L.A. social action program migrates to Bay Area

Keren Markuze lived in Los Angeles for seven years until she found her place in the Jewish community.

The 29-year-old Montreal-native credits the Jeremiah Fellowship — a social action initiative from the Progressive Jewish Alliance — with helping her navigate the second-largest Jewish community in the United States.

“The problem with the structure of the Jewish community has been to see 20-somethings as future wealthy people who will donate large sums of money,” Markuze said. “But that’s changing, and with the fellowship in particular, I felt like I could be a tool for change without being seen as a future money pit.”

PJA directors say that’s precisely the intention: to inspire and motivate young Jews to get involved in their community and engage them in social justice and meaningful activism.

This year, it’s not just L.A. that benefits.

The Jeremiah Federation Fellowship travels north this month, as about 15 Jews in their 20s will participate in the inaugural Bay Area fellowship. Applicants will be interviewed and selected in November. PJA is still considering applications.

“I’d say San Francisco, like L.A., has tons of young Jews who are disconnected from their community,” said Tali Pressman, special projects director for the Progressive Jewish Alliance, who started the L.A. fellowship two years ago and will oversee the Bay Area program.

Rachel Biale, the PJA’s Bay Area regioinal director, added that San Francisco is fertile ground for the Jeremiah Fellowship because of the huge number of 20-somethings the city attracts.

The fellowship is unique in that it’s not intensive; everyone participating already has a full-time job. Fellows agree to attend meetings twice a month after work or on the weekends, and a few weekend retreats are scattered throughout the 12-month program. Meetings are led by local Jewish leaders, and usually spark discussions about ethics, values, leadership, Jewish traditions and history and especially social action and justice.

“Jewish history and teachings have social justice at their core,” Biale said. “… For the current generation of young adult Jews social action is perhaps the most powerful element in their personal commitment and involvement outside the Jewish world and, therefore, a great potential hook into Jewish life and community.”

The Bay Area fellowship will differ from its L.A. counterpart in that after learning for 12 months, fellows must implement their new skills and spend six months with a service project of their choosing.

For example, if a fellow wants to advocate against sweatshop labor, he or she could join PJA’s economic justice group and help develop an anti-sweatshop curriculum for elementary students.

Matthew Weintraub, a 24-year-old L.A. native, will finish the Jeremiah Fellowship in January. Prior to the fellowship, he heard about the poor working conditions of hotel employees but didn’t think there was anything he could do to help. He now feels empowered to be a part of changing a small piece of the world.

He volunteers with PJA’s economic justice group and recently attended a large rally supporting hotel workers’ right to unionize.

“Most people don’t think about what goes into making their hotel bed, just that it smells nice and there’s a chocolate on their pillow,” he said. “Now my eyes are open. For the first time I’m actually able to think in a way that allows me to be understanding of what other people going through and help change the way I act.”

Markuze, who completed the fellowship one year before Weintraub, also worked closely with low-income, Hispanic and black communities in Los Angeles, groups with whom she previously had little interaction.

“The fellowship helped me live in less of a vacuum,” she said. “I became more aware and conscious and sensitive to the wider population that surrounds me and not just my peer or ethnic group,” she added.

Weintraub said he will continue to advocate for social justice and equality long after the fellowship ends. Markuze, who finished last year, has continued to volunteer as a conflict mediator for a Jewish nonprofit that works with teenagers who commit nonviolent crimes. She now attends synagogue more regularly. She also traveled with American Jewish World Service to Nicaragua and volunteered at a women’s health clinic.

“The fellowship brought out what it means to be a Jew — to love thy neighbor like you love thyself,” she said. “That wasn’t just a theory for us. We really put it into practice.”

The fellowship is supported by a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. For more information about the Bay Area Jeremiah Federation Fellowship, contact the Progressive Jewish Alliance at (510) 527-8640 or www.pjalliance.org.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.