Liberal Judaism and Citizens UK training – learning and reflections

I just returned from a weekend away with Liberal Judaism for their first ever ‘Citizens UK community organising’ training for Liberal Judaism communities. I have written about Citizens UK previously and posed some of the challenges that I see in their philosophy and methodology. However, in my earlier post I did state that I wanted to have a discussion about the issues and so this post should be read as a continuing process of self-reflection. Close readers may see a change in tone. Some of the important underlying philosophical questions do remain. However, I don’t want to rehearse a previous post. I also don’t want to go over every aspect of their training in minute detail. Amelia Viney (from Board of National Officers at LJ) and Charlotte Fischer (Citizens UK for Barnet and the Jewish community) along with other Citizens UK organisers and volunteers were incredibly generous and supportive in giving their time, skills and experience which really must be recognised. Their boundless enthusiasm and hopefulness for change and social justice is fairly contagious too! Here, I want to reflect a little on some of the things I have taken away from the training which I think are important for our work in Jewish communities. I also want to reflect a little on some of my internal thoughts that popped up as the 2-days progressed. So to the tools. Citizens UK have lots of aspects to their training (and this was just 2 days not the big 6!), but these are the four things that stuck out for me as my ‘take home’: an honest assessment of your own reality, including analysis of your community and the question of ‘interest’; a focussed (almost to the point of brutal) and purpose driven approach to taking action – looking inwards and outwards; a clear, supportive and constructively challenging method of mentoring; a demand that you get out of your office/committee and meet people, where they are, to listen learn and engage.

1) Honest assessment of your own reality (your community, its members and yourself)

We (synagogues) are poor at this because we don’t like to hear the truth and because of the type of person who becomes a synagogue leader we’re all inclined towards the benefit of the doubt as an operating principle – we’re ‘nice’ like that. We don’t say things aren’t working often enough because we’re too eager to try and find the positives (especially when time, energy and money have been invested, often by volunteers). We don’t face up to the truth about who holds power and how decisions are made – and consequently spend too long going around in circles not making decisions or don’t understand why our voice was missing when presented with a fait accompli. We don’t understand or refuse to accept what motivates our members. We often idealise them but also run the risk of negatively portraying them too. Finally, we aren’t honest enough with ourselves as leaders – we celebrate professional martyrdom too readily and have not delivered a model of leadership for this generation post-Holocaust in the 21st century. We’re not growing Jewish life out of the ashes. Our leaders have families to look after, money pressures, jobs and social consciences. We don’t understand or accept the positive gift of what Citizens UK calls self-interest. This is a particularly important message when thinking about progressive Jewish communities who tend not to have an externalised idea of obligation (rather find a sense of duty from within). What might we do differently: recognise what needs to change, what needs to stop and what needs to be started; be honest about how decisions are made; know our members and ourselves and what motivates us.

2) Focussed and Purpose Driven Action

The Jewish community is poor at moving from grand aims to tangible targets (or winnable and worthwhile actions – to use what I think was the Citizens UK jargon) and we’re terrible about getting sidetracked by minutiae. And we love a good committee to reproduce our bad habits of not making change. The ‘how’ does not have to be an elaborate, cheeky ‘action’ or ‘pinning’ someone with the power to make change to commit to that change. But please God let us move away from committees and programmes. And I do agree with the sentiment expressed more than once that there is no hope for a community that only looks inwards at itself – we must look outwards too. What might we do differently: we should be clear about our purpose, achieving it through action that clearly moves us towards our purpose, then evaluate and start again. We should get rid of all committees save the ones that are required for legal and charitable governance purposes.

3) Mentoring

My experience has been that Citizens UK are unashamed about accountability and asking those difficult questions about accountability. That applies in public but also in the way that leadership is developed. I wish I had been challenged just a little bit as much in my seminary experience as I have in the few ‘Community Organiser’ 1-2-1s that I have had. Asking difficult questions can be done in a supportive, non-threatening way – we know that in theory – but I don’t think I had more than one piece of real constructive feedback in 5 years at seminary. In communities we manage people in different ways, but do we really push our leaders to think, be accountable, change how they do things, reflect? I don’t think so – we are too quick to judge (often damning the individual too harshly) or we do not face up to the real questions at all – and positions of power (be it title, money or status) affect our ability to be honest. What might we do differently: train leaders to support and train other leaders who can challenge, nurture and hold accountable one another; insist that our existing leaders set time aside for regular mentoring or non-managerial supervision. Ask ourselves whether because of the esteem and high regard, or influence of the individual leaders we are not being forthright enough in asking the difficult questions. Demand that our leaders actually have people following them and if they don’t ask why not!

4) Get out of the office

Unquestionably, the single most important tool (as I understood) in Community Organising is 1-2-1s (leading to the listening campaigns, house meetings etc). Now we should first be clear that the recruitment and somewhat evangelical approach to community organising seems like cult-recruitment or missionising. But be that as it may – what they say is this: meet people, again and again. Learn to listen, not always to speak or to have an answer. Go to them – physically and psychologically. Community development does not take place in an office, a committee meeting, email or social media. On that I hope we can agree. So we must break some appalling habits – partly a victim of the 21st century (and 20th century inheritance) and partly an overwhelming programming demand on our community professionals that practically ties us to the keyboard and committee. What might we do differently: create a plan for each individual new leader to set their habits before they begin work (as volunteer or paid professional); identify tasks that keep us behind desks and computer screens and ensure as many of these tasks as possible are done by people wishing to give (or other staff); give leaders time to be out and meeting new and existing contacts.


So now to the broader reflections or musings from the weekend. There are five of these: Progressive Judaism and secular messianism; Power and powerlesness and its impact on Jewish community organising; Melian/Athenian – Jewish encounters of empire; the reification of identity; Talmudic stories and performative textual conversations.

1) Progressive Judaism and Secular Messianism

One of the things that Citizens UK had as a repeated trope is ‘the world as it is’…’the world as it should be’ (it’s derived, at least in part, from Michelle Obama) – in my youth movement days we had something called ‘Critique, Vision, Method’. What community organising ultimately argues for is that it is possible to devise ways to ensure that human agency (any human no matter what power they may or may not have – or think they have or can take) is able to create a ‘world as it should be’ through their communities. We’ll ignore that my WAISB (world as it should be) may be different to your WAISB. This is really the secular equivalent of a progressive Jewish view of messianism. Which is to say, there’s no point waiting for God to change the world if we’re not doing anything about it. It’s here that we get the slightly cliched quotes about tikkun olam when community organising meets the Jewish world (along with the regular quote of Heschel, Buber, Martin Luther King and latterly Jonah Pesner and Jill Jacobs). But you can see the commonality – progressive Judaism, to all intents and purposes, disavows itself from something supernatural occurring to bring the Messiah or messianic age. But, here’s the question that I kept coming back to – are we talking about the same things and does that matter? I’d like to explore that more.

2) Power and powerlessness

The Jewish community has historically held a curious position vis-a-vis power. When a community has a history of deep consciousness of their insecurity over many centuries with regards to the ruling powers, they develop interesting ways in which they relate to power (I read the story of Esther as particularly highlighting this). The advent of modernity and, broadly speaking, the placing of religion in the private sphere not the public square (at least in Europe) was what contributed to the emancipation of Jews in Europe. You could be a good citizen whilst the follower of the Mosaic faith. Shorn of the ethnic trappings, Jews imagined themselves as more able to move in society with greater freedom and less suspicion (which also affected the practice of Judaism too). Individuals may have held power (be that political or financial) but Jewishness was something carefully expressed in public and more often ‘Jewish collective power’ was an antisemitic trope. The 21st century is calling Jews (just like other faith groupings) to find the space to take positions of power qua the Jewish community, not Jewish individuals (leaders, politicians or rabbis). British Jews are often particularly thoughtful about this because of their European geographical location and their history as survivors of the decimation of the Holocaust. This means our relationship to power is, in my view, self conscious and often ‘officially’ reluctant or favouring ‘soft diplomacy’. I wonder if this impacts on the way that communities and individuals respond to Community Organising?

3) Jewish encounters of Empire

One of the activities on the weekend includes an exploration of the Melian dialogue in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. What completely fascinated me was that the experience of vassal state, domination, subjugation, enslavement and destruction is a narrative that is read not just as an abstract exercise as a Jew. Whether recounted at Pesach, Chanukkah or Tisha b’Av – the challenges of foreign imperial power is something that has entered the conscious memory of the community and is part and parcel of Jewish identity (not to mention a return to sovereignty in the State of Israel). To read the threat of domination, enslavement or siege is to read the story of the Jewish people (whether Babylon, Seleucids, Rome, Jerusalem, Masada, or the Crusades and Inquisition). Yet those who lived in the land of Israel in antiquity never had the luxury of neutrality because of the land’s strategic importance between Africa and the Middle East. As a result the Jewish community, at least since the Roman exile, has on the one hand had a kind of relationship to empire that was engaged and disinterested all at the same time. I wonder how this impacts on how one acts the negotiation between Melians and Athenians – particularly as the activity is designed less around negotations and more around how we enact power and positions of pragmatism vs principle. The choice of a Greek text makes the activity even more interesting for Jews – just look up Athens and Jerusalem or Hellenism and Judaism to get a taste for this. (Or even look at Jeremiah 29:1-20 to look at Jewish views of subjugation and Divine intervention).

4) Reification of identity

I’m not sure about the extent to which I fully get this, but it seems to me that the nature of Citizens UK and community organising is that it creates alliances and partnerships between community groups but this also has a tendency to draw boundaries. Community organisers like Citizens UK need to draw on trade unions, faith groups, community organisations, schools, etc. for the broad based community alliances. But here’s what I couldn’t stop thinking about – celebrating diversity and seeing the universal through the particular is not the same as labelling (even by short hand) community members and groups. For example, I heard, often, the ‘progressive Jews’, the ‘black church’, the ‘trade union’, etc. I know it’s short hand but, given my academic interest in the construction of identity and im/permeability of boundaries of identity, I was interested to explore how the short hand was signifying more and needed to be spoken about in a reflective space too.

5) Talmud stories and perfomative textual conversations

My academic research involves the study of the creation and composition of rabbinic literature. Part of that involves thinking about the performance of the literature. At the start of each organiser’s presentation, they use a sort of ‘capsule story’ to describe how they have come to be interested and involved in organising (or in the particular interest). We had a great facilitator exploring 1-2-1s who told us how he had practised his ‘narrative’ in order that it took just 2-3 minutes – delivered its point and offered personal insight and calculated vulnerability. I felt very much like this rehearsed narrative or capsule story was, in some ways, similar to the editorial process of oral rabbinic literature (particularly the Talmud). The narrative in its earliest iteration may appear unfocussed and perhaps a little long, gradually the story is refined, the key moments emphasised and the point within the context of a particular conversation honed. But something also happens in this process of repeated ‘stories’ – they become as much something we tell our audience as an internalised narrative we tell ourselves. To a certain extent the cracks or cleavages in the ‘text’ are downplayed to give a coherence of values, narrative and outcome. It’s this coherence or flat reading that I felt was also at work in the reading of formative ‘organising’ texts (like the Exodus and Moses). The thing about stories like the Exodus or Moses’ leadership is that they can be read as hinting at community organising principles but they can also be read as indicating the opposite. When we flatten the text or the narrative rendition it becomes a useful rhetorical device for persuasive public performance but it seems to reduce the equivocal nature of text, narrative and, let’s face it, life. I’m fascinated by these compositional and redactorial tendencies in the public performance of stories, texts and personal narratives and I like to find the cracks in the texts too.


On balance, after the training, I’m feeling much more positive about Citizens UK than I was several months ago and have come to see the strength and value in the partnership with them – partners cannot be fawning in their view of one another and that does not mean we cannot achieve more together. I also think rabbis and synagogues need to be more analytical and critical in the pursuit of trying to build their communities for the 21st century. For my other thoughts about community work, engagement and community organising see these posts: Thinking about community organising Top ten banned list Community engagement

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