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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Two Civic Engagement Initiatives Awarded Lippman Kanfer Prize

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

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Two Los Angeles-based initiatives, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ CIVruta program and IKAR’s Minyan Tzedek, were among seven winners of the Lippman Kanfer Prize for Applied Jewish Wisdom, awarded at the Jewish Funders Network Conference in San Francisco on March 18. 

The prize, funded by the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah with support from the Democracy Fund, celebrates applications of Jewish wisdom that help people live better lives and shape a better world. This year, the prize focused on democracy and civic engagement. 

CIVruta, which was recognized as a “new idea” received a $15,000 prize. It convenes community leaders from different backgrounds in a day-long “civic beit midrash” (“house of learning”) that encourages and equips them to bring Jewishly-informed democratic values to their service on local boards and commissions, said Mary Kohav, the Federation’s vice president of community engagement.

“The program will empower emerging civic leaders to take on roles in their communities, build and strengthen bridges in and outside of the Jewish communities, and engage Jewish and non-Jewish participants in Jewish wisdom,” Kohav said. “[This kind of] inclusion is core to a healthy democracy.”

CIVruta aims for diversity among participants, in terms of level of experience, religion, race and ethnicity, with 25 to 40 percent Jewish and the remainder non-Jewish, Kohav said. 

Several alumni of the Federation’s Rautenberg New Leaders Project (NLP) are involved in the program, including Kohav and Shawn Landres, who serves on L.A. County and City of Santa Monica commissions. 

“This isn’t Civics 101,” Landres said. “It’s for people who understand they want to be on a board or commission and want some tools to bring Jewish values to the work of local government.”

He named Barbara Yaroslavsky, who died last December, as the kind of leader the program will serve, calling her “a connector and a bridge-builder.”

Kohav said the CIVruta team felt “validated and honored” to receive the prize, calling the program “repeatable and adaptable.”

 “There’s a lot of momentum and excitement about this program at the Federation and in our city’s civic world as a whole,” she said. 

IKAR’s Minyan Tzedek: Organizing for Social Change, received the $30,000 prize for an established program, is working to actively engage and cultivate a culture of social justice from a distinctly Jewish perspective rooted in Torah and the principles of community organizing. The goal is to become a 100 percent voting community.

“This is all replicable in other communities,” said IKAR Executive Director Melissa Balaban. “Our text, tradition and Jewish wisdom need to be involved in the work of government in thoughtful ways.” 

IKAR convenes “Know Your Representatives” conversations, distributes “know your reps” cards to members and asks people to contact their government representatives regarding specific campaign issues. 

“People are very confused [by the voting process] and are grateful to come to synagogue and learn about the issues — even if we’re not advocating a position — just to get informed,” said Brooke Wirtschafter, director of community organizing at IKAR. “We need to do more work to make sure people vote but also engage with elected officials.” 

IKAR runs its membership database against public voting records and works with local organization L.A. Voice to determine what percentage of its community gets to the polls. 

“No Jewish congregation in America has 100 percent voting,” Wirtschafter said. “It’s a misconception that we all vote. Running these numbers is a good eye-opener that people don’t vote in midterm and smaller municipal elections. … Being civically engaged means that people vote every time. We do need to ask our own community
to vote.”  

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