Begun in 2006 with the express purpose of engaging the alumni of each organization’s service programs, Pursue attempted to reach “young people at the intersection where their Jewish values meet their passion for social justice, building a community that takes action to create social change.” Over the years, Pursue has run over 256 programs in seven cities, reaching 6,000 participants through partnerships with 156 organizations.
“Pursue was able to inhabit an interesting sweet spot in the Jewish community,” Director Merrill Zack, also the associate director of education and community engagement at AJWS, explained to Jspace. What began as a small initiative has grown into what both Zack and her Avodah-based counterpart Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay affectionately refer to as the Pursue community.
“Pursue was a community and place in which people who were interested in and committed to social justice in a Jewish framework, both domestically and internationally, could come together … and dream together about the change they could make in the world,” Ruskay, Avodah’s director of alumni and community engagement, said.
“I found it exciting and inspiring to know that there was an ever-growing and strengthening community that had these beliefs. It gave me a lot of hope for the future.”
But after conducting extensive strategic planning sessions, the two organizations have decided to part ways. Zack assured, “It has nothing to do with Pursue being terrific and valuable, it has to do with what can best advance our separate mission-driven work.” For AJWS, that involves working towards global justice and affecting US policy change on behalf of the marginalized people of the developing world.
Ruskay takes a slightly different lesson from the partnership. Inspired by Pursue, Avodah will be “developing our network of alumni in a much deeper way than we have before.” A leadership institute planned for this spring will work to establish specific campaigns and action plans to engage alumni and peers in the same way that Pursue did.
“It is certainly sad when you close a program that is beloved to many,” Ruskay allowed, “but I think it is also an opportunity to celebrate when organizations make decisions that are strategic.” Both Ruskay and Zack expressed sadness about the closure of what they termed a great program, but satisfaction with the decisive actions of their respective organizations.
All AJWS and Avodah staff will continue to be employed after the program ends, and officials at both organizations insist that financial issues were not a factor in considerations. “Part of good leadership is being aware of when the landscape is changing and you need to respond differently,” Ruskay argued.
It’s not clear whether another organization will step up in 2013 to continue Pursue’s work. Though both Avodah and AJWS intend to continue working with the Prusue demographic, there’s no easy path to engaging the so-called rising generation of Jewish thought leaders and activists. “There’s no magic ticket for it,” Zack said to Jspace. “We’re not going to have any passing the torch ceremonies.”
Still, both Zack and Ruskay are satisfied with the work that Pursue accomplished and the decision to end the partnership. Zack explained, “I am really quite impressed with AJWS and Avodah and how we’ve been able to work together in partnership and state our needs as separate organizations and figure out how to gracefully make the hard choices and implement them.”
Ruskay added, “We have also gotten really great feedback from our colleagues at other organizations in the Jewish world, who have said, ‘Very strong and good decision.’”
.ORG-Connection: Avodah was developed as an opportunity for people to integrate Judaism and social activism in ways that nourish their ideals and provide them with the capacity for stronger, enduring activism.