Spotlight: Yehudah Webster
Updated: May 25, 2020
Yehudah is passionate about ensuring the Jewish community’s commitment to the fight for racial justice and collective liberation. With an analysis of unconditional/revolutionary care, Yehudah has worked as an anti-oppression trainer and organizational consultant, developing unique programs to bring together communities that are often pitted against each other. He has presented in a wide variety of settings, including youth group conventions, college campuses, and staff development retreats for Jewish organizations. As a community organizer for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), Yehudah supports JFREJ’s police accountability and transformative justice campaigns through grassroots efforts that include lobbying for legislative reform. Yehudah has worked on establishing a national support network for JOCs through his JFREJ leadership, working to provide the much needed institutional support marginalized Jewish communities of color need. He is a graduate of JFREJ’s Grace Paley Organizing Fellowship and Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program.
We interviewed Yehudah about his work and experience in The Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project's Ovdim Cohort.
Can you start by introducing yourself and tell us about your involvement with the IOWA project?
I’m Yehudah Webster, I use pronouns he and his. I am a community organizer with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I’m getting my 10-year New York chip this year. I’m in New York because I found my political home here at JFREJ.
I’ve been organizing with JFREJ for 6 years, first as a member, then as a board member, and now as an organizer. I want to be able to serve the political organizing community that I’ve become a part of, and service specifically the Jews of Color (JOC) community both on the political spectrum and for the sake of actualizing our multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural community in its fullest glory.
For the last several years, a lot of my work has been in the realm of political education and anti-bias trainings, focusing particularly on anti-racism, understanding or unpacking antisemitism, and understanding how those two oppressive systems work together to keep communities divided. I’m working specifically within the Jewish community to help mobilize and help Jews, particularly white Jews, find their place within the fight of dismantling racism, not just outside the community, but also within. Unfortunately, I have a whole lifetime of experiences that really demonstrate the need for serious introspection within the Jewish community, if we’re ever going to actually dismantle racism outside of it as well.
That work of anti-bias training and political education brought me to the first Tzedek Lab convening, where I was with the political educator group. [Prior to this] either David [Jaffe] or Dan [Gelbtuch] had sent me an email because they thought I’d be a good person to give feedback as they were scaffolding The IOWA Project and Ovdim. And so, we’re in a carpool from the airport to Tzedek Lab, and I happen to be in the car with David. We’re talking about all of this, and I tell him, “It’s incredible”. My first question is, “How can I be a participant? I don’t think I’m in a position to give feedback, I want to come and learn.”
The reason I was so inspired to be a participant is because, and this is overly simplified, but for years I had heard in community organizing spaces that personal and communal transformation is not really relevant or helpful, because, ultimately we need to change systems. Even the most well-intentioned person can still be caught up in the system and perpetuate the oppressive dynamics that we live in. So, you know, not really a solution. And I wholeheartedly agree that we certainly do need systemic change. But I started to disagree more and more with the idea that personal and communal transformation was irrelevant to the effort of dismantling racism, for example. In my opinion, can we ever make that systemic change if people aren’t making different decisions and different choices, if people don’t start to build the muscle to be able to transform this system? And so, I started to question that and challenge that premise.
People in my workshops were asking, “What can we do today? What should we be doing right now?” And all I could say was, “join an organization, be a part of this.” But that wasn’t it! That wasn’t resonating for the participants, and it wasn’t resonating for me. I was thinking, “this doesn’t make any sense as I’m saying it.” And I could see within myself and in the participants, that I needed change, for me! How am I going to actually sustain this lifelong effort of anti-racism if I, myself, am not able to bridge the gap between who I am and who I want to be in the world? And so, I was on a search. I was asking, “How do you do it?”
So when I saw that proposal, I said, “one way or another, I’m going to be participating in this program, because this is the thing I’ve been looking for,” and, Baruch Hashem, it happened, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.
I started JFREJ staff in July, which was a month after we started Ovdim, and so, it feels like I have a gift of tools. Maybe I just had a hammer before, and now I have a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, a this, a that. My toolkit is being fleshed out and is helping to expand my capacity to hold and to be in it, be in the fight. I have a lot of respect, a lot of gratitude for being a part of the process, and the experiment.
What does it feel like you're experimenting with?
I think Rabbi David is purposing Mussar. The process of Mussar for social justice, and for social justice changemakers in a way that I don’t know if it’s been done before, to my understanding. So in that sense, an experiment, to see how will this impact us? How will this change how we show up in the world? How will it change and ripple out for movements, etc.? Experimental in the sense of merging certain fields of study, of bridging Mussar with social justice seems to be somewhat new. Ovdim is just one part of it, and so in that sense, I’m just excited to be part of this overall experiment. And I think, you know, it’s working. It’s working.
Can you tell us about the Ovdim cohort?
The Ovdim cohort is a group of Jewish social justice organizers and advocates that are investing a year and a half in learning, together, how to expand our capacity to be in the world and not necessarily do. We’re coming together to learn how to bridge the gap of where we are and where we want to be, and a whole lot of that has to do with our spirit. And exercising our spiritual muscles. And so that feeds into our daily practice, that feeds into our biweekly chavruta, and our biweekly group learning.
Is there anything else you want to share about the cohort?
It’s been great. Everybody in it. It’s a really awesome group. All the participants are incredible facilitators, and I feel like I'm learning a lot from them. I still feel like I’m in a master class with David, and other teachers that he brings in. So much to learn, and just so many areas to grow in. Just really grateful for all the different perspectives, and so happy to be in chavruta with Dani. An unsuspecting good pairing. It’s amazing.
What are you currently wrestling with in the cohort?
Me personally or what is the cohort working on?
I think they’re actually one in the same, and that’s what’s kind of cool about it. I always feel that whatever practice we’re working on, whatever Mussar characteristic, prayer, thing, this is what I need in my life right now.
We just started this good points practice, and our task every day is to meditate on a good point in ourselves. That feels like it’s going to be a struggle for me, you know, to find that good point, especially in this time. I’m just feeling like a big ball of anxiety. There’s a lot of stress. I’m struggling with feeling that I could be doing more, I should be doing more, I’m not the leader I’m supposed to be in this moment. All those pieces of self-criticism. And so, I think that’s going to be a particular challenge, good points. It’s a good and necessary challenge. It’s going to be the thing that keeps you hopeful, especially in this time.
In this moment we’re in, with a global pandemic, and in this moment politically, how do you stay grounded and focused?
I’m not. That’s the truth. It feels pretty hard to be grounded right now. It feels hard to even work. This morning, we left the house at 6:45 AM to get to the grocery store. We’re super lucky, my girlfriend has a car. So we hop in her car, my girlfriend and my roommate. We drove there, masks on, gloves on. Some stores weren’t letting you in without gloves and a mask. It’s apocalyptic out here. And I feel like my moments of groundedness are because of this practice. Right now, we have three times a day where we’re supposed to be practicing. I don’t necessarily hit all three, but I mostly hit two. What’s comforting about that, is, if you miss one, there’s another one coming. And it’s another opportunity to take a moment and to find some sort of groundedness.
I’m so grateful we started [the cohort] in June, because you can’t just decide that you’re going to have this habit in a time of crisis. The habit needed to have been in place. Crisis hit, and we have this space, and at least here I have these two moments, these three potential moments of somewhat of a habit where I get to be grounded. That is brutal honesty right there.
Can you share what you do outside of the IOWA project? What you work on, and what organizations are you involved with?
My portfolio at JFREJ is racial justice with a focus on police accountability, addressing the uptick in anti-semitic hate crimes, the roles of the increasing scope of the NYPD, and trying to build the alternatives for addressing conflict and harm and crime within the community that doesn’t necessarily involve the police, or the criminal legal system. I also organize the Jews of Color caucus at JFREJ. And with some of the anti-ICE work.
In addition, I help support Ammud, the Jews of Color (JOC) Torah Academy. That started and was incubated within the JOC caucus at JFREJ, but is now its own independent project. We offer Jewish education for JOC, by JOC. Everyone in our leadership are JOC. All of our teachers are JOC, and all participants in our courses are JOC. We have about 100 members that are not JOC in our Ally Circle, but support the work and want to be part of our community. The vision is that we’re not just building something specifically for JOC, but building a bridge so that Jewish people of color can actually access Jewish education free of racism, while we build the foundation to actualize our true multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic community. That’s that ultimate vision for JOC Torah Academy.
Beyond the JOC Torah Academy, I’ve been really steeped in political education as a trainer. For the last few years, I’ve been developing my own curriculum based off of a combination of ideas and theories. I once experienced Rabbi David Jaffe do a brief Mussar teaching. And based off that, I was able to create a Mussar offering for participants of workshops and say, ‘here’s what you can start doing today, as one of the concrete ways you can start the work of the personal transformation needed for us to live an anti-racist world’. And it’s a long arc of three hours that brings folks to why Mussar is needed. They come to an anti-racist training, but end up with Mussar. What the hell happened, right? So it’s a long arc to really bring folks through an experience, and for them to discover, that if we’re really serious about this, personal and communal transformation is definitely going to be a critical part of the story. And that’s largely the work that I love to do; the facilitation, the political education, the long term effort of change.
I think organizing today moves at such a fast pace, especially with our social media news cycle. Organizing of the past didn’t. It had a much longer memory. Decades of organizing. That’s really the model of the civil rights movement. That’s what transformed conditions for millions of people in this country. And organizing today makes amazing changes. We’ve won so much in the last few years, on local levels, on national levels, raising minimum wage. The incremental police accountability changes we’ve won, domestic workers rights. And, by and large, we are moving at a much faster pace. I’m more interested in the 50, 100, 200 year arc of change, and I think Mussar is a practice that really affirms that theory.
How have you seen your work with the cohort affect your work in other areas in your life, in your social justice work?
It’s hard to say, because it’s such a mental thing. What is certainly more noticeable, is that I feel much more disciplined to root my routine and my practice. A lot of what we do, praying three times a day, the breathing, these are things that I’ve aspired to have in my life, and I haven’t had a container of accountability to make that the case. I now have that container, and it’s working. I can see that change. Because I’m doing it, my girlfriend does practice with me now, and you know, it’s just become a part of my life, in a way that hadn’t been the case prior. So definitely in that concrete, visible way.
In the sense of my leadership, patience, or my characteristics, I probably should wait for someone to be able to tell me they’ve noticed a difference, but I hope! I hope it’s working, and I hope it’s being felt in the relationships that I’m holding.
How do you bring your Jewish practice and Jewish identity into the work that you do?
I incorporate it into the political education work that I do. And it’s part of the solution for how we can actually live a lifelong effort of anti-racism or anti-oppression. Beyond that, just breathing exercises, bringing them to meetings and feeling more and more comfortable inviting other folks to join me in breathing to settle in.
Part of my job is a lot of local, city level, press conferences. We hear the NYPD is getting ready to do something, or city council is about to pass a legislation, or NY state is about to pass a budget and we want to call for something to be passed or denounce something else. And we were doing a presser about anti-smeitism and bail reform. And right before the presser, I was asked to open it up with a prayer. [In the cohort], we’ve been practicing hitbodedut, spontaneous prayer, and you know, I got nervous [on my way there], on the subway. And so I scripted it out, which was a mistake. Immediately, it’s no longer spontaneous. Here’s an opportunity, and it didn’t really go as planned, or as I hoped, that it could have truly been spontaneous. But it was an interesting notice to me, so top of mind, the missteps that were taken. And trying to bring this personal practice into the public sphere. I’m definitely eager for more opportunities like that.
What’s something bringing you life right now, outside of IOWA and the cohort.
I just did a little stay-cation. I was supposed to go to Boulder, but had to cancel. And I just made my way through the entire Star Wars Saga. We’re on episode eight right now and just have one more episode, nine. It’s been very methodical. My girlfriend had never seen them properly, in order, and now she’s fully invested. We’re watching Clone Wars, it’s very good.
Thank you Yehudah!
Yehudah is a member of first IOWA Ovdim Leadership Cohort, which is a retreat-based learning and practice spiritual community for experienced Jewish social justice leaders. The purpose of the cohort is to make social change a sustainable and nourishing practice by grounding it in Jewish spiritual wisdom that integrates cultivation of the inner-life with action in the world.
The Leadership Cohort also makes Jewish spiritual wisdom and practice an accessible resource for people addressing the most pressing social issues of our time including racism, climate change and political polarization.