Where community leadership is more than just jargon

I’ve never been much of a joiner. In high school, I played softball and wrote for the paper — each a team sport in its own way. I got along with most people and had a number of close friends; I just never cared much for belonging to organized groups of any kind.

So looking back, it seems a bit out of character that, in my junior year of high school, I joined a group called Jewish Youth for Community Action.

JYCA, a Berkeley-based nonprofit group then in its fifth year, had been a mystery to me when my sister was part of its founding group: I knew buzzwords, like youth empowerment; I knew there was volunteer work involved; I knew my sister got to go on camping trips with other teens.

Regardless of what initially appealed to me, I found myself coming back for something else entirely. A nonprofit directed by and for teens, JYCA seeks to inspire social, political and cultural awareness in youth by examining the historical tradition of Jews working for social justice. It might read like jargon, but it sure didn’t feel like it.

At bi-weekly leadership training seminars, we sat in a group of about 25, discussed issues that were bothering us, and found ways to view them through a Jewish lens. Our facilitators were two cool women in their mid-20s, both passionate activists, both a far cry from most teachers I’d met. They listened, we talked, and together we decided on projects and workshops.

We met with countless speakers, learning about current events I certainly

wasn’t hearing about in school, and brainstormed hands-on solutions: After a discussion about income distribution in the U.S., we visited a soup kitchen in the Tenderloin to pass out meals to — and eat lunch with — the homeless population. We wrote a workshop on youth criminalization, then took part in a sit-in near Oakland’s City Hall to protest a law that would send more minors to adult prisons (it passed in March 2000).

Every few months we took a weekend retreat in the Marin Headlands, hiking, being rowdy, celebrating Shabbat and Havdallah. It was the first time I felt inspired by those rituals.

I don’t think about JYCA often — it’s a program for high school students; my tenure lasted only two years. But recently, after seeing a  listing for the group’s  annual gala, I started thinking about the role that “super Berkeley Jewish youth group I belonged to in high school” (as I’ve been known to call it) actually played in my life.

I called Talia Cooper, an alumna whose time in JYCA overlapped mine — who is now, at 25, one of the cool young women at the helm of the group.

Was it possible, I asked, that we tackled these concepts as maturely as I remember? Did it make sense that JYCA, with its individualistic “live and let live” take on spirituality, was the first Jewish group to make me truly excited about being part of a Jewish group?

Talia laughed. “I think it does that for a lot of people,” she said. “There’s a broad range of Jewish experience for the young people who enter JYCA. There are those who have no connection to other organizations, but it’s been a part of their family and their culture … and for others, it’s really an introduction.”

I told her what drew me in, which was hearing that the pursuit of social justice was, so to speak, in my blood. I’d known all my life that I came from a long line of independent thinkers, but it struck a new chord to hear that it was part of a larger cultural tradition: More than simply saying “tikkun olam” and “tzedakah,” it was my responsibility to point out the problems I saw in the world, to speak up about them.

“That sounds about right,” Talia said. “When there’s this rich, storied connection to social justice … I mean, isn’t it thrilling to claim that? It’s such a source of pride. And then you get to ask, how do we want to be Jewish activists in this world?”

She confirmed that, yes, we had those intense discussions at such a tender age, and that JYCA is still going strong. And then she had to go — she was prepping for the weekend’s graduation festivities. “Trust me,” she said in parting. “We still manage to have a lot of fun.”

Emma Silvers
lives in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected].

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.