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Joshua Kirshbaum’s Plan to Change the World

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November 11, 2020
Joshua Kirshbaum (Photo from Twitter)

Joshua Kirshbaum has a passion: to make the world a better place. The 30-year-old Los Angeles native runs a non-profit organization in New York called Nonviolence International New York (NVINY),  which advocates for nonviolent solutions to conflicts through peace education and international advocacy. The organization connects college youth to Civil Society at the United Nations through internships, mentorships, and training initiatives. Civil Society at the U.N. brings  governments, businesses, civil society organizations, and non-governmental organizations to work within the U.N. as consultants to the Economic and Social Council or in association with the U.N. Department of Global Communications.

The 30-year-old organization has five branches around the world. Kirshbaum’s father, David Kirshbaum, founded the New York office in 2014; his son came on board as one of the organization’s first interns in April of that year.

Joshua, who started as an intern in the NVINY’s communications department , noticed that  older U.N. members, though eminently qualified, didn’t seem to notice the interns’ ideas. “No one asked what our thoughts were,” he says. “When I became head of this office,” he added, “I was so disappointed to find programs that had so much promise, but did not provide any help or leadership training opportunities.”

In late 2016, Kirshbaum’s filmmaking and photography background (he has produced over 60 independent short films and seven feature films) qualified him for the position of communications director within the organization. He took over Nonviolence International New York in mid-2018, when his father retired and the Nonviolence International Network chose him as executive director of the New York office. He runs the organization in conjunction with Administrative Director Marcellus Henderson and his sisters, Creative Director Amelia Kirshbaum and Educational Director of the New York Graduate Plan Sarah Kirshbaum.

In parallel with the founding of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, Kirshbaum started an internship program that brings young college students to the U.N. in order to “empower Civil Society” at the U.N. and give participants a head start on their U.N. careers. Since the COVID-19 lockdown closed off physical access to the organization, Kirshbaum has shown the interns how to access the organization digitally.  “We connect young people with the U.N. community,” Kirshbaum stresses. “We teach direct advocacy, mediation, and legislation change, non-profit business management, networking skills, how to create awareness and information campaigns, and more.”

“We teach direct advocacy, mediation, and legislation change, non-profit business management, networking skills, how to create awareness and information campaigns, and more.” — Joshua Kirshbaum

In the new year, NVINY  will partner with the U.N. Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) on the New York Graduate Plan. The New York Graduate Plan Online seeks to train future diplomats by exposing graduate students to peace-building and international affairs. Students learn from U.N. diplomats in diplomatic training sessions, master the art of peace-building in workshops at NVINY and lead digital fieldwork with Civil Society at the U.N. The program was  reorganized to be completely online, allowing students in areas outside of New York to participate. It also allows participants to learn from leaders in the field, even if that leader is in Ukraine or the Philippines.

Interns receive college credits for volunteer hours spent working with the U.N. Kirshbaum explains that most of the NVINY interns attend an undergraduate program while completing these hours. The Graduate Plan, on the other hand, involves a more intensive, five-day-a week regimen. Participants  will receive individual certifications of completion from the various peace-building organizations where the students worked.

Kirshbaum’s passion for empowerment and change-making is in his blood. After witnessing the horrors of Dachau as a young soldier at the end of World War II, his maternal grandfather, Oscar- and Grammy-winning songwriter Robert B. Sherman, wanted to make people happy with his music, and, with his brother Richard, wrote “It’s A Small World” and the scores for dozens of movies, including “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and  “The Jungle Book.” Kirshbaum’s mother, Laurie Sherman, worked as co-director of the National Environment Centre in Australia, a training center in natural resource management. She also co-founded Greater Vail Community Resources in Tucson, Arizona.

The young activist credits his Jewish upbringing with fueling his passion for helping others. “If I have more, I give more,” Kirshbaum explains. He tells a story from his childhood, when he came across a fellow student who never seemed to have any lunch. He told his mother, who then started putting an extra sandwich in his lunchbox.

The young activist credits his Jewish upbringing with fueling his passion for helping others.

When Kirshbaum became a bar mitzvah at London’s Marble Arch Synagogue, he realized that we have a responsibility, as “keepers of the book,” to remain honest. “Each letter in the Torah has a mythical value,” he explained. “Hebrew words are valued in Jewish terminology.” Now, Kirshbaum feels guided by Jewish core values, such as honesty, leading by example, and protecting others.

Although it is not a religious organization, Nonviolence International New York runs on core Jewish values: loyalty, transparency, liability, respect, fairness, sharing with community and identifying with others. “Part of the culture of peace aligns with Jewish values,” Kirshbaum notes. “These values are part of everyday life.”

Kirshbaum relates that he taught a class to interns about “how to non-violently get on a subway.” Learning such skills actually promotes the Jewish values of tznius, modesty; and anava, humility: “We don’t want to think so highly of ourselves as to cause discomfort to anyone else (humility), and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves by aggressively pushing our way in (modesty).”

Kirshbaum also cites inspiration from past Jewish activists, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights era, and Julius Rosenwald, a nineteenth-century clothier who became co-owner and president of Sears Roebuck,  whose foundation built over 5,000 schools for African American children in the rural South.

Kirshbaum hopes to include more Jewish students in both the internship program and the Graduate Plan.

“The more I learn about historically who we are as a people,” he says, “the more inspired I become.”


Brenda Goldstein is a Los Angeles-based journalist.

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