Tivnu: Buiding justice and shelters from the storm

When I describe Tivnu: Building Justice, the social-justice startup founded by my friend Steve Eisenbach-Budner, to people who know him, this is what I say: If you turned Steve into a nonprofit, Tivnu is what it would look like.
September 24, 2015

When I describe Tivnu: Building Justice, the social-justice startup founded by my friend Steve Eisenbach-Budner, to people who know him, this is what I say: If you turned Steve into a nonprofit, Tivnu is what it would look like. Jewish — check. Youth-oriented — check. Social action — check. Construction work — check. Steve is unique among the Jews I know. It’s no surprise that Tivnu, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., where youth taking a break before heading to college both work with their hands and learn from Jewish texts and from life, is also unique among Jewish organizations in the United States.

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center released a study of American Judaism that underscored what many long have understood: that there’s a crisis of involvement and affiliation among young non-Orthodox Jews, especially young men. Many Jews, particularly young adults, find Jewish involvement more engaging when universal values are also addressed. The study found that social justice is the leading concern among young American Jews, as it is among millennials in general. Jewish young adults are looking to engage those issues in ways that involve real work, for real stakes, with real impact — exactly the kind of work that Tivnu does.

I was a professor at Yale University for 10 years, and since then I have written extensively about the problems with our higher-education system: problems not just with the colleges but, above all, with the way that we prepare our kids to get to college. 

As Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult,” has put it, we are producing children with more and more academic skills, and fewer and fewer interpersonal and life skills. Students, even and indeed especially at selective colleges, arrive on campus not knowing how to take care of themselves, how to advocate for themselves, how to make decisions, or how to handle difficulties and setbacks. Why? Because parents are doing too much of all that for them. That’s a reason graduation rates are now so low, and it’s unquestionably the most important reason rates of psychological illness among college students are now so high — and getting higher. It is also why more and more colleges are urging students to take a gap year before they arrive, and why more and more of them are doing so.

Tivnu: Building Justice offers the first Jewish gap year to take place in the United States. Photos courtesy of Tivnu: Building Justice

Skilled labor within a social-justice context, in combination with Jewish learning and communal involvement, is a highly appealing mix for people looking for a new form of Jewish expression — fun, active and meaningful, engaging head, heart and hands. That’s one of Steve’s core principles: to reclaim the parts of the Jewish tradition that recognize the dignity and value of physical labor by challenging the stereotype that Jews don’t work with their hands. 

Steve built his program out of his own life experience.

A couple of years after college, while I was getting ready to enter a doctoral program, Steve was working on a construction crew in Jerusalem, side by side with Palestinian laborers. He had always been an athletic guy, but he had no experience doing skilled labor. I asked him about it recently.

“I wanted to feel more competent in the physical world,” he said. “I was interested in doing something with the part of my body below my head.” Not only that, “I wanted to learn how working people live,” he added, “to connect with the rest of humanity.”

I would say that Steve’s path to creating Tivnu started there, but it actually started much earlier. Steve grew up in the Penn South housing co-op in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Penn South, which is still thriving as a place for people of modest means, is a sprawling complex
created by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, then a predominantly Jewish organization.

“JFK was at the dedication,” he marveled. “That’s how much power the labor movement had — that it was in the president’s interest to show up. The co-op taught me that real people can do real things that affect people and communities.” 

The co-op also helped to teach Steve something else. Between the Bundists and Jewish communists he was raised among, as well as the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox members of his extended family, Steve was given a rich idea, he said, of the wide variety of ways to be a Jew. It was a lesson reinforced by his years in Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement where he and I first met. Unlike the classical movements that started in Europe (Habonim, Betar, Bnei Akiva), Young Judaea is both politically and religiously pluralistic. We argued; we didn’t indoctrinate.

Steve went on Year Course, Young Judaea’s gap-year program in Israel, then returned to Israel for his junior year of college, sharing a house with a bunch of other Young Judaeans in Migdal HaEmek, a predominantly working-class, Sephardic “development town,” where the group engaged in social work. After his third year in Israel — the one when he began to do construction work — he returned to the United States, eventually settling in Portland, with his wife, Deborah, who is director of education at Havurah Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue. (The couple have three children — two sons and a daughter.)

Steve ran his own construction business for a number of years, but he always felt that something was missing. He wanted to find a way back to the kind of commitment he saw at the co-op and practiced in Young Judaea. In 2002, he took a significant pay cut to accept a job as a construction trainer with Portland YouthBuilders, an organization that teaches vocational and academic skills to at-risk young adults. The work was fulfilling, but the Jewish piece was still elusive. After a few years, he began to dream of starting a nonprofit that would unite his many passions: for social engagement and social justice, for skilled, hands-on, physical work, for young people and their personal development, for Jewish expression and involvement.

I remember those days, when Tivnu was still just a gleam in his eye. He had no idea how to start a nonprofit. It was probably a good thing that he also had no idea how ridiculously hard it is, especially if you’re already in your 40s, have three children and are holding down a full-time job. But little by little, he taught himself what he needed to know, including a lot of things that didn’t come naturally, like drawing up an organizational plan or — Steve is modest to a fault — engaging in self-promotion. He also didn’t try to do everything himself. An instinctive collaborator, he was happy to leverage the skills of the people around him (including me — I have been on the board for several years): Web designers, lawyers, Jewish educators and many more.

By the summer of 2011, Steve was ready to test his program model. Every day for a week, 10 Jewish adults from the Portland area headed down to Woodburn, 40 minutes south in the Willamette Valley, to work together with members of the Oregon farmworkers union on construction of a headquarters for the CAPACES Leadership Institute, a coalition of Latino-led, social change organizations. The group’s members not only learned and applied construction techniques, they studied Jewish sources on questions of social justice and collective responsibility together with their hosts. They also listened to the union members speak about the issues that surround low-wage farm work in Oregon, and about their experiences as migrants and laborers. 

At the end of the week, the two groups shared a Shabbat meal. Steve believes it’s crucial for the Jewish community to work in partnership with other communities. He also notes that tzedakah means justice, not charity: working with others for a better world for all, not “giving” to the “less fortunate.” “The last day, making food with Carmen, having Shabbat all together and meeting Carmen’s children really created a sense of having been part of something,” one participant said afterward. “The chance to share Shabbat with a community that had shared so much with us, this was incredibly powerful for me.”

The week gave Steve his proof of concept. Over the next three years, Tivnu expanded to include one-day events in the Portland area as well as a multiweek summer program for high school juniors and seniors from across the country. (Partners for the summer program have included United Synagogue Youth, North American Federation of Temple Youth, Young Judaea and the American Jewish Society for Service.)

Last year, Steve was ready to launch the program he’d been building up to all along: the Tivnu Gap Year, a nine-month immersive experience for high school graduates ages 17 to 20. Participants would divide their week between construction work and training at a Habitat for Humanity building site and long-term internships with local grass-roots, direct-service organizations such as Sisters of the Road, which runs a cafe for homeless individuals in downtown Portland. They would study Jewish texts and Jewish history, do site visits to other nonprofits, and hear from guest speakers. They would also have a lot of time to take advantage of Portland’s vibrant culture and the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Lastly, they would share a living space and be responsible for creating and running their own pluralistic Jewish household under the guidance of a resident assistant.

Steve had taken the construction piece from YouthBuilders, the gap-year piece from Young Judaea and the communal living piece from his year in Migdal HaEmek, but the combination was something totally new. Another thing was new as well: Tivnu would be offering the first Jewish gap year to take place in the United States. It was clearly an idea whose time had come. As Steve’s recruitment efforts soon showed him, there are two important groups of Jewish young adults who are not inclined to go to Israel after high school: those who have been to Israel already and are looking for something else, and those who have not been, but — for whatever reason — don’t want to go. Both are being lost to non-Jewish gap-year programs, of which there are a growing number.

The young adults who arrived for the inaugural year of the Tivnu program in August 2014 came from across the country — New York, Chicago, Las Vegas and elsewhere — as well as from across the Jewish spectrum. Some had gone to Jewish high schools; some had very little Jewish background. The program had some bumps, especially at first, as Steve and the rest of the staff encountered unanticipated issues in the course of its maiden run. The biggest had to do with the simple fact that participants were living away from home for the first time. None of us was quite aware just how much help they’d need adjusting to daily tasks and responsibilities: washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, getting up for work on time and, most important, communicating and cooperating with one another to figure out how to do these things together.

By the same token, those challenges pointed to the program’s most significant value, in my view. Before Judaism and construction and social justice, the Tivnu gap year is fundamentally about growing up — and growing up, in particular, before you get to college. The maturation that we saw among Tivnu’s initial cohort was truly impressive. Reuben Dreiblatt, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, graduated from The Abraham Joshua Heschel School and has just started college at Rutgers University, had this to say about his experience: “Living with other people who I didn’t quite know — I really liked that I was getting a chance to do that before I had to do that. It’s made me a better roommate, improved my people skills, everything from chores to bigger things like privacy and space.”

Reuben spent the summer after Tivnu working at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire. He said he noticed a big difference between himself and his fellow counselors, how they seemed to have a “pack mentality” that came from “not thinking things through.” Tivnu, he said, “taught me the value of just being still — going in the backyard, looking at the sky, thinking about things, taking time to appreciate the world.”

It was also a major break from the environment at Heschel. “All the planning, all the structure, talking in your junior year of high school about what to major in in college — not only was it not realistic, it wasn’t doing the kids any good.” His favorite part of the gap-year program was “getting up and going to work in the morning” — the van would leave at 7:30 a.m. — “finding out what working a real job is like.” 

For Billy Bloomberg, who grew up in Princeton, N.J., the gap year was his first significant experience with other kinds of Jews. “It was eye-opening. We don’t do Shabbat dinner very often in my family. We did Shabbat every Friday night in Tivnu House. We made dinner, we sat down for dinner, we lit candles, we said Kiddush.” Needless to say, there were disagreements at first. “Everybody wanted to do it a different way,” he said. But soon, “We found a rhythm that everyone was comfortable with.”

The most meaningful part of the program for Billy was the impact he had on people’s lives through his internship at St. André Bessette Catholic Church, which provides meals and other services for individuals living with poverty, homelessness, mental illness and addiction. “I had a wonderful experience there,” he said. “My last day, they announced I was leaving, and the entire cafeteria erupted in applause. A lot of those people came up and thanked me.”

One was a man he had helped to pick out a suit for a job interview. Not only did the man get the job, the job got him out of temporary housing and into a stable situation. “This was a guy I’d seen every week,” Billy said, meaning that they had developed a relationship. One day, the man came up to him and asked to talk. He had been sober for three months, but he was having a very bad day. “ ‘I just want to pick the bottle back up,’ he said,” Billy explained. “I said, ‘I understand, but it’s not a good time to start drinking again. You know, you’re making steps. It’s hard, but that’s your reality right now.’ “With Billy’s help, the man stayed sober and on the right track. The gap year, Billy concluded, “gave me an opportunity to grow up.”

Last month, a second Tivnu cohort arrived in Portland to start its experience. Hadarah Goldsmith from Bethesda, Md., knew that the program was perfect for her the moment she learned about it. She’d already visited Portland and loved its friendliness and access to nature, and she had always wanted to do construction for Habitat. She is also interested in teaching and will be working on the academic side at YouthBuilders as part of the gap year’s expanded range of internship placements, which are now being tailored more closely to individual participants’ interests, and include opportunities in food and environmental justice.

“I have a general idea of what I want to do,” Hadarah said about her career plans, “but I also know that can change, and a lot of those things I’ll be testing out this year. So, if I find out that I don’t want to do them, I won’t have wasted all those years” in college. Having deferred her admission to Warren Wilson College, she also thinks she’ll be “much more motivated if I get a year off from academic stress.”

For Steve, the gap-year participants and others like them are modern-day halutzim, doing the essential work of pioneering new forms of American-Jewish life for the 21st century. Up ahead, I would say, are people like Steve, blazing the trail. 

William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist and critic, a frequent college speaker and the best-selling author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” He serves on the board of Tivnu: Building Justice.

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