Jewish program inspires college students to make change locally

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BLOOMFIELD / MONTCLAIR, NJ — Quarantined at home, 50 budding activists from Bnai Keshet in Montclair and Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, as well as a few unaffiliated young adults, jumped at the chance in early May to participate in a new social justice internship program named for Ner Tamid member Fred Pressman, who died April 30.

They responded to a May 6 call by Bnai Keshet Assistant Rabbi Ariann Weitzman.

“Bnai Keshet is working with Temple Ner Tamid to build an internship to make the most of this moment to improve our world together,” Weitzman said. “We will be studying the fundamentals of organizing and taking action through a Jewish lens, while connecting individuals with campaigns, work and volunteer opportunities to do good.”

The Pressman Social Justice Internship had been jointly conceived by longtime social justice activists Eric Scherzer and Beth Rubin of Bnai Keshet, working with Weitzman, senior Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet and Rabbi Marc Katz of Ner Tamid. College seniors Gabriel Slon and Isabel Levine of Bnai Keshet quickly stepped into leadership roles, dividing interested participants, based on their preferences, into six pods: two on racial inequality, and one each on immigration, climate change, electoral politics and gun control.

Rabbis, mentor lay leaders from each congregation’s tikkun olam communities and occasional guest speakers organize weekly general meetings via Zoom to teach interns the fundamental principles of organizing and to engage in role plays involving complicated real-life situations. The interns separately meet with their pods and adult advisers once or twice a week to design and carry out research and actions.

“When the pandemic hit and it became clear students had blank spaces in their lives, Bnai Keshet and Ner Tamid decided to create this internship as a way to channel the energies of students,” Levine, a senior at McGill University in Montreal and co-leader of the immigration pod, said July 10, halfway through the six-week program. “The idea from adults was the internship would be student-led and -run.

“Gabe and I shaped it after having a focus group with potential participants,” Levine continued. “We picked our leader mentors and participants, who range in age from 10th grade to college grads. We asked people to rank what they wanted to do and assigned six to 10 kids to each pod. It’s a bit Jewish influenced, with teachings on values of empathy and justice, but you don’t have to be Jewish to participate.”

Slon, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and leader of one of the two racial inequality pods, practiced role plays with his podmates and mentor Scherzer at the weekly general meeting before having a preliminary meeting with Montclair town councilors in preparation for a larger townwide virtual town hall–style meeting on policing budgets and values on July 19. Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller and City Council members Lori Price Abrams and David Cummings were on hand at the virtual gathering.

“How’d the meeting go? It surpassed all our expectations,” Slon said July 10, after meeting with Montclair officials. “We practiced for it and made sure everyone was included. We were so intent on getting our points across clearly and effectively, and we drew so much from our earlier, groupwide educational session with Rabbi Elliott about how to create and leverage power. Rabbi Elliott taught us about exerting power just from running a meeting smoothly. Eric was really good at catching things we should and shouldn’t do and helping us understand what someone with his age and experience would say from the other side of the table. We’re 16- to 21-year-olds. What do we know about these things? That educational seminar was one of the biggest tools we had.

“We are working on facilitating a conversation about police funding within the town. We aren’t looking for any specific policy right now because we have not heard all the voices yet. First and foremost, we want people in town to recognize that we need to change, that our town has a lot of the same systemic racism that plagues the rest of the country. And following that, a good place to start would be making sure any mental health incident doesn’t end up in a cop using force, which disproportionately falls on black and brown people,” Slon said.

A longtime labor activist and current head of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance, Scherzer said the Pressman internship participants are making the most of this moment to bring about change for the better in the community. 

“All of these young adults were forced to leave school because of COVID and had all their summer jobs and plans upended because of the virus, and on top of that witnessed — as we all did — the tragic events of police brutality and needless death due to racist, indifferent and incompetent government from the top. They wanted to do something to bring about change,” Scherzer said. “The Pressman Social Justice Internship afforded them the opportunity to make that change this summer in their home community.”

At the end of the six-week internship, Levine said each pod will present what they’ve done. In one action, she and her immigration pod mates put up a banner in Montclair under the train tracks at Watchung Avenue and Park Street, supporting Make the Road NJ’s campaign for COVID relief for the state’s nearly half-million excluded undocumented workers, who so far are ineligible for government aid even though many of them do essential work. Although Montclair police removed the banner, the pod continues to fight for state government to act and create a disaster-relief fund for the undocumented.

Ronni Pressman, clergy associate at Temple Ner Tamid and wife of Fred Pressman, could not be happier that the Pressman internship program has stimulated so much interest and hope in improving the community and making the world a better place.

“He’s smiling down on us saying, ‘Keep the ball rolling,’” she said of her husband. “As much as Freddie was involved in keeping the ball rolling, this social justice internship is an inspiration for more to come, to never sit back. You’ve always got to work at it; the job is never done. It’s on the next generation to make sure it doesn’t stop.”

Photos Courtesy of Michael Reitman and Isabel Levine