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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Spotlight: Sophie Schoenberg

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

This blog is intended to feature community members and leaders doing great work with the concepts from Changing the World from the Inside Out. If you missed our first spotlight, on Liz Aeschlimann, check it out here

This entry features Sophie Schoenberg. Sophie is a JOIN Alumna who has been involved with Inside Out Wisdom and Action (The IOWA Project) since close to the beginning. She is currently in graduate school studying social work, and an organizer with IfNotNow Boston. She spoke with us about how she first came to the IOWA Project, and about the ways that she uses Mussar practice in both her organizing work and her life as a social work student.

Tell me about how you got involved with the IOWA Project?

When I was doing the JOIN [Jewish Organizing Institute and Network] Fellowship. David came in and did three or four sessions with us. He started by explaining Mussar, his story, and his struggling to find a space where his activism and Judaism fit together. I really connected with the way he talked about that, and with Mussar as a practice, because it reminds me a lot of things I’ve learned in Buddhism and meditation. I had been looking for a grounding discipline and practice that was Jewish. In JOIN we got to do the practice and study in chevruta for several sessions. With each midah we looked at what we could practice in the coming week, and then came back to reflect. Doing a set of practices through Judaism felt really grounding, and like a way of fighting assimilation and white supremacy.

I ended up asking David if I could work on the project more. Then I connected with Dan, and we started working together. We’ve worked on trying to map out a landscape of Jewish activists in Boston and DC. We’re working on thinking about how this practice can fit into the work and how can it feel good and healing for people.  I was just recently at a JOIN alumni retreat and I was with another JOIN alumn who has studied with David led a session on Mussar. We decided to start a study group of JOIN alumni in Boston.

Can you say more about how you see this work relating to fighting assimilation and white supremacy?

I started organizing in college around the occupation in Israel-Palestine and I was doing work with a group made up of a lot of Jews who did not want to talk about being Jewish at all. I felt very conflicted, because the reason I was doing that work was that I had lived in Israel and was Jewish and felt really invested. When I learned about the occupation I had a loss of innocence. I realized that I could be really upset with Israel and have a relationship with it, and still fight for it to be a just place.

That launched me on a long journey of trying to find a way to connect my activist work with my Judaism. I was searching for something that would allow me to really explore Judaism and explore pieces of Judaism that actively allow people to do inner work. I wanted to connect with myself and the way that Judaism matters to me both personally and as part of a lineage and ancestry. Sitting in myself and my identity is a way to actively work with other people to make space in the world for their identities, especially if they’re marginalized and the world doesn’t usually make space for them. The way I’ve experienced being able to do that has often been through silence. White supremacy tries to tell me not to think about having a culture as a white person. Making a choice to look at Judaism and my white identity as my culture is a way to fight against what white supremacy is trying to erase from my people and from so many marginalized people.

I think we want so badly to act differently and sometimes the only way we can do that is just by stopping to talk and just sitting and reflecting and being aware enough to act differently. It feels like I’ve been collecting tools to do an unlearning about the ways in which my people have assimilated into whiteness. Some of my other tools are more about me sitting in silence. Mussar feels like a tool to actively do that in Jewish community, with other people.

Do you have an example of using one of the tools you learned through Mussar?

I actually have a story about the JOIN alumni retreat. Most people there knew David and have at least heard of Mussar before. So the session was very much asking how we can use Mussar not just for ourselves but almost as a glue in community to hold us together through hard times. I was doing a lot of reflecting about how while JOIN was a really healing space for it was also a very hard space. We were trying to figure out what it means to do antiracism work as mostly white Jews together and wrestling with that. At the retreat we were examining the midah of honor. We spent some time just trying to flesh out what honor means for us. To me it just came back to ego. My own ego and wanting to be honorable can get in my way– wanting to do the best and be the best even in my organizing work. I’ll want to have the most successful campaign or get the most people to a meeting.

I thought about how honor can also be honoring my heart and values and this community that I’m part of. A lot of times it’s really easy to want to get ahead and do the best I can do but at the expense of making sure the community is moving forward together and working towards being as powerful as we can be by trying to win together instead of winning individually. It was a reminder that I often think about when I’m in a space with a lot of really amazing activists and organizers and am feeling self conscious about how well I do. That’s my ego and if I want to honor what I believe Jewish values are around community and justice, I don’t have to let my ego get in front of me. I can just sit with what we’re doing and allow us to move forward together.  

Sophie at an action in Washington, DC

That feels similar to what you were saying about countering the dominant systems that we’re operating in. On an organizational level nonprofits almost have to have a strong ego to survive because of the way the system is set up. Sometimes that goes against internal values, and knowledge that really we’d do better by joining forces more.

That feels sometimes really sad to me and really hard. We’re trying to do good things but we’re swimming in the water [of white supremacy culture]. I sometimes notice myself having these thoughts of like, “my project was better” and almost laugh thinking, this is not what I actually care about. What I actually care about is tearing down oppressive structures together. And what I like about Mussar is that it’s a practice. It can start really small, and David is good at reminding us that sometimes it’s hard just to get into a regular practice. It could even be something you already do but with a new outlook on the way that you do it. That framing felt really good to me.

"What I like about Mussar is that it’s a practice. It can start really small... It could even be something you already do but with a new outlook on the way that you do it."-- Sophie

So now you’re not in JOIN and you’re in grad school studying to be a social worker. What does it look like in your life right now to be trying to maintain these practices and use these tools?"

I had a feeling that going back to school would be challenging in many ways, including being in a big institution that is really about individualism and doing well. The institution I’m at is very much like that and it’s very hard for most people there, but especially students of color and working class students, to access what they need at the school. I’ve had a lot of anger and frustration and also a lot of sadness about that being how it is. We’re studying social work. We’re trying to help people but how can we do that if the clinicians aren’t even getting the support to be healthy?

When I feel disenchanted with the world, having these practices that bring me back into my body and my heart really helps me. And I’m excited to be part of a group that practices this because it’s again just this constant reminder that we’re all thinking about this and we’re not alone. And together we can support each other through these practices. I do enough talking in my life about action and doing. I want to bring more ways in that feel healing not just for myself but for the way I interact with others. It will feel really good to do it with people in a structured way.

I’ve even been talking a little bit about it with people at school, which has been a little bit scary. My Jewish activist world and my current environment, where a lot of people don’t even know what a progressive Jew means, have been mostly separate. But Mussar reminds us that these are soul traits that everyone has, and it’s just a Jewish way of looking at it. I don’t even have to talk about weird Jewish stuff. I can just talk about these traits and values and this way of thinking about the world that I have to share.

Is there a particular midah that has been more resonant lately for you?

We had a conversation at the JOIN retreat where we were looking at a list of traits together. I was looking at two that could seem really similar and I felt really good about one and like I really needed to work on the other. I think it was faith and trust. I think that I have a lot of faith in people as generative emergent beings that can change. And yet, I also think, I don’t have a lot of trust in individual people to focus on the goodness in each other. The ways that I’ve felt disappointed by individuals have made it hard for me to sometimes assume best intent in individuals even though I have faith in communities.

Is there anything else about these practices that you want to share?

A lot of times the organizing work that I’m doing is with people around my age and I don’t necessarily connect with older, more traditional ways of being Jewish. I think Mussar is a really cool practice in its ability to bring people together of different generations. We talk about organizing across generations but this practice is actually something that not only brings people into a room physically, but can remind us of traits that we share across generations, and that we each have something to offer.

The other thing that’s nice about Mussar is that in a lot of jewish organizing spaces we like to be in the head. And for me, real change requires spending some time in the heart. It’s hard to see the productivity of the heart. I think it’s really good to have people who are both really head oriented and really heart oriented, and to have that beautiful Jewish tradition of challenging each other.

What’s something else that’s bringing you life right now, something outside of Mussar and Judaism?

The thing that’s bringing me a lot of hope in my life right now is something I’ve never felt this way about before. I’m working with adolescents these days and they bring me so much hope. When I’m with them I’m thinking about making a change just through our conversation, and not having to change the whole world. We get to just laugh and be uncomfortable around each other. I think it’s really helped me feel re-connected with parts of myself. I was really nervous about it and I’m now so glad that I’m doing it.


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