Like many children, brave leaders who stood on the right side of history have always been an inspiration to me. My first grade research project was on Harriet Tubman, my mother was an officer in the National Organization for Women during the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment and nothing fascinated me more than the Civil Rights movement. I understood this idea of social justice in a historical context and as I got older began to connect the historical injustices that captivated me with current injustices.
Throughout high school and college I was involved in a variety of community building and social justice activities but not until my senior year at the University of Minnesota did I really dive into understanding the power of community organizing. In September of 2011, a local Jewish based organization, Jewish Community Action began an initiative called the Tzedek Institute. This institute gathered Jews from around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area with the purpose of empowering and educating these individuals on how to organize their own Jewish community, congregation and non-congregational based. For four months we met as a group, discussing ideas of power, Jewish history and the unjust world we live in and the just world we must work toward. We learned how our own Jewish communities could bring change to our wider local community.
The most incredible thing I took away from this experience was how many Jewish individuals held their Judaism and social justice values at the utmost of importance and understood how important it was for us to speak as Jews to Jews about why we must work to improve this world.
Marriage equality was my first full-on campaign within the organizing world. I worked with Jewish Community Action, Temple Israel of Minneapolis and Minnesotans United for All Families to defeat the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota and we won!
In the middle of this campaign, I made a big life change and moved to Washington DC to participate in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and joined Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) as a Community Organizer. At JUFJ, I jumped right into their Dream for Equality campaign in Maryland, working to uphold the DREAM Act and marriage equality in Maryland and…we won too!
On November 7, I was speechless. Voters in four states voted on the side of marriage equality, undocumented students won the right to pay in-state tuition in Maryland and progressive issues and candidates across the country won.
I think it is difficult not to attribute the role faith leaders played in the marriage equality fight to the victories in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington. Across a variety of faiths clergy, lay leaders and more stood up to say we are doing this work because of our faith, NOT in spite of it.
As Jews, we are commanded to work to improve our world. American Jewish social justice organizations such as AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Jews United for Justice and Jewish Community Action recognize the connection between the values of Judaism and working directly in our community. Over the past year and a half, I have grown as an activist but also as a Jew. My identity as a Jew cannot be disconnected from my identity as an activist and I am so grateful that organizations across the country have been established to give people of faith a platform to act on their values of equality and justice.
Sarah Brammer-Shlay is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota where she studied Political Science and Jewish Studies. She comes from a family of activists and dreamers and loves her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is working now through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps as a Community Organizer at Jews United for Justice in Washington, DC.
This story was reprinted with permission from AVODAH's blog.