The following is the text of Rabbi Isabel de Koninck’s address at the Growing Together Through Justice Plenary at Hillel International Global Assembly, Wednesday December 7th, 2016:
Good Morning! For those of you I haven’t yet had the pleasure to meet, my name is Rabbi Isabel de Koninck and this is my 9th year serving in the Hillel movement, and my 7th year as Executive Director of Hillel at Drexel University.
This morning we heard reflections from three diverse viewpoints – some with which you may agree, some with which you may disagree or may make you feel uncomfortable. Now I get to try to bring a field professional’s perspective to the stage to help us answer the question of how we grow together in our social justice work.
In addition to my typical work as a Hillel Director, for the past four years I have had the pleasure to serve as an adjunct instructor at Drexel, teaching more than 250 Drexel University freshmen in Civic Engagement 101, a mandatory course for all first years that challenges students to significantly develop their civic engagement efficacy, identity and agency. Teaching civic engagement in the wider community on campus offers me a unique perspective on the roles Hillels can and should play in developing our students as civic actors and justice activists and it is some of those insights I’ll try to weave together this morning, but justice work starts with relationships that are built on sharing our stories – so I want to share a little bit of mine.
I grew up in the great state of New Jersey, in a community known for its commitment to racial and economic diversity. During my childhood I spent countless hours sitting in the back of township council meetings half listening, half trying to do my homework, because my mom was an elected official and sometimes that made for a rather unconventional schedule. She worked her entire career in public service, serving more than 15 of those years as an elected or appointed official – championing public schools, racial justice, and a progressive vision for the future. At home, we hashed out all of the important issues of the day at the dinner table – we were never too young to have an opinion on the most complex of social, racial and economic justice questions. Our lives revolved around what it meant to build and participate in a just society.
Because I am definitely my mother’s daughter, my own style of leadership draws directly from all those years of late night council meetings and dinner conversations. Though often she’ll take little credit for it, my mom is a change maker – not the kind you’d find giving speeches on the steps of city hall or organizing protests – instead she tends to work quietly but tenaciously and effectively from the inside – leveraging relationships and power, crafting smart policy and giving testimony in the state house, all to bring the world just a little closer to what it might be. And that’s how I am too – I’m more interested in working behind the scenes, within the system, through one on one engagement, and thoughtful relationship-building to shape policy and perspectives. That’s why I love teaching civic engagement, it’s an opportunity to sit with students and help them discover their voices and their power, a chance to dream together about what the world could be and send them out on paths to help build it. For me, my mom inspired me to be a change maker. For you, your inspiration might have been your teacher, your camp counselor, your friend, or even your Hillel professional.
And just as we celebrate the great diversity that makes up our Hillel movement, and just as we know there is no one “right” way to be Jewish, there is also not one “right” way to pursue justice. Some of us will choose protests, some will work from the inside on policy changes, others will gravitate to serving immediate needs through direct service at after school programs or in homeless outreach, and still others of us will be quiet change makers – seeking to open hearts and minds about issues that matter. As a pluralistic movement, if we are to grow together in justice work, we must build strategies that capitalize on the diversity of our communities.
In lots of ways our movement is already developing such opportunities – like the ones Jessica and Sheila highlighted earlier.
And while we’ve got a lot of good programming, projects and relationships on the ground, we still have a lot of work to do. Last year, Eric talked about two words from our mission statement – “Every” and “Enduring” – those are the big fish, how do we get “every” Jewish student to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. And indeed, those two words are apt for our question this morning as well. Every and Enduring. How do we help every Jewish student see themselves as a change maker who is inspired to make an enduring commitment to justice?
The presenters we heard from this morning suggested some incredibly powerful tools for us to consider in shaping a trajectory for this work. As a field professional, I’ve learned three key ways to move justice work forward on campus:
Number 1: Build Transformative Relationships: Sharing our stories and building relationships creates buy-in, and it galvanizes power to make change – two things necessary to engage every Jewish student in doing the most effective justice work. We need to learn the power of deeply listening and considering the stories of others, even when they might be painful or difficult for us to hear. It is through these stories that we can uncover the shared interests and concerns in the hearts of our students.
Number 2: Learn from our tradition and from the wider world: Building a more just society is a complex and daunting project –we must be committed to cultivating campus Hillel cultures that prioritize deep learning about the most pressing issues of the day, and the ways our Jewish tradition can both guide us through the challenging moral and ethical situations we face in our pursuit of justice while also serving as a powerful tool for the spiritual self-care necessary to stay in this work.
And Number 3: Engage in Action: Sometimes we skip right to this step because it feels most tangible and exciting, but there are no short cuts in justice work. For action to be effective it needs to happen in the context of relationships and with the scaffolding of serious learning. Only then will our actions – whether they be direct service projects or policy advocacy – truly reflect our highest ideals for justice work, only then will they serve as the potent teaching tools necessary to help our students become life long civic actors, social entrepreneurs and activists.
Rabbi Sacks taught us earlier that justice is at the very heart of our tradition. He was passionate, articulate and his words moved us beyond the buzz words of tikkun olam. As Rabbi Jeff Summit alluded to yesterday, all of us, and all Jewish students on campus can and should engage with the fullness of what the Jewish tradition has to offer in regards to social justice, only then will we understand the guidance and strength our tradition is able to offer us in our pursuit of justice. This morning, I’d like to offer us a little Torah that helps us start to probe to this deeper level.
In the 4th chapter of Genesis we meet Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve. In just a few short verses these characters are born, grow into men, and then their relationship comes to a crashing halt when Cain murders his brother Abel, presumably out of jealousy. There are various rabbinic stories that attempt to explain what went wrong in this relationship, but the verse of Torah that follows after the murder tells us much of what we need to know. Seeing what happened, God calls out to Cain and asks “Where is your brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Lo Yadati. Hashomer achi anochi? I don’t know, Am I my brother’s keeper? – our response as readers is immediate and visceral – our impulse is to shout back, of course, of course you are your brother’s keeper! And the Hebrew of the verse itself reinforces our reaction. While on the one hand, from context it is 100% clear that the words hashomer achi anochi should be understood as the disdain-filled retort am I my brother’s keeper? The words themselves hold in them also an emphatic, declarative statement of responsibility, read with a different inflection – Hashomer achi anochi can also mean I am my brother’s keeper – I am responsible. It’s only one verse but it holds in it the tension of the entirety of human experience – the desire toward self-preservation and the push towards deep empathy for the other.
This story about Cain and Abel contains a deep parable about the human condition which reveals to us why the work of helping every Jewish student make an enduring commitment to justice is both so hard and so necessary – every day God calls out to us and asks – I see your brothers and sisters are suffering… and we have a choice – we can answer am I my brother’s keeper??? – Is it my responsibility? Is it my problem to deal with?, or we can answer yes, it is my responsibility and I will do something about it, because I am my brother’s keeper!
There are certainly times in life where we must say, right now I need to take care of me, right now I can’t be responsible for another. But we cannot let ourselves or our students slip into the trap of letting day after day go by saying that school work, jobs, or social commitments all prevent us from taking responsibility for one another today – but maybe there will be time tomorrow. There is no tomorrow.
It is our moral imperative as Jewish educators to help ourselves and our students find more ways and more moments when we can say yes – I am responsible, and I will stand up today. Yes I will stand up for racial justice, yes I will stand up for economic justice, yes I will stand against climate change, yes I will stand against antisemitism.
To invest ourselves more deeply in social justice work as a Hillel community is a large but important task. And for me, when faced with the hard work necessary for social change, I often find the energy and inspiration I need to push through from music. So this morning I want to leave you with a song. It’s a piece I had the privilege to help shape this summer, a sort of social justice spiritual, written by singer song writer and social justice activist Chana Rothman, commissioned by T’ruah – The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights. While the song was originally written in response to the epidemic of gun violence plaguing this country, its message draws from the very texts I spoke about today, and its lessons can be applied to whatever issue calls to your heart the most.
As we endeavor to grow together in our social justice work may we find great blessings in developing a culture of story telling, relationship building and learning that leads us to informed and just action with our students. May we always have the strength and courage to walk side by side with our students – to the actions, to the soup kitchens, to the picket lines and to the halls of Congress. May we have the patience and open hearts to be with our students through the rage and through the weeping and God willing through the victories. And may we be blessed with the drive to build Hillel communities where every Jewish student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to social justice. Thank you.