East Bay teens come together to become social activists

Working to revitalize a Jewish presence in social activism, Oakland Service Employees International Union researcher Yonah Diamond wears a yarmulke everywhere these days.

The sight of a union protester demonstrating for janitors' rights in a kippah while being dragged off to jail is good for the Jews, he told students at a gathering at Berkeley's La Peña Cultural Center.

The image, he said, shows that Jews are not just championing Jewish causes but social movements that impact the country.

Barry Barkan, a longtime activist who directs the Live Oak Living Center Senior Home in El Sobrante, also encouraged students to take up social action projects, saying that fixing the world is one of the things Jews are good at.

"To me, it's kind of a tribal thing," Barkan said.

At the recent Berkeley gathering, Barkan, Diamond and four other community workers drew connections between social involvement and Judaism. Fifteen students from Jewish Youth for Community Action, a 4-month-old Berkeley organization for budding activists, and several of their friends attended.

While Oakland Technical High School student Miriam Grant said her greatest hope for future of Jewish activism was a unified Jewish community, Albany High School student Coby Leibman made a more modest proposal. Young Jews, he said, should stand up for who and what they are. Many Jews stray off the topic when asked about their religion, Leibman noted.

This creates misunderstandings about who Jews are and what Judaism can mean, he said.

Leibman added: "A lot of my friends think a Jew is some dude with long sideburns who goes around dancing in circles."

For speakers Loolwa Khazzoom, program director at the Berkeley Hillel, and Yael Falicov, an immigrant organizer from Berkeley, Judaism and activism have always gone hand in hand.

Khazzoom told students her first experience as an activist came at age 8, when she wrote a letter to then-S.F. mayor Dianne Feinstein protesting the Christmas decorations all over San Francisco.

Some of the speakers and students said they felt the Jewish community needed to become more involved in social issues. One of them, Ilana Schatz, director of San Francisco's Poverty Action Alliance, said she observed that the Christian community had a more visible presence than the Jewish community when she became active in social issues in the 1980s.

At the time, Schatz felt it was important that "there be a strong Jewish presence working for justice in the world," she said.

Raul Gonzales, a Jewish AIDS and immigrant rights activist and homeless family counselor in San Francisco, said the few Jews he knew in his native Mexico were among the wealthy. They were factory owners who were more concerned with equipment than people. Gonzales decided to focus his own work on those in need.

Jewish Youth for Community Action's program director Pella Schafer said that while growing up and attending Hebrew school, she felt alienated from the mainstream Jewish community. Later in college, she discovered that Judaism and activism were intimately linked. At that point, her connection to Judaism began to flourish.

"I wanted to create the kind of program I wish I'd had in high school," said Schafer, who co-founded the Jewish Youth for Community Action with Anna Dinaburg.

Dinaburg, who grew up in San Diego, where she and Schafer were friends and members of the same synagogue, has worked in the Jewish community for four years, since graduating from college.

"I was raised in a Jewish home that saw activism as a central part of Judaism. Over the last four years, I've become more involved religiously. Jewish Youth for Community Action is really where my politics and my ethics and my commitment to Judaism come together, working with young people to deepen that understanding."

The youth group, a Jewish Renewal organization financed by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, tries to provide an alternative for Jewish teenagers who are unaffiliated or uninvolved with their religion, Schafer said.

The teenagers come from widely divergent backgrounds. Some were raised in observant homes, some never celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah.

The group meets every two weeks to discuss current issues and to relate them to Judaism and activism. Schafer hopes to expand Jewish Youth for Community Action outside Berkeley, perhaps to San Francisco.

Schatz, who didn't become an activist until she was 30, was optimistic about such plans.

"Seeing people so young interested in this is very moving for me," she told the teenagers.

For further information about Jewish Youth for Community Action, call (510) 649-9409.