Rabbi Lauren Tuchman organizing for liberation remarks Join for Justice October 3 2019

4 Tishrei, 5780/October 3, 2019

The following remarks were presented as part of a public event sponsored by Join for Justice at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts on October 3, 2019. The event featured Rabbis Lauren Tuchman and Becky Silverstein.


Organizing for Liberation with Rabbis Lauren Tuchman and Becky Silverstein


Shanah tovah and gmar chatimah tovah! A happy, healthy and liberatory new year to us all. Such hakarat hatov—sincere gratitude—to all of the staff at Join for Justice. It is an honor and privilege to be with you all tonight. I want to begin my remarks this evening with a brief introduction to myself and how I came to do the work I do in the world. As Jihelah noted in her kind introduction, I was ordained at JTS in 2018. I was lucky and blessed to have gotten my start in community organizing under the mentorship of Rabbi Elizabeth Richman and Jews United for Justice through their Jeremiah fellowship. Upon learning in my first year of rabbinical school that Join had a class for New York area rabbinical students to learn community organizing and how to apply it as clergy, I jumped at the chance to participate the next year. And the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to being in the clergy leadership project in 2014, I have had the honor of working with Join in a variety of other capacities, most recently as an advisor for the new Empower Fellowship, a cohort within Join’s Jewish Organizing Fellowship that cultivates the power and leadership of Jews with disabilities and brings more trainings about disability justice to the fellowship as a whole.

As someone who has almost always been the only blind person in spaces I inhabit—educational, social, communal—I am very aware of what it means to be othered. My life experience teaches me over and over again the importance of genuine, mutual, authentic and reciprocal relationship, which is one of the many reasons I find community organizing as a method of social transformation to be so powerful. This is not about checking off a diversity box or thinking the work has been done by token representation. Rather, it is about all of us rolling up our sleeves and doing the hard, messy and, yes, ultimately rewarding work of building relationship and coalition across lines of difference. I inherently do this every day, as a blind person living in a very visual world who has had to learn to develop skillsets for both navigating that world as well as conveying to others how I, as a nonvisual person, live in the world both differently and also in the exact same way. Relationship removes mystery, fear and uncertainty. I have often wondered why, in my albeit nonscientific and limited experience the disability community is largely absent from social justice movements and language. Is it fear of that which we don’t know and cannot understand? Are we still stuck in transactional models, wherein people with disabilities are being served and unable to serve ourselves? Are we not yet seen as peers, as equals? Relational organizing, I believe, turns this paradigm of the us and them, the serving and the served on its head by requiring of all of us the deeply human and necessary act of opening up our dalet amot—our own little worlds—to get to know others genuinely and without pretense.

Being part of such a small, if also quite dynamic minority community—the blind community specifically and the cross-disability community more generally which is nearly 20% of the human family—has also taught me the importance of the interplay between the collective and the individual in social transformation work. One size never fits all. As one example, the technology I use to accomplish my computing needs is both unique to me and used by others. I, for example, am a Braille reader—the preservation of Braille and the importance of Braille literacy in and amongst the blind community are passions of mine—and yet, I understand and teach that no tech combination works for every person. Though two people have a similar impairment, the accommodations needed and the way in which that impairment manifests might vary tremendously based on any number of intersecting factors. Taking the time to build relationship across difference, even amongst our own communities, is both an exercise in checking our ego, which, I grant, many of us who have had to fight our entire lives for access and who have lived in a world of seeming scarcity often have a challenging time doing when different methods for accomplishing the same task are brought by others and it is also an exercise in humility, knowing what I don’t know is as important as lifting up my expertise is.

In a world of increased polarization, where fewer and fewer of us want to emerge from our own bubbles and echo chambers, where we spend endless hours arguing and lamenting the missteps of others, in a world where call out culture often serves more to humiliate and shut down than to educate and open up, the work I do in the Jewish disability space specifically has forced me to sit with my own unchecked biases, to learn how to humbly stand in my knowing and in my growing edges, and has taught me how to communicate across a broad constituency. That work is often very difficult. It also keeps me on my toes, as I have to learn to translate terms that are common in social justice spaces into language that can be understood in a variety of settings. I have had to learn to communicate the ikkar—the essence—of disability justice theory to many people for whom my speaking was their first exposure, and I have had to subsequently amend, challenge and refine my thinking. If I believe, as I do, that people with disabilities ought to be able to access religious spaces that are the most authentic expressions of their religious orientations no differently than people without disabilities, I have to grapple with the painful reality that this world is far from the world as it should be, and that part of organizing for genuine social transformation is learning how to find those commonalities that bind very different and often uncompromisingly so groups of people together. What does it mean, for instance, to be a blind, egalitarian Conservative rabbi who, at one time, regularly interfaced with Cheredi organizations, knowing that was, for that time, my only option for getting the religious materials in the exact format I needed? I felt in those moments a deep constriction, hiding myself, who I am and my own religious integrity, all for the benefit of access. I have no doubt that were I to have sat down with those Cheredi organizations and asked them about their attitudes towards combatting ableism and living in a barrier-free world, I doubt that language would have resonated in the same way. I feel certain, however, that their work is deeply rooted practically in the needs of their own communities—blind people are obligated in most positive time-bound mitzvot, and thus must be given the ability to fulfill their religious obligations no differently from sighted folks. We might not have used the same language to describe the impact of our work, and, it goes without saying that we think very differently about the role of women in Jewish life, but in their own small way, they are creating a world in which the Shechinah can truly dwell, by upholding the dignity of blind folks who seek them out. Kavod habriot, the inherent dignity of every human being, and every living being, is central to Jewish understanding. We are all created b’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d, no being is created any more or any less in G-d’s image. Nevertheless, human beings have often chosen arbitrarily to assign social value to people based on ability or seeming lack thereof. Disability justice theorists have often made the distinctions between impairments and disabilities. Impairments are often static facts; disabilities are social constructions. Though this theory is itself binary and not without its own need for further nuance and explication, it does help us move collectively to an understanding that the human being is more or less disabled by their environment, and that one way of making a world in which all can thrive is to create environments in which folks who live with any number of impairments or disabilities are able to bring their full selves. When we all come to recognize that as beings with agency, we are able to make different choices about the world we’d like to live in, if enough of us come to this understanding, regardless of where our starting point is, together, we can do a lot.

Amongst the many lessons I have learned through my work as a rabbi in the Jewish disability space, working with people where they are is perhaps the most important. In an era of social media soundbites, decontextualization and a knee-jerk reactive culture, sometimes, being deeply uncomfortable is the necessary thing to do. How are we to get people to move with us if we aren’t able to meet them amidst the problematic stew of misperception about disability that is alive and well in our culture? In this season of teshuvah, of turning and returning, of striving to live in right relationship with ourselves and with others, we have a uniquely potent opportunity for a reset. Resetting does not mean erasure. Our slates are wiped clean on Yom Kippur, yes, but that only applies to sins between ourselves and Hashem, not to sins between ourselves and others. For that, as the Rambam famously teaches in his Laws of Teshuvah, we must approach the one whom we’ve wronged for forgiveness, sincerely commit to change, deeply regret our past behavior and, as he teaches, when the same or a similar situation arises, not to repeat our past misdeed. In that way, we’ve achieved a complete teshuvah. A mentor of mine once taught me that to do social justice work inevitably opens one up to erring, constantly it feels like. Are we to feel utterly frozen, trapped by those errors and missteps we all make? We’re all in process, culturally conditioned, and constantly unlearning and re-learning. The Days of Awe aren’t about achieving perfection. They are, in their rawest form, about the messy reality of the human condition. They are about us coming to terms with the fleeting nature of life, its inevitabilities, its twists and turns. They are about self-reflection, often hard self-reflection, but they are not about achieving perfection and beating oneself up when one unavoidably does not achieve that elusive perfection. I believe that this is something that we must remember all year. If we are to live in a more liberatory community and a liberated world, we must both have the humility of knowing what it is we are striving to improve upon as well as knowing what it is that we are doing well. We move from the awesome nature of the Days of Awe a few short days later to the time of our rejoicing at the holiday of Sukkot. If we aren’t able to celebrate our wins as organizers, the joys in the world all around us, but instead focus on our shortcomings and those areas in which we missed the mark only, we will be left uninspired and burned out, unable to co-create a world of abundance. The struggles of all of our lives aren’t the only things about us. When we take the time to build relationships, to do those listening campaigns, and to invest something of ourselves genuinely in others, we leave those encounters with a holistic understanding of who we are, who are folks are, and how, together, we can continue to build a world of love, dignity and liberation.



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