea of me representing the organization at a series of meetings in May. These meetings were based around the LeadHaifa program visiting Boston from Haifa, Israel. LeadHaifa is a group of people based in Haifa that are working for NGOs. They meet throughout the year to discuss how they can advance social justice in Haifa. As a result of the LeadHaifa group coming to Boston, a group of Boston based people who work for NGOs was assembled, and together both groups met to discuss social justice work in general.

On the first day of the LeadHaifa visit, I was nervous and excited. I wanted to represent BCCJ in a positive way, and gain experience that I could use in my social justice work at BCCJ and Beaver. After a quick round of icebreaker games, Jenna Toplin of the JCRC split everyone into groups and gave us words to discuss with our group members. We discussed words such as justice, global, and crisis. After the small groups discussions we came together as a large group to share. When the word justice was brought up we discussed the idea of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was extremely reassuring to hear from a group of both Israelis and Palestinians that justice meant a two state solution. When the large group discussed the word global, the idea of global citizenship was mentioned. To be a good global citizen we came to the conclusion that we must educate and encourage our peers to become involved in similar exchanges so that other connections can be made across national boundaries. Lastly, the word crisis was discussed and it seemed as if almost everyone connected the word to the current economic problems. Many people shared stories about changes their organizations had to make due to a lack of resources. Just like many other organizations, BCCJ has had to make significant adjustments due to poor economic conditions. Ideas were exchanged on how to maintain effectiveness and commitment, while ensuring viability as an NGO. This conversation made me feel reassured because other NGOs have been able to successfully work through similar situations as BCCJ. After an hour of talking, the event wrapped up. This experience was a great introduction to the LeadHaifa program, and I was able to make connections with several people that I would have never crossed paths with in my everyday life.

A few days later, the LeadHaifa group came to the BCCJ office for breakfast. Todd Fry planned and facilitated the morning event. Present at the breakfast were several LeadBoston members. Todd facilitated a few preliminary activities which gave everyone an opportunity to meet each other. Then, we split into small groups and Todd gave us questions to base our discussions. The question that I found most intriguing was: what is your idea of a perfect world? It was incredible to see that although, we had similar beliefs about social justice, everyone’s answer to this question was different. For example, those who do youth work put an extra emphasis on creating an environment for young people to grow and thrive, and those who do work for the elderly focused their answer on creating a system for senior citizens to have a voice in society. It brought out the point that it is just as important to have individuals taking a niche approach to building community and social justice as it is for all of us to work with a global focus. After this conversation, the breakfast ended with several LeadHaifa participants exchanging information with many members of LeadBoston. This breakfast energized me, and luckily, Jenna Toplin and Todd Fry decided to invite me to a meeting about next year’s LeadHaifa-LeadBoston exchange.

The LeadHaifa-LeadBoston meetings were held at the BCCJ office. We began to plan logistics of next year’s Boston visit, however, we also planned for alumni of BCCJ’s LeadBoston program to visit Haifa as well. The goal of the future exchange is to create a totally new program in which both LeadBoston and LeadHaifa participants travel to each other’s home country in order to learn and become better socially just leaders. When discussing possible obstacles, I made sure to share my experience with the InIt program. I described how InIt’s 10 month program is comparable to an idea that Rabbi Jim Morgan of the JCRC had about a year long LeadBoston-LeadHaifa exchange program. At the end of the meeting we set up another date to continue planning. I hope to attend every future planning session.

My meetings this year have helped me realize that LeadHaifa and BCCJ both use similar tools to explore the meaning of social justice. Both organizations use activities that put people in uncomfortable situations where they must confront issues of prejudice head-on. I appreciated, that although we live thousands of miles away, both groups of people had a strong belief that to be a socially just leader, one must fight for the equality of all people no matter what their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, or religion.

My experience with LeadHaifa and the JCRC is incomparable to anything else I have ever done. I have made connections with social justice leaders from other countries, helped create a partnership between BCCJ and the JCRC, and participated in rare discussions that I don’t experience in my everyday life. Because of the unique obstacles that I had to overcome in order to make an impact at the events, I became an even more effective socially just leader. For example, at all of the events that I attended, I was the youngest participant, so therefore, I had to make sure that my voice was heard, and not overshadowed by the comments of those who are older than me. Overall, I am extremely happy that my independent study was so successful, and I plan on continuing my work with the JCRC, LeadHaifa, and BCCJ for as long as possible.

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