Spotlight Interview: Helen Bennett
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
This interview with Helen and IOWA staff Sam Fine has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Can you start by introducing yourself and tell us about your involvement with the IOWA project?
I’m Helen. I use she and her pronouns. I live in Massachusetts, originally from Seattle. Where do I start? I became a fan of Rabbi David’s as a JOIN fellow, when he was a guest trainer and teacher. I vividly remember learning, from him, about lessons in paradox and how holding things that seem at odds is inherent to Jewish tradition, that it’s possible to hold things that seem like they’re in tension. That really stuck with me. His presence, attention, and tone for complicated things, really stuck with me.
I learned with him through his Teshuva Workshops in Elul. And when he was imagining The Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, he brought me in as part of a team that was supporting the vision, offering feedback, giving resonance, encouraging, hearing what he was imagining, and supporting in how the direction might go. I have since been very glad to be on the advisory team. I just really love the integration of spiritual practice with activism in the world.
A couple years ago when we started Tzedek Lab, this national network of practitioners, folks who are leading their communities around the fight against anti-semitism, racism, and white supremacy, we brought David in as a member. He led a piece about Mussar and prayer practice, and brought people in around how to make those practices meaningful as practitioners leading hard work. It was really special. I’m really glad to be in it with him, and in it with The IOWA Project, and see all the ripples it’s beginning to make.
What is it about Mussar and this soul work that really speaks to you, that spoke to that moment at the first Tzedek Lab gathering?
I really like how Rabbi David talks about “Jewish spiritual technologies”; that there are these age-old wisdom tools that we literally have access to today, that can enhance our lives and bring more meaning. That it’s just a matter of practice that can give us access to that transformation. That’s what compels me, what feels powerful about Mussar.
During the Tzedek Lab gathering, when he shared and taught a workshop about it, he gave a deep and elaborate and full history of where Mussar comes from and its lineages from Sephardi history, and other roots in different places around the world, and isn’t just another one of those Eastern-European tools that so often dominate the scene in terms of ‘meaningful Jewish practice’. That also compels me, that he has such a breadth and depth of knowledge about where these tools come from, and that they have distinct power to make a difference in our day to day lives.
In terms of soul trait work, I think the particular middot of Anavah / Humility and Savlanut / Patience, as well as figuring out our Ratzon, deepest desire and yearnings, allows us to be in movement work for the long haul. Being able to give attention to those qualities gives them power.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently stewarding the Tzedek Lab Network, and at this point there’s 264 members spread out all over. They’re working in different ways and in different roles to politicize and transform the Jewish communities and allied communities that they’re a part of to take a stand against anti-semitism, racism, white supremacy, and white supremacist movements in this ripe time. A lot of my work is in supporting them to be able to do what they’re trying to do with backing, momentum, and with the knowledge that they are part of an actual web of support. I work a lot on supporting people in their visioning and connecting them with resources they need, and connecting them to each other as comrades and community. There’s a deep spiritual nourishment and grounding that comes from a sense of ‘I’m not alone in this work’.
I’m also working on being a spiritual director, which means I meet with people one on one and support them through the discernment process of what it means to be active in the world today, what’s hard, what’s at stake, what gets discouraging, and what can be encouraging. I meet a lot with people through the Faith Matters Network, and really love that. It’s very nourishing for me, the combination of the one on one work through spiritual direction practice, and the at-scale, network-wide work through Tzedek Lab. They both feed me in different ways. I’m also working on and continue to be excited about working with IfNotNow on developing personal support teams for their staff, and working on the effort to address racism in the movement and add political education into transforming the movement out of white supremacist culture. I also love supporting Kavod in Boston, which has been a home for me for a long time.
I really enjoyed a webinar you were on recently, speaking about your experience as a movement chaplain in this moment. Can you speak more to that role?
What’s interesting to me about the role and title ‘movement chaplain’, is that I have already been doing that work for a long time even though the title feels new. The work is now being recognized, which I’m grateful for, and is a little bit more directly explainable because there’s now a term for it. For me, being a movement chaplain means all the ways I had been present, in leadership, and in support with Kavod as an organizer, with IfNotNow as an instigator, and a leader around relational culture and structure and ritual. That and the integration of a compassionate accountability approach to addressing anti-semitism, looking at our stake as American Jews in ending the occupation, and generally fighting for freedom and dignity of all people -- I’d say all of these roles have been me as movement chaplain.
I’d say that my role at Tzedek Lab, where I facilitate and support and steward this network, is also a movement chaplain role. In this spot, I’m also thinking about the organizing and the movement building right alongside and integrated with the chaplaining, the spiritual care, and the challenges that practitioners are up against. I’m thinking about what it can look like to mitigate those challenges and to soften into more trust, depth, connection, integration, and interdependence with each other. I’m a movement chaplain in all of the ways and in all of the roles that I hold.
IOWA’s approach supports me because it’s abundantly clear to Rabbi David that there is a real place in social justice work for spiritual attunement and spiritual work. This grounds me when I work to bring Jewish tradition and wisdom into organizing and movement spaces.
I’m reaching for ritual, reaching for Shabbat, reaching for holiday practice, reaching for what we might know about the themes of the Jewish month that we’re in, and bringing them into the political moment and the organizing work, and to the challenges of what we’re up against politically.
That is exactly the integration that David talks about. We actually have a bunch of resources that can help guide us through what’s hard about what humans are up to right now, and I feel that very strongly. I’m constantly drawing on the Jewish tradition in ways that I think can get people excited and that they are ready for, but mostly in a way that feels smooth and obvious, because it is obvious to me that these pieces are so integrated. And I think that’s why I feel so led by Rabbi David; it’s so obvious to him that these pieces are connected. Who would we be, as Jews today, if we weren’t drawing on the tradition of thriving and surviving that we’ve had, that our people have used all this time? We’re throwing that out now? It doesn’t seem like a very good time to be throwing out so much of what has helped us stay alive and make it through.
Wow, feels like both a very simple and very profound way of framing this.
Yes. Assimilation into whiteness or letting go of tradition - these have been choices many of our people have made for their own safety. That’s important to understand. AND, it feels like an important time to be thoughtful and bold, and do what we can to reclaim what we know works and has worked for our people, and to not give up on that. It’s multi-faceted. It’s complicated. It’s not a cookie-cutter solution, and it never has been. Assimilation and whiteness have really confused and blurred the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faceted plethora of resources, possibilities, tools, and technologies that our people have been using for a long time. And we get to go back, back in time, root in our strength and creativity, and not let the scary stuff dominate.
Totally. The way David talks about assimilation and bringing us back has been really moving for me. And I’m connecting with what you just said. I’m thinking about the fear of my own family members, fear of showing their Jewishness, I think I sometimes forget a big facet of assimilation is that fear.
That might be the most visceral facet of assimilation, that fear. And the reason why we assimilate is to hide that fear, to “get over” that fear and move on.
In the work you do as a movement chaplain and spiritual director, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how the work has shifted this year, and the potential for great change in this moment.
This moment has really shown where things have already been shaky, where things have already been unraveling. I think that capitalism is not working out for many more people in an alarming and visible way. All of the systems connected to upholding that orientation are also not working for people, and they already weren’t, but it’s escalating.
People are being a little more direct about what they need, and what they can give. They are being forced into a little more honesty, and are not able to hide behind ‘it’s fine’. It’s not fine. We’re seeing mutual aid systems blow up and sustain. I’m seeing a system that was already not set up to serve people, unraveling in an active way. And seeing people's intuition for care, support, and backing for each other. That intuition that we’re here to be on each other's team is also coming through.
That feels like an opening. That this moment is opening up to doing things a different way. I’ve been finding that that’s a lot of my spiritual direction sessions. It’s a lot of affirming people that yes, they can, trust their intuition to do it a different way. Not the same old ways. A lot of my time is spent helping people feel that to be true, and trust in their own knowing. And my time is spent drawing on ancient wisdoms, drawing on ancestors, experiences from different times that all point to, “we’re going to get through this if we stay clear that we have each other, we’re in it together, and no one can get in between us if we don’t let them.”
We recently brought in a new crew into Tzedek Lab in this season. It was a ton of work to do that, to do a gathering online and to make that feel good and go smoothly. AND it was also such a prime moment for it, because people are so ready. People are leading in big ways. They are seeing a really different way of being with each other, of social connection and possibility, and are so hungry for a sense that there’s other people out there who feel similarly to them,who are leading in similar ways, and who want to learn from one another.
The big picture out there doesn’t typically look that encouraging, that’s not usually where encouragement comes from, truth be told. Encouragement and possibility comes from your relationships and your sense of what’s really truly happening in your own neighborhood, community and family. Helping people see their own power is a really big deal.
Thank you, Helen!
Helen Bennett (she/her) likes to do things that help people remember how much it’s worth it to trust and depend on each other. She is passionate about building resilient community rooted in ritual and focused on social justice, which has been the foundation for her work as a community organizer, facilitator, network weaver, spiritual director, and movement chaplain for 10+ years.
Helen works with individuals wrestling with big questions who may be in the midst of transition, questioning what is sacred, seeking belonging, exploring emerging identities, challenged by burn out, and more. Helen is a movement leader, was trained as a non-denominational spiritual director at Still Harbor and as a Movement Chaplain with the Faith Matters Network, and comes from a progressive Jewish background. She works with people from all religious and non-religious paths and brings her experience as a ritual facilitator, social movement chaplain, community organizer, and peer counselor to her work accompanying people on their journeys.
As an organizer and network weaver, Helen trains nationally on antisemitism and racism, and is a co-founder of Tzedek Lab, a national network of political educators, organizers, spiritual leaders and cultural workers, Jews & allies, building collective competency to politicize, transform, and inspire the Jewish community into collective action against racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy. Helen supports Kavod House, IfNotNow, and Never Again Action around leadership development, creating structures for support, and embodying liberatory movement culture as a Movement Chaplain, and has worked with the Ayni Institute and the Momentum Community to develop trainings on decentralized organization and cultivating reciprocity. She is featured on Irresistible/ Healing Justice Podcast and How We Gather. Helen grew up in Seattle and is now based in Boston. Her ancestors came from Romania, Russia, Lithuania, and Poland.