The Jewish social justice sector continues to expand and grow. Let that not be mistaken in today’s news that Pursue: Action for a Just World, a flagship initiative of our community, is disbanding in late 2012. And both organizations’ new initiatives reflect an exciting new stage of maturity for this movement, for the better.
When first constituted in 2006 as the partnership young adults program of American Jewish World Service and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, Pursue was an initiative neither organization could support alone. Each possessed budding communities of alumni from year-long and alternative break service learning, but little more. It hired capable, inspired staff and produced innovative programs that integrated the Jewish community into the wider social justice movement and vice versa.
Over six years, it touched the lives of 6,000 young people through nearly 300 programs in 7 cities with 165 partner orgs. Unlike most programs aimed at 20s/30s urban Jews, it eschewed aimless socials in favor of deeply-inspired, focused leadership training applicable equally (or perhaps best) outside the Jewish community. Through seminars and mini-conferences like Inside the Activists’ Studio, Pursue trained successive cohorts in serving on boards of directors, as well as activist skills like online fundraising and protest theater. And the staff infused today’s progressive discourse with a Jewishly-rich vocabulary through long-term study groups like the Justice & Jewish Thought series (register for the final NY cohort until June 22).
The holistic, thoughtful nature of every gathering exemplified the partnership’s values. Gatherings found creative ways to ensure gender balance on panels, catering that satisfied both kashrut and high ethical standards, and reached out to every possible justice cause. There is no other single program that has infused the current generation of Jewish activists with skills, wisdom and community.
I have been privileged to work with their staff over the past four years — the indifatigable Merrill Zack, Audrey Sasson, Stephanie Ruskay, Suzanne Lipkin, Erica Hymen, Rachel Ann Gross-Prinz, and Chanel Dubofsky. Their service has brought us to serve and this new evolution will without a doubt employ them in new and creative ways.
All that said, let’s not lament a good program’s passing while missing the greater point: we are growing and new possibilities demand new modes of collaboration. In 2006, this community was still in its infancy, but today as both organizations have grown so have their constituencies’ capacities for influence. Community-building and skills training for individuals was an investment, not an end in itself. We’ve always believed that the power and strength of this maturing sector lies in mobilizing, advocating, leveraging influence. Now both organizations are armed with well-tooled disciples ready for the heavy lifting.
What’s next? This is the natural next evolution:

AVODAH is clear that in order to fulfill its mission of supporting the Jewish community’s fight against poverty by creating Jewish leaders for social change, it must focus on guiding and inspiring its alumni network and their peers in domestic anti-poverty efforts. And AJWS is committed to mobilizing the U.S. Jewish community – including its alumni and other constituents – to effect U.S. policy change in support of marginalized people in the developing world realizing their human rights.

AJWS already began lobbying the American government’s foreign aid support through its Reverse Hunger campaign and Pursue’s local “city teams” focused on poverty alleviation at home. And this movement is capable of even more and exercising real power on the key issues of our day. Kol hakavod and congratulations to the Pursue staff, lay leaders and community for making this quality investment over the past six years. Pursue has been a home and training ground for so many — we look forward to both organizations’ future initiatives.
In the meantime, take advantage of Pursue’s final programs and trainings in NY, DC, the Bay Area and elsewhere.