Spotlight: Rabbi Alex Weissman
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Rabbi Alex Weissman is the Senior Jewish Educator at Brown/RISD Hillel. While living in Brooklyn, he was trained as a community organizer and began working at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah as their first Social Justice Coordinator. Seeing the power of spiritual community in action, he pursued ordination at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside of Philadelphia. He has been part of conversations about The IOWA Project from near the beginning, and was part of our first Train the Trainers. This past year, he led a pilot va'ad (study group) at Brown/RISD Hillel, engaging his students in Mussar study and practice.
We interviewed Alex about his work, and connection to the Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) Project.
How did you get involved with the IOWA Project?
I actually went to rabbinical school because I felt like social justice movements needed spiritual support. I had been doing organizing work with JFREJ [Jews for Racial and Economic Justice] around the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign. The campaign had been going on for nine years. This was the year we expected to win, and the legislature just went bonkers. They were turning the lights off to prevent votes. The bill didn’t pass, and folks were crushed, devastated, and didn’t know what to do.
We picked up the organizing a few months later and passed it the following year. But there was this moment when we experienced a loss. We needed to acknowledge it and grieve. We needed a ritual. There was a spiritual need there that I didn’t know how to hold or support. I began to feel that organizing was part of people’s spiritual life and was also seeing how much spiritual support organizing needed. Now I’ve been doing that kind of work in various ways for 8 or 9 years. It has ranged from individual support for activists, to my work at JFREJ, to work with Avodah, to a project through the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. And Mussar was what I was introduced to when I was doing JFREJ’s organizing fellowship.
In terms of how I specifically got connected to IOWA, I’ve known Dan [Gelbtuch] for a long time. We had been in conversation for years about justice and spirit. When David’s book came out, my in-laws pre ordered it for me. I read it and felt really moved by it and then had some conversations with Dan around visioning. Eventually I was part of the first train the trainers cohort.
Tell me about the va'ad you ran this past year at Brown/RISD Hillel
I ran an IOWA cohort this past semester with seven students. There were a couple of first years who were beginning their social justice activism lives and then there were seniors who didn’t really go to class and spent all of their time organizing. For the more seasoned folks it was a moment of, “we’re tired and burnt out. This is a thing we can rest on to make our work sustainable and better and grow.” For the younger students it was like an inoculation-- preventing them from reaching that burnt out tired spot.
At the end one of the students, who’s very involved in organizing, said that she learned to “see herself as good” in the class. For me that was like, “alright my work here is done.”
What tends to resonate most with your students, or bring them in?
One thing which I think was both a little bit confusing but also exciting for them is that it’s Jewish practice that is not Shabbat, Kashrut, or services. Jewish practice is also seeing good points in other people. It’s also getting in touch with our yetzer hara, our parts that are selfish. Reflecting on that is Jewish practice is not the practice that most liberal Jews today grow up with. And to have those practices grounded in the values that these students hold dear, of social justice and activism, was very powerful. They got this sense that “I can bring spiritual practice to movement building.”
Mussar is experiencing a revival in the more liberal Jewish world. But up until now, Judaism in the U.S. for the most part hasn’t done a good job of looking at the inner life. Even though we have lots of texts about our inner life, it hasn’t been at our center in. On the left in the U.S. we often focus our Jewish practice on our outward actions in the world and tikkun olam, which is also so important. These practices provide an opportunity to hold the inner life at the center, and look at how it spirals out to relationships, communities, and social movements.
I think some of the reason for this disconnect is the history of Rationalism. Part of how liberal Jews were able to assimilate and become citizens in Europe and White in the US was through disavowing all the non-rational parts of Jewish life, and that includes the inner life. So I think for us as liberal Jews who have largely been cut off from those practices that are part of our tradition, it’s really healing and powerful to step back into them and think about what they mean in this political movement, and how to draw on the wells of wisdom that exist for us and can help cure us.
So now you’re working with students, and you have your own spiritual life. What does it look like in your life in general to be using these practices?
For me one of the consistently most powerful Mussar practices that I draw on in my life comes from Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, who I know is also a source of inspiration for David [Jaffe]. In his chapter on chesed [lovingkindness], the first practice he offers is to pause and think about what the person in front of you needs. I use this a lot, particularly when I get annoyed with people. I notice my heart is closing, I’m judging them. And when I pause and ask myself “what do they need right now?” ten out of ten times, my heart softens. I might not be right, but I see them as more human and I am more able to interact with them as people.
You mentioned the current “political moment”. Where and how do you see a need for these kinds of practices or ways of thinking/acting more broadly?
One of the things that’s happened in our country is that we are extremely polarized. It’s become increasingly difficult to see our political opponents as humans, and as people. I think as a result of that, there is more drawing on shame as a political tactic and primarily drawing on anger as a motivating feeling. And not that those things can’t or shouldn’t exist in the political sphere. But if we don’t also draw on our sadness. If we don’t also draw on love and compassion and curiosity, and make invitations for people in power to make changes, and not just shame them--- shame shuts down. It causes people to freeze and not change. If we were able to humanize those we disagree with more, there could be more of an invitation into the in-between.
Is there anything else about these practices that you want to share?
One of the cool things when I taught the class at Hillel, is that of the seven students, only one was a Hillel regular at the beginning of the semester. The rest were people who were not really part of the regular Hillel community. I think by having another way into Jewish life, practice, community, beyond business as usual, we were actually able to reach students who we wouldn’t have otherwise.
What’s something else that’s bringing you life right now, something outside of Mussar and Judaism?
I just finished an eight-week improv comedy class with a performance at the end. It was great to have a space to play and be silly and step into a world of play and imagination.