Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds Of The Jewish Center For Justice: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully

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Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds Of The Jewish Center For Justice: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

Doors are open to everyone who wants to get involved. We provide various opportunities to do so, from working with like-minded coalition partners, to real-time advocacy like phone calls and letter writing, to posting impassioned videos with action items on our social media pages. This inclusive and accessible approach has allowed us, a small organization with mostly part-time staff and volunteer lay leaders, to make a significant difference in our communities and enact social change through public policy.”

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization,” I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds.

Rabbi Simonds is the Founding Executive Director of the Jewish Center for Justice (JCJ), a distinguished social justice, education, and leadership development platform that empowers current and future leaders to build a more compassionate and just society. JCJ advocates for legislation on issues such as racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate action from a Jewish perspective.

An experienced faith leader, activist, and coalition builder, Rabbi Simonds holds a Bachelor’s in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Master’s and Rabbinical Ordination from Hebrew Union College of Los Angeles.

Rabbi Simonds’ work focuses on advocating for positive social change at the local, state, and national level, and working with future leaders in their own journey to inspire change.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I grew up in Southern California and attended UC Santa Barbara. As a young student, I was actively involved in Judaism and social justice. I deepened my involvement post college as I spent a few years in Washington, D.C. working in public policy for the Jewish community. That experience solidified my desire to pursue rabbinical school and further my connection to Judaism.

I became ordained as a rabbi upon graduation from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, and had the incredible opportunity to become a congregational rabbi. This experience, along with my involvement in several Jewish social justice organizations, inspired me to pursue justice from a Jewish communal standpoint. Years later, I launched the Jewish Center for Justice with a team of lay leaders from across the Jewish spectrum.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?

Throughout my years working in the Jewish community, I have developed a strong connection with amazing lay leaders — individuals recognized by their peers as leaders within their congregations. In 2017, myself, along with several lay leaders who were deeply involved within the larger organized Jewish justice community, recognized that something was missing in our space. At the time, we saw that 60 to 70 percent of American Jews were not involved in any sort of justice or activism work.

Our objective was to create an organization that could speak to those individuals who were under-engaged, or not engaged at all. Whether they were too busy to get involved or didn’t know how to, we wanted to provide them the platform to connect with their Judaism and with justice opportunities at the local, state, and national level, and do so in a way that would be accessible and meaningful to them.

This is the backstory for why we created the Jewish Center for Justice. We wanted to reach the unaffiliated and under-affiliated. We wanted to connect with the modern-day busy schedule. And we wanted to be nimble and flexible so we could focus on hot-button issues at any given moment.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

JCJ is an ever-evolving platform for anyone who wants to be involved in our justice work. So if you have a voice, opinion, and a desire for activism, there’s a place for you at the table. At most advocacy and nonprofit organizations, young people may be able to intern and participate in the work, but for the most part they’re still low on the totem pole in terms of having influence and power. Our mission is to dismantle the hierarchy that is prevalent within so many organizations, and provide everyone with an opportunity to raise their voice and make a difference.

Our fellowship programs start in 8th grade, and our opportunities extend to all age groups and families. In other words, our doors are open to everyone who wants to get involved. We provide various opportunities to do so, from working with like-minded coalition partners, to real-time advocacy like phone calls and letter writing, to posting impassioned videos with action items on our growing social media pages.

This inclusive and accessible approach has allowed us, a small organization with mostly part-time staff and volunteer lay leaders, to make a significant difference in our communities and enact social change through public policy. For example, as one of the only faith communities in the California Work and Family Coalition — a statewide alliance of community groups, unions, non-profits, and individuals dedicated to helping parents, caregivers, and families thrive — our summer legislative fellows made calls to elected officials, wrote action alerts, and used our state-wide network to advocate for a paid sick leave bill. After the legislation passed, JCJ had the privilege to join the governor in the virtual bill signing ceremony.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

I can share how a connection with JCJ helped many high school and college fellows find their voices and passions. From accessing advocacy opportunities and influential change-makers to meeting with public officials in Washington and Sacramento, our fellows have gained a clearer vision for their future in the social justice space and the chance to pass actual legislation. Students often come to us with little direction, and within a few years find themselves working in congressional offices, and even the White House. I am proud of JCJ and the way we’ve been able to provide these paths and opportunities for students and families.

One incredible transformation that comes to mind centers around a family within the JCJ community. For years, the mom joined us at marches and events, and was active on our social media. When the pandemic hit, and many summer internship opportunities for students came to a halt, her teenage daughter joined a JCJ fellowship. It was here that she discovered her voice and her passion for activism, and deepened her involvement with JCJ’s justice work. Her family joined her on this journey as dinner table conversations became more focused on justice, activism, and the future.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Overall, communities can create more opportunities that are open and inviting to everyday people, not just the leaders in that area. They can also connect with top representatives from neighboring communities to keep lines of communication open, encourage learning among leaders, and find shared values.

As a society, we should agree on a set of acceptable norms — from reliable news outlets and sources of information to ways in which we treat one another with basic dignity. We have sadly entered a moment in which hate crimes are rising, and overt racism, antisemitism, and bigtory are commonplace in political discourse. All of us, individually and collectively, need to pursue societal solutions where kindness, decency, acceptance, and tolerance are embraced without caveat.

When it comes to politicians, I see this as a broader exploration — what can people in power do to create change? For instance, private corporations and companies that employ large numbers of people have the capacity to create lasting change within the justice sphere. This starts with ensuring employees have equal pay, fair healthcare, safe working conditions, and true diversity, inclusion, and equity programs, and extends to not conducting business in states that pass laws which harm vulnerable populations.

The clearest thing that politicians can do is to look across the aisle for opportunities to create bipartisan consensus. When I started working in DC in the early 2000s, there truly was a sense of bipartisanship cooperation. At that time, political leaders actively looked to team up with those who held a different set of viewpoints. In fact, I was taught that a bill without bipartisan co-sponsorship was dead on arrival. Essentially, if you drafted a piece of legislation and wanted your colleagues to take a bill seriously, you had to have bipartisan support from an individual on the other side.

Today, this notion is completely broken, and bipartisan cooperation is virtually non-existent. But it can be fixed. Politicians must go to their local governments, state capitol buildings, and Washington, DC with an earnest desire to find solutions with their ideological counterparts. Purity tests, no matter which side they come from, typically have bad outcomes, and so they must be willing to compromise.

Unfortunately, our current systems and institutions — from politics to social media to the Internet — don’t value this kind of work as much anymore. It has become strikingly apparent that partisanship leads to more website hits, likes, and fundraising dollars. The more extreme something is, the more likely it is to go viral and create financial incentives. On the flip side, the bipartisanship that actually makes this country a better place isn’t sexy, and doesn’t get the necessary funding or viral imprint. So, we have to re-incentivize bipartisanship, and that must start with the politicians themselves.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define a leader — and leadership by association — as someone who takes action because it’s the right thing to do, not because it is popular. Leadership is about making hard decisions and having a clear understanding of how these decisions would better society. An addendum to that is a willingness to build consensus, even if it means angering one’s base.

One of my favorite quotes within the canon of Jewish tradition is from Pirkei Avot, a text that is about 2,000 years old. It asks “who is wise?” and it answers “someone who learns from others.” To me, that is leadership and wisdom. The wise one is not the person everyone goes to for answers, but the person who says very little and listens a lot. That is how a Jewish way of learning and leading can guide us all.

As an organization with the express mission to empower the next generation of communal leaders, I cannot wait for these young people to put me out of a job. I am beyond inspired by how they think, listen, accept, and embrace the core principles of diversity, humanity, and equity. So much of what makes JCJ a successful organization is that we listen to the next generation. In many ways, they really are the policy and brain trust of our community because we understand that the policies that we create today will be implemented and experienced tomorrow.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non-profit”? Please share a story or example for each.

First, be mission critical. Know what it is you say ‘yes’ to, and be confident as to when to say ‘no.’ During the first year of JCJ, our mentality was to say yes to everything in order to make people happy in the moment. However, this caused us to water down our work and dilute our message. As a result, we were not living up to our mission and were missing opportunities to engage individuals in justice work.

Second, assemble a solid team of lay leaders who are there to be a sounding board, act as a system of checks and balances, and serve as ambassadors for the organization. Before JCJ launched, we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a few of us who desired to start something unique. We quickly realized that there was a wealth of lay leaders who wanted to help us evaluate budgets, implement systems, and create bylaws.

Third, be comfortable with fundraising. Your principal job as the leader of a nonprofit — particularly if you’re a founding member — is to fund the project. You have to be okay with asking people to donate year after year. Fundraising wasn’t as natural to me when we first started. So much of what I learned about fundraising, and how I became comfortable with it, came from two of my mentors and angel funders. They shared a lot of their experiences as entrepreneurs and taught me about the importance of believing in your project. Your love and belief in your organization or project has to translate into your fundraising. So be secure and confident in what you’re doing, and ensure that comes out in your pitches.

Fourth, be patient because there will be difficult days. If you truly believe in your overall mission, you cannot allow those difficult days to put you in a dark spiral. For example, there will be instances when you’ll think you knocked a fundraising pitch out of the park, but you actually struck out. While it may seem like a setback, it will enable you to reevaluate if you’re doing the right thing. If you believe what you’re doing is good, you have to learn from those moments and know that there will be good days ahead.

Fifth, assemble a talented staff. Listen to them and let them be creative. Give them opportunities and allow them to lead. No one goes into nonprofit work to become wealthy, so it’s important to understand that in all likelihood your staff is not getting paid as much as they’re worth. Whatever you can do to make the work environment and workload fun, meaningful, and exciting, do it.

Once you have a solid team, it’s crucial that you all learn from one another and discover new ways to work as a group. This is something that I’ve had to learn along the way myself. It’s easy to get caught in old ways, and I’ll admit that I was resistant to implementing new platforms because it wasn’t how I learned. But I trusted my staff and once I got the hang of it, it made my work ten times easier.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’ve long admired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for several reasons. He is an amazing leader and dedicated social justice activist who speaks out on issues such as racial injustice, islamophobia, and antisemitism, even if it’s not the popular thing to say. As a long-time Los Angeles resident and Lakers fan, I’ve always been amazed by his passion and abilities on the court as well.

To me, Kareem is just one example of many generational leaders who stepped up and used their faith and their commitment to justice to fight for real and lasting change. The generations who came before us have witnessed an assault on democracy and on progressive values, but I want them to know that we are holding the banner high and are continuing the work they started long ago. I want them to know that their work has not been in vain and that we are expanding on the justice they fought for.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

There is a famous quote attributed to St. Ignatius, but which many people have claimed, which is “Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you.” I think this is a great lens through which to look at JCJ. We have a deep spiritual connection with this work. We’re guided by tradition, religion, and the belief that there is something great out there. And yet, we act every day knowing that God created humanity and entrusted us with the opportunity to be God’s partners here on earth. This is something that informs how I lead.

How can our readers follow you online?

The Jewish Center for Justice is on most major social media platforms. We are @Jewishcenterforjustice on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. On Twitter, people can follow us at @JewishCJustice. We also have an amazing website where readers can learn more about our work, or even sign up to engage in our work. The beauty of JCJ is that individuals can make a significant impact from wherever they are in the country.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.

Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds Of The Jewish Center For Justice: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.