Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Social Justice Organizations in Israel

While I am back in the U.S., I do still have a few more posts I want to write about Israel and one about my trip to Silver City. Having just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, a traditional time for Jewish giving, I figured this post about Israeli social change organizations might be timely.

With constant media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and violence, it’s easy to reduce Israel to a single topic issue. Without “engaging with Israel in all its complexity,” to steal a frequently-used Yahel phrase, it’s easy to reduce your position on Israel to either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, pro-orthodox or pro-secular, without exploring a space to be pro-both, and pro-greater equality and justice for all. One of the great things about the learning component of Yahel was the emphasis on exposing us to the diverse populations and narratives of Israeli society. There’s not just one “Jewish” narrative and one “Palestinian” narrative.  There are as many perspectives as there are people, and Jews and Palestinians aren’t the only groups inhabiting the land of Israel. While I often found myself frustrated by inequality, racism, religious conflict, and what I considered unjust government actions, I also was often inspired by the incredible number of social justice advocates from all walks of life working hard toward a stronger, more just and equal Israeli society. I had the privilege to meet some of them this year.  

Through our weekly learning sessions and program seminars around the country, we met with leaders of diverse Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli, West Bank Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin, Sudanese and Eritrean refugee, and other communities. I learned about more incredible organizations doing powerful social justice and community development work than I could possibly write about here. This year I gained a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of Israeli society and the multitude of narratives held by diverse communities across Israel. I began to conceptualize my vision for a more just and equal future for Israel and Jewish society. Below are brief descriptions for a handful of organizations that most stood out to me. 

Feel free to read these descriptions purely on an informational basis.  However, if you want to make a gift to Israel, but find that the traditional donation streams don’t resonate with your vision for Israel or want to expand your scope of giving, I’d recommend you help create a more socially just Israeli society by contributing to one or more of the below organizations.

Yahel Israel Service Learning (
I volunteered in Israel through Yahel, as a member of the Yahel Social Change Program (YSCP) 2014-15.  One of the reasons I chose Yahel is their approach to partnering with local community organizations and community leaders in the communities in which they place volunteers.  They look to community members to identify the community needs and projects in which volunteers can be most helpful and they support the leadership of members of marginalized communities.  They also encourage leadership from members of the YSCP group, and provide broad learning opportunities about social justice, Israeli society, community, and Jewish identity. Among Israel service-learning programs for non-Israeli volunteers, I think they are very unique.

Ethiopian Community
Tebeka was my primary volunteer placement, in which I worked on grant writing and fundraising.  Tebeka is a legal aid organization specializing in cases of discrimination against the Ethiopian-Israeli community.  In addition to handling nearly 1,000 legal aid cases annually, they advocate for national policy changes that promote equity and end discrimination.  Since the Ethiopian-led protests this spring, they have been actively working with the national Chief of Police, President, and Prime Minister to implement policy changes that prevent police violence and promote better integration of the Ethiopian community in Israeli society. They also offer leadership and professional development programs to Ethiopian-Israeli high school and university students and young Ethiopian-Israeli professionals.

Garin Ehud
            Garin Ehud is a community of ~15 Ethiopian families working to strengthen the Ethiopian community in Ramat Eliyahu, the neighborhood where I lived and worked this year. Their neighborhood patrol helps keeps kids away from alcohol and violence on weekend and summer evenings.  Their Homework at Home program, with which I volunteered, emphasizes the creation of a home learning environment and aims to engage Ethiopian parents, who are traditionally excluded from the Israeli education system, in their children’s learning. This was one of the best volunteer experiences I’ve ever had. Additionally they organize community education events and leadership development opportunities for Garin members. I worked with one of their leaders on basic budget building and resource development. They don’t have a mechanism for on-line giving, but if you’d like to make a contribution to this incredible community group, I’d be happy to help you arrange it.

Palestinian Community
I went on a tour of Israeli-occupied Hebron with Breaking the Silence.  It is an organization of Israeli Defense Forces veterans who served in the occupied territories.  They collect testimonies about the abuses against residents of the occupied territories, and also lead tours for both Israelis and foreigners to see firsthand the consequences of the occupation.  This was an incredibly eye-opening experience.

A Palestinian-led organization based in the West Bank seeking peace, healing, empowerment, an end to oppression and inequality, and positive youth and community development.  They have a variety of programs, from rebuilding demolished homes to organizing nonviolent resistance campaigns against the separation wall and land confiscation, addressing intergenerational trauma, and youth music and summer programs. The values underlying all their programs include non-violence, equality, justice and respect.  As part of a Yahel seminar I had the opportunity to tour part of the West Bank with two of their talented activists.

Mahapach Taghir (
A grass-roots, Jewish-Arab feminist organization which operates in eight marginalized communities across Israel. Each Mahapach Taghir community is centered on a Learning Community, composed of local parents and residents as well as university students who tutor children in the community while learning about the community’s social needs.  They also focus on the empowerment and leadership development of women.  During a Yahel seminar to northern Israel, we met with a couple of the Palestinian-Israeli activities from the Yaffat el-Nassera Mahapach Taghir community who spoke about their local youth education activities as well as their women’s leadership initiatives.  The latter included a successful campaign to expand public transportation to their village and a social banking system that has enabled several of their members to begin small businesses making and selling traditional crafts.

Negev Coexistence Forum for Civic Equality (
A Jewish-Arab joint organizations seeking full civil rights and equality for those living in the Negev, with a particular focus on the Bedouin community. The forum advocates for basic community services in “unrecognized” Bedouin villages, files legal petitions against discriminatory practices, and collects data to publish numerous reports on the status of services in and discrimination against Bedouin communities in Israel in order to shape public policy.

Pluralism, Gender Equality, and Coexistence
Israel Religious Action Center - IRAC (
A civil and human rights organization founded as the public and legal advocacy arm for the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. They advocate for a more democratic and equal Israeli society and fight for equal recognition, funding, and status for Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel; oppose forced gender segregation in public spaces (such as buses), protect the rights of converts, oppose racism and religious extremism; and freedom of choice in marriage (by religion, sexual identity, etc) and equal rights in divorce. We met with the Executive Director, Anat Hoffman, an absolute firecracker who is also the Board Chair of Women of the Wall, another incredible organization.

While I can no longer remember everything we discussed with Rabbi Melchior, I remember leaving the room in awe of his approach to social change and coexistence work, believing that if we could all be more like him, peace and equality would be guaranteed. A former Knesset member, he is the founder and chair of several organizations (web links available through the webpage listed above) working to build peace across religions, through work with both religious leaders and coexistence efforts among individuals, and foster Jewish pluralistic education and communities.  He is both an orthodox and relatively socially progressive rabbi – yes, they do exist!