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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Facebook Spotlight with IOWA Facilitator, Rabbi Lauren Tuchman

Based in the Washington, D.C. area, Rabbi Tuchman is a sought after speaker, spiritual leader and educator. Ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, she has taught at numerous synagogues and other Jewish venues throughout North America and was named to the Jewish Week's 36 under 36 for her innovative leadership concerning inclusion of Jews with disabilities in all aspects of Jewish life. In 2017, she delivered an ELI Talk entitled We All Were At Sinai: The Transformative Power of Inclusive Torah. She has trained and continues to teach with Rabbi David Jaffe and the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project. She serves on the board of JOIN for Justice, which trains Jews in community organizing for social change.


Can you start by introducing yourself and tell us about your involvement with the IOWA project?

Absolutely. My name is Lauren Tuchman. I was introduced to David Jaffe’s work when I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and in that capacity, read his book, Changing the World from the Inside Out. I became really interested in the ways in which we were talking about the intersection of Jewish spirituality, social justice, and social change work.

I have been involved with the IOWA Project formally since the fall of 2018, when I joined the Train-the-Trainers cohort. I was part of that cohort for two cycles, finishing in March of 2020. I have facilitated multiple va’ads (study groups), and am continuing to facilitate va’ads.

What is it about Mussar and soul work that really speaks to you?

I am someone who's very interested in spirituality and contemplation. I really believe there needs to be more space for it in society in general, and in activist communities in particular. I was always very frustrated; the Jewish activist spaces I’d been in felt like we were just throwing in a couple of verses, and [reiterating that] Jewish values say we should fight for justice—but that’s kind of where it ended. There’s actually much more than that to everything.

In addition to that, I’m really interested in thinking about the ways in which when we don’t do our own [inner] work, we end up processing in really unhealthy ways. It shows up in activist spaces. When I started getting involved with IOWA, I had actually left a lot of activist spaces I wasn’t comfortable in. I noticed there was so much challenging behavior coming from people who had been very deeply harmed. I think a lot of us become activists from our own personal journeys and experiences, but I often don’t feel like we have containers to really do our own spiritual work. We don’t have safe containers, as explained beautifully by Valerie Kaur in her book, See No Stranger, for processing our rage, either. We are so focused on changing systems and oppressive structures that we sometimes forget to do our own inner work. There’s so much need for that, and at the same time, if we don’t work on ourselves, we’re not going to be very effective outwardly and we’ll end up, even if subconsciously, replicating and perpetuating harmful cycles and patterns.

I really believe that our Jewish tradition is such a rich tradition, that it doesn’t only give us a couple verses that we can hang our hats on. It actually gives us far more that can change us. And then how we are changed affects how we interact with other people in the world.

You’re facilitating two IOWA Vaads right now. Can you talk a little bit about them?

These va’ads are really meant to be for this particular moment in the United States. We are living amidst not only a pandemic, not only an election year, but also so much social unrest after the brutal murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and too many other unarmed people of color. And so, what I think we’re trying to do is really figure out, “How do we meet this moment in a responsive way, and not only in a reactive way?” We know there’s a lot of work that hasn’t been done, that needs to be done, and we know that we need to find a role to play. I think my role in this moment is being a facilitator of reflective spaces for others.

For people out there in the streets and really involved in the day to day work, I think there’s really important roles to be played by spiritual work as well. If we don’t look at ourselves, and if we don’t work on our middot / traits, we’re not going to be able to actually show up effectively. We’re going to keep repeating the same harmful patterns. So, that’s work we’ve all got to do.

I’ve talked about this for a long time, but it’s really hard. You can’t make someone else do inner work that they don’t want to do. So, part of why I’m so committed to this is that I know the people I’m working with are people who are really, deeply committed to doing this work. Really deeply committed to themselves and their work, whether they’re social justice activists or change makers in other ways. I really believe that our Jewish tradition is such a rich tradition, that it doesn’t only give us a couple verses that we can hang our hats on. It actually gives us far more that can change us. And then how we are changed affects how we interact with other people in the world.

What are you currently working on?

I have a couple of different aspects of my work. One thing that I’m really growing in, and IOWA is a big part of that, is teaching a lot more Torah that’s very spiritual or wisdom-based. I offered a series for My Jewish Learning recently on the Aish Kodesh, or the Holy Fire, [from] the Piaseczna Rebbe, the Rabbi of the Warsaw ghetto. I taught some of his beautiful commentaries about suffering and faith, and navigating really trying circumstances. He wrote this while interned in the Warsaw ghetto, so, someone who really knew suffering quite intimately.

I also teach frequently about matters of disability inclusion in Jewish spaces. I’m specifically interested in talking about that from a very religious-based perspective, meaning I am not interested in saying, “we should include people with disabilities because it’s the nice thing to do”, because that’s a very facile thing. But actually, we should include people with disabilities because we are part of the community.

There are texts in our tradition that really show us that inclusion is very organic. It is not something that we just added. We don’t always live up to where we can go, but I believe that our tradition really gives us an aspirational place to be. And I really want to live into that. I want to show that through our ancient text. We often ask of this text, “what does it have to say to us?” Well, there are incredible stories in the Talmud written 1500 years ago, of people with what we would call today disabilities, actually saying, “we have kavod”. It’s one of the middot we talk a lot about in IOWA. “We have dignity, and we’re going to show you that we have dignity, as part of us asserting who we are from a spiritual perspective, as people created in the image of God.” And so, I’m really interested in helping people reflect more on that.

I want to move into a space of training with people around how we do the inner work of dismantling our own biases, which I think is always on-going. I don’t believe that we as human beings living in the world are suddenly going to wake up without any biases. I think that’s just not how humans are. But how can we do this safely, and without shame? Because I firmly believe that shame does not lead towards transformation in most cases. How do we work with what we’ve been taught such that we can live into a better future? I’m really interested in helping people think through that, where they are, and how they can put more contemplative practice into that experience. I really want to leave people with a better paradigm to move into.

I also do a lot of work with JOIN for Justice, and am on their board of directors. I have a background in community organizing as a method of social transformation.

Can you speak a little more to what you do with JOIN?

JOIN for Justice is a Jewish organization that trains Jews in community organizing as a method of social change, which is really based on story, based on an understanding of what people are most passionate about, and doing so through lived experience. That’s how I phrase it.

I find that a very powerful vehicle for really bringing people in to connect to social change, however they’re going to. Not every person is going to be a boots on the ground activist every single day. There are so many different roles. As a blind person, I am keenly aware of when we think of change as a very narrow thing—change by physically putting our bodies on the line, change by showing up to protest. There are a lot of people who can’t do those things for various reasons whether it’s disability, chronic illness, being a parent of small children, not wanting to risk arrest for any number of reasons. I am much more interested in figuring out ways to bring people in who want to be brought in, so that we can do what our tradition asks us to do, and actually build a better world.

In this moment we’re in, experiencing a global pandemic, and reckoning with long ignored racial disparities that exist in our communities, there’s so much to say. I want to hear your reflections on the potential for great change in this moment.

I’m going to talk more directly to COVID right now, although, as you named, there is so much we could say about everything going on in our country around reckoning with the wounds we have never healed. People far more learned that I am, have done a lot of good work around that, and I’m constantly trying to learn and grow. I want to talk more about the COVID piece. There’s a lot emerging that’s different and new about this paradigm.

So, so much is accessible because it’s online, and also, it’s accessible to different people in different ways. Navigating the access complexities of this time really forces me into my spiritual work, because it’s very easy to get into the place of scarcity “I need to have this thing, and not everything is accessible, the world is incomplete and imperfect, yada yada”. I first must recognize and allow the emotion—definitely not easy—and as part of that understand that it isn’t coming from no where. I’ve experienced plenty of inaccessibility and outright discrimination in my life. If I am successful at doing that and can get myself into a more expansive space, I then begin asking myself the question “okay, what’s happening in this moment? What is my choice point? How am I going to react to this, and how can I show up in a way that’s going to be better for everybody, aligned with my deepest knowing that I have inherent dignity, value and worth as a human being created in the Image of G-d, even if my heart is broken”. So, I hope that we shift in this moment of COVID to deeply understanding that even as we are all connected through this experience, how we are actually experiencing this moment is very different—specifically speaking of disability, but it’s true across all kinds of marginalizations. I’ve heard the metaphor that “we are all in the same storm, but we are all on different boats”, which feels very apt.

As spiritual people who also do social change work, how do we navigate the new normal we’re leaning into? How do we navigate the fact that different people have very different needs? Different needs emotionally, spiritually, different needs physically, different needs health-wise? Those are questions I really sit with around how to respond in a nuanced way in this moment.

Building off of what you just described, and speaking to how the Jewish community can change for the better in this moment, what change do you hope to see?

There are a lot of learnings. I want to see continued access to virtual connection. Knowing that returning to normal or a better normal, is going to be easier for some than for others. I think one of the things that we’re really struggling with right now is how to live with that reality. I would not want a situation in which people are going back to shul and there’s nothing done online for people that have always experienced some level of isolation, or are experiencing greater isolation now. I think we need to be very attune to that.

I think we need to be attuned to thinking about new ways of connection in general, and figure out different ways to bring people in. Different people have different comfort levels with online services and streaming, and that is legitimate. And there are people for whom that is their only way to attend services, which is very important to maintain. I really hope that we’re able to build a culture of care for every single person.

This is one of the things I’ve learned from JOIN; in an organizing context, it’s called a one to one, where you literally go and talk to somebody, and there’s no agenda. The goal is to get to know the person on their own terms, to get to know what is driving them. To get to know what they’re passionate about. How amazing would it be to do a listening campaign, where we talk to a certain number of people in our community, really get to know who they are, and are able to then respond to what they need. That’s the entire point, to be able to hear someone, on their terms, so that we can then respond to them effectively and take them seriously, and really value who they are. I would love to see that out of all of this. I would love to see greater attention be paid to disability. I would love to see a lot more resources go into education because we’re in this new paradigm, where in some ways Jewish education has never been more accessible, and I think that we owe it to ourselves to really invest in our communities, and make them even stronger.

What’s something bringing you life right now, outside of IOWA, outside of work, anything bringing you life right now?

Music. I listen to a lot of music. I find that really elevates a space, and also, having conversations on the phone with people, not only on Zoom.

Thank you, Rabbi Lauren!


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