On Sunday, I was honored with a Heschel Vision Award by Jews United for Justice, a local advocacy group that I have been volunteering with since 2009. The award honors local leaders who fuse activism with deep moral commitments and help make our world a better place.
The email informing me that I had been selected as a recipient came out of the blue. I have attended the Heschel awards for a number of years and I never sat in the audience wondering, “When will it be my turn?” If anything, I thought, “These people have made such a large impact on the world. I hope one day I accomplish a fraction of that.”
My short acceptance speech was born out of this disbelief that I was award-worthy. I trace my reluctance to become involved with JUFJ because I did not think that I was qualified to be an activist. I know that I am not the only one who wonders if I have the right skills or experience to do something, and this doubt prevents many of us from participating in activities or with groups, which is really our own loss.
I try to take the lesson I have learned from my JUFJ experience and apply it to other parts of my life when I am hesitant to volunteer for something or to try something new. I hope you can too.
Heschel Vision Awards – Short Remarks
Sunday, October 25, 2015
I was horrified. It was 1996. I was sitting on the floor of my new office at my new job. It was about the second week, and I had spent the day going through the mountain of papers I had inherited. It was late afternoon and I was sitting on the floor because I had finally reached the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. I pulled out a folder labeled “resumes.” It was thick, and full of—you guessed it—resumes. I started thumbing through them and then it hit me: these were resumes of people who had applied for the job that I now had. I slowed down, reading carefully. I read about people’s passion for our mission. About their years of relevant experience. I even found one from someone I knew.
My father could usually lend a sympathetic ear—and be reached in the middle of the work day—so I dialed him.
“Dad. I just found all these resumes of people who applied for my job. A lot of them are really qualified. Probably more so than me.”
“Well, I know what you should do. Call the hiring committee chair immediately and tell him that they made a mistake.”
That was the perfect response to my unspoken fear that I was not qualified enough for the job. He was saying that just because I was not confident that I would be successful did not mean that I should walk away from the opportunity or the challenges it presented. Sarcastic or not, this is a piece of advice I’ve returned to a few times.
I think many of us face times when we feel unqualified to do X or Y, or at least under-qualified when compared to others around us—whether these are actual people around us, or people we imagine are there.
This certainly was the case for me when it came to JUFJ. I attended a few Labor Seders and loved the experience. (By the way, you all should mark April 3 and 10 on your calendars now for the Baltimore Social Justice Seder and then the DC Labor Seder.)
At the Labor Seder, I was in a room full of people who also felt that our DC community could be better than it was. But I did not really understand what JUFJ did, how it did it, or what I could do to be involved.
Even when I started to understand what community organizing is, I felt unqualified to participate. What if someone questioned me about the issue at hand? What if someone questioned my credentials? I didn’t think I had any credentials. I did not feel like a social justice activist. I did not have experience in politics. And, I had not lived in DC very long so was not sure I had earned a “right” to speak out. So I stayed away until the next year’s Labor Seder.
Then, in the summer of 2009, a perfect opportunity showed up in the form an application for the first Jeremiah Fellowship cohort. I could take a class and get my credentials! So I did.
What I came to understand is that no one stands at the door, determining who is worthy of participating. There is no exam you have to take in order to be involved in trying to make our communities better.
What is needed is an interest and a willingness to do something. Sometimes, doing something means making a call to the mayor or a city council member and reading a script. Sometimes, doing something means signing a petition so we can get an issue or a candidate on the ballot. Sometimes, doing something means showing up at a public meeting, because the size of the group is as much of a statement as whatever the spokesperson is going to say.
These are things I can do. These are things we all can do. And I have learned firsthand that when my small participation is combined with the small participation of others, it makes a big impact on local issues.
I also knew I could trust JUFJ because it operates from the same values I hold. To me, they are Jewish values because I primarily learned them through my Jewish family, camp, and temple. And I know that they are values shared by many in the wider community as well. These values tell us that every person should be treated with dignity. These values tell us that our fate is inextricably bound to that of our neighbors and that this city will not truly thrive unless all of its communities are thriving.
Before I finish, I would like to thank my former boss for that lovely introduction. I would like to thank people who traveled to be here today with me and the other honorees. And I would like to thank all of you for taking the time to be part of today’s celebration of social justice.
In the end, being a caring member of the community is the only qualification I needed to participate. It is the only qualification you need to participate. So when I get an email asking me to call a city council member, sign a petition, or show up at a public meeting, I will call, sign or be there. And I hope you will join me because together, we can make a difference.