By Kate Lebow
I learned a lot from my first boyfriend. He was Orthodox; I was secular. Before meeting him, I couldn't have imagined a life that was halachic by choice. I learned that there were Orthodox Jewish feminists. And I saw how his commitment to living a Jewish life echoed in his commitment to social action.
It was through him that I learned about Saul Alinsky, the founder of community organising. Alinsky came of age in Chicago at the height of U.S. labour radicalism in the 1930s-40s – like my boyfriend, also in an Orthodox household. Breaking with the traditional left, Alinsky had the insight that people could organise not just at the workplace, in unions or in parties, but also in neighbourhoods, churches and communities – that with a little help, they could organise themselves.
Alinsky favoured a type of activism that was creative, dynamic and confrontational; he believed that marching the same routes and chanting the same slogans over and over again was self-defeating. Above all, he knew that Chicago’s immigrant wards, parishes and churches were made up of tightly bound webs of personal relationships. Growing those relationships outwards – from linking members within particular religious, ethnic or local groups to linking such groups with one another – is how I like to think of community organising.
He also saw that these diverse communities with interlocking relationships could confront corrupt landlords, rapacious developers, racist bankers, City Hall itself – and win. His model is used in this country by the umbrella organisation Citizens UK and its many regional and local branches.
Last year, Rabbi Daniel and I attended a meeting of Brent Citizens. It was amazing to see such a diverse representation of Brent residents around the table: a teacher from a Muslim girls’ school, passionate about mental health; the founder of a mothers’ group who offer self-help to families in the Somali community; members of a predominantly BAME Methodist Church, concerned about housing; students and teachers from a Catholic high school, concerned about young people’s relationship with the police. (Though Brent Citizens currently have no Jewish member organisations, many synagogues and Jewish schools have become active in other local branches.)
At the meeting, the discussion focused on strategy for the upcoming London mayoral election. London Citizens has been conducting a massive ‘listening campaign’ through its local branches: thousands of one-to-one conversations among members of community groups, identifying key demands to bring before the mayoral candidates.
On 21st April, the fruits of this campaign will be presented at a major assembly event at the Copper Box arena. Mayoral candidates will meet with some 6,000 community leaders and hear about the five priority issues identified in the campaign: youth safety, housing and homelessness, climate justice, welcome and sanctuary, and living wage and work hours.
A group of Makor Hayim Builders will be going to this event. It will be a chance for us to see London Citizens at work, to think about whether we as a community may want to join our local group, and above all – to learn more about our fellow Londoners and their concerns.
We invite you to come to services this Shabbat morning, 7th March, to hear more about London Citizens and the upcoming assembly from our very own Daniel Mackintosh, a Citizens organiser in West London. And if you'd like to join us at the assembly, let me know.
We hope to see you there!