This blog is intended to feature community members and leaders doing great work with the concepts from Changing the World from the Inside Out.
Mimi Micner is the Rabbinic Intern at the Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) Project, and is in her final year Rabbinical Student at Hebrew College in Boston. During Rabbinical School, Mimi has prioritized Jewish spiritual practice and social justice work. She has taught Mussar through IOWA in multiple contexts to young people, young adults, and elders, and developed the first IOWA Vaad Curriculum. She has previously served as the Rabbinic Intern at Brown Hillel, Keshet, and Temple Tifereth Israel, where she brought spiritually-rich and justice-oriented approach to teaching, prayer, and advocacy.
Before attending Rabbinical School, Mimi was the Senior Campus Organizer for J Street U, and organized early childhood educators with the American Federation of Teachers. Mimi is from Vancouver, BC and now lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
We spoke with Mimi to learn more about her work with the IOWA project, and the role of Mussar in her work.
Can you introduce yourself and your role at the IOWA project?
My name is Mimi Micner. I’m a rabbinical student at Hebrew College, and I’m the Rabbinic Intern at the IOWA Project.
Can you share a little bit about your role at the IOWA project as the rabbinic intern?
My role in the organization is primarily around the education work that we do, bringing the Mussar and Chassidut practice and learning to the people we’re hoping to reach. That includes leading my own groups in synagogues, Hillels, and Jewish organizations. It’s also about developing our curriculum. We’re working on diversifying our sources. We’re grounded in traditional sources but want to bring a variety of Jewish voices who have different positionality, like women, queer people, Jews of color, all of whom kind of experience these spiritual issues and middot in different ways, that need to be part of the conversation.
My work also includes teaching for the Ovdim cohort, helping train new teachers, and working on our young adult retreat in the spring, which is aimed at introducing more and more people to the practice, and building the community of people practicing with us.
Can you tell me how you got involved in the IOWA project?
I’ve been a student of David’s for a number of years. I met him when I was doing the JOIN for Justice fellowship in 2010 and 2011, and he came to teach about something that didn’t have to do with this [Mussar], but I really liked his teaching and felt he was authentically wrestling with real things, and shared a lot of my political values. I then found out he was teaching a Mussar class, and I signed up. It was great: it weaved together my work as an organizer and Jewish ideas and practice in a way I had never seen before. After that David and I did some one on one learning, and we looked at a Mussar text called “To Turn The Many to Righteousness” that was basically asking all of the same questions that I was asking as an organizer. That was the true ‘ah-ha’ moment of, “Oh there’s this whole world of Jewish spirituality that cares about what I care about.”
And from there, I kept going to the things he was teaching, and eventually, when his book came out, and [he] started teaching the material, I went to one of the first classes based on the book. When the IOWA project expanded, we started working together a little more and I began to teach as well. And then this opportunity arose. [This was] more than a single moment. This was about slowly moving towards this learning and practice, it continuing to speak to me, and me wanting to eventually offer it to others.
Mussar is about doing the inner work that can allow us to do our work in the world in a compassionate and effective way. -- Mimi
Let’s talk a little bit more about Mussar. Can you explain briefly what Mussar is, and talk about what the practice means to you and your students?
The way I’ve been thinking about it recently is that it’s about the transformation of self for the transformation of the world. Our inner lives affect how we do our work in the world, and Mussar is about doing the inner work that can allow us to do our work in the world in a compassionate and effective way. [It’s trying to get us] to ask ourselves, “What are the ways in which I feel like I’m living into my best self, living into the person I want to be, to approach the world in the way I need to, and that it needs from me? And what are the ways I’m needing to grow in that direction?” Mussar is all about trying to figure out how we close that gap between the person we want to be and the person that we are. In that sense, it’s about aligning our actions and our values, so that how we feel on the inside lines up with how we act on the outside.
Another way to think about this, and this is something that David often says, is that Mussar is about making the heart feel what the head knows. For the most part, many of us know what it looks like to be the best versions of ourselves. We have that picture in our head. We’ve felt it in certain moments, and that’s been really enlivening. But, it’s really hard for us to actually live that way most of the time. Our tradition is offering us an approach that helps us move more and more towards that person. And I think particularly in the context of our work, all of us are trying to figure out how to be tenacious, and visionary, and courageous, and resilient, and that’s really hard to be sometimes. It’s really hard to be maybe often. So the question is, what does our spiritual legacy offer us so that we can live like that more? And Mussar is about giving us practical approaches and practices to getting there. Mussar’s not about talking about the issues. It’s about being the person.
I think David would say the project is coming from the inheritance of two traditions. One is the Mussar tradition and one is the Chassidic tradition. The Mussar tradition is what I spoke to. The Chassidic tradition comes in when we teach material from Rebbe Nachman, for example. A lot of it is about leaning into joy and connection, and looking for the good in what sometimes feels like the void.
Will you talk a little bit about the classes on Mussar that you’ve taught through the IOWA project? What does the program look like, and what are some takeaways you’ve noticed?
The purposes of the classes are to create a container for self knowing and practice, with support from each other. In very classic Jewish fashion, it’s simultaneously about the individual and about the community. It’s about giving people a chance to learn and do practice. It’s an opportunity for people to learn about the middot (soul traits) and the concepts, to get a chance to internalize them, and work on them. It’s about creating a community for learning and practice, where people are supportive of each other and there’s space for self and communal exploration that gets to real places. Part of the classes are also about accountability. We learn in a group and we set up people to have practice chevrutas so that people really do the practice. We don’t want people to only have the experience of talking about what’s hard about patience, for example, but for people to really grow in their capacity to bring either a patient stance or a less patient stance to a certain moment. So the classes are about learning and growing on whatever each of us is working on, but together.
For the students, classes are a good entryway into community and practice, and there was a desire to figure out a container in which to do more. For many people, these frameworks have also been really helpful to look at the things that they’re holding both within and in their work. And to have shared framework, language and community with people about those things is a helpful step forward. But, I think it’s really just the beginning. I think people saw the classes and frameworks as good in and of themselves, but that they are also just the beginning of digging into these things.
Do you have an example of using one of the tools you’ve learned through Mussar that you can share?
One of the things I’ve made a commitment around, is about showing up more. I don’t have the capacity to be a leader in justice work right now with everything on my plate, but I do totally have the capacity to show up when people ask. And one of the things that we focus on when we’re teaching humility, is about the way in which humility is also about taking up space when it’s needed. Our tradition says that when someone says, “Hineini,” that’s an act of humility. When you say “Here I am” in this full, full way before G-d, that’s humility. And so, for me, that was a framework for realizing, “Yeah it actually matters that I show up. I should be at the Amazon headquarters when Never Again Action is doing the resistance work against their complicity with ICE.” So it’s been a kind of framework for me to help make a commitment around showing up.
Can you talk about the social justice work you’ve been involved with?
Before rabbinical school, I was a community organizer for a bunch of years in labor movements, and also worked for J Street U as an organizer. More recently, I spent a bunch of time working with Keshet on a ballot initiative here in Massachusetts that was trying to revoke public protections for transgender people. I did a lot of organizing of the Jewish community to get involved in that effort, to uphold the protections. And I’ve made an effort to show up in various moments on different things, primarily when the Jewish community is making an ask of Jews to show up.
The thing that I really want to be doing more on that I’m only doing through financial support is climate crisis related activism. I’ve done a little showing up to stuff and financially supporting Sunrise Movement, and have a lot of appetite and fear, and hoping to do more of that.
How do you bring your Jewish practice, Jewish identity into the justice work you do?
I think what’s interesting is that my work before rabbinical school was really feeling this absence. I was working in a Jewish organization, but felt spiritually empty, and I totally crashed. I had to walk away for a while, and that was because I didn’t have any kind of grounding, uplifting spiritual practice. Not uplifting in “it makes me happy”, but gives me real resilience. And now I would say [that] I have answers around this: I have a practice, I have spiritual grounding and strength, and now I want to be doing more. That’s the goal moving forward as I transition from Rabbinical School to the Rabbinate.
What’s been interesting amidst all of this is that I notice a similar process among people in the classes I teach or people I am talking to about IOWA. I have seen people struggling with a lack of spiritual grounding and burning out or stuck in certain internal or organizational dynamics, and are looking for a spiritually supportive way forward.
Can you expand on that a little more in how you’ve seen that in your students?
I’m working on putting together a class at Tufts, where I also work. I was sitting down with a student that’s really active in the labor coalition on campus, and he said, “Last year, we were doing this big campaign alongside the dining hall workers workers, and we were all getting ready to do a sit-in in the president’s office, and we were all scared.” It just so happens that my colleague there leads a regular meditation group, and some of the students happened to be there. And the student that I was talking to said, “That meditation just made this huge difference of feeling like I can do it.” And for me, that was this important moment. What would it have been like had this student and the other students been doing supportive spiritual practice intentionally and from the get-go? How might that have deepened their capacity for courage? That’s what IOWA is about.
In the class I taught last year, there were students who came out of the class feeling like they could be bolder in some of their work environments because of the work that we had done. We spent time talking about taking up the right amount of space, which for many people, particularly the women in the class, meant taking up more space, and about expressing anger in a useful way, which for these same folks often meant pushing themselves to express their anger at work when needed. Our class really moved the needle on this for people.
That’s a really interesting point to make. I haven’t heard that yet. That that groundedness gives you more space to dig into this boldness, bravery of this work.
Totally. I think there’s one level where this work lives, where you feel nourished. Nourished in the way you feel when you go on a great walk and catch up with a friend. But there’s a deeper level that this work is trying to go, which is about expanding our sense of what’s possible. What’s possible for what we can do. What’s possible for the world. And so, I think if we leave it at the level of “this is nourishing,” then I don’t think it offers that much that’s more meaningful or interesting than, say, a massage. But it’s about connecting to something that is so much deeper. This tradition that is thinking about us. That cares about us and wants things to go well for us and is offering us ways to be better, stronger, more courageous, more imaginative. That’s what this is going for.
We did just cover this, but can you speak to any additional shifts from either your social justice work or the work of your students because of this process of bringing in Jewish spiritual technologies and Mussar. A thought that’s coming up for me, is that it feels there has been, especially this summer with Never Again Action, this call to our Jewish communities show up and answer a call to take action. Is there a shift in the way young Jews are taking action?
Yeah. One-hundred percent. I think this has been one of the big innovations of IfNotNow and Never Again Action. I feel like they did this job of constantly saying, “We’re Jews.” When we do actions, they’re Jewish through and through.
It’s also been amazing to see the way that singing has become a huge part of Jewish activism. This was not true when I started organizing, and it helps me see the deep desire for spiritual groundedness among my peers. I am happy to say that we at IOWA are part of this larger landscape of people who are trying for the integration of spirituality and social justice and Jewish life, and we’re one of the avenues that are available
What’s something else that’s bringing you life right now, something outside of Mussar and Judaism?
I love to read fiction.
Is there anything you’re really excited about that you’re reading now?
I just finished reading this book called ‘The Great Believers’. It’s a very beautiful weaving together of stories that are about the AIDs crisis in Chicago and its aftermath. It was kind of devastating but also really beautiful.