Faith and Possibility at AJWS

     After spending the summer as the experiential education intern at AJWS, I leave with a greater sense of possibility. To see the interworking of an organization I believe is conducting the social change work with the highest intellect, humbleness, and dedication, enabled me to see what locally driven and internationally supported social change could look like in new ways. In accomplishing tasks cross departmentally, like working on the creation of a campaign activist toolkit, I got to see what it takes to make forward thinking and data driven change a reality. With these learnings is a sense of wonder; a sense of how our power can be used for good and ultimately transformed to give a greater voice to the poor and marginalized. These lessons give me the tools and mode of thinking to bring a deeper purpose and greater potential to contribute, provide insight, and most importantly listen on whatever experiences come next.

 AJWS's Open Access Educational Resources: On1Foot
AJWS’s Open Access Educational Resources: On1Foot

One of the most transformational aspects of working at AJWS that I wish to explore in this blog was the significance of AJWS being a faith-based organization, expanding my relationship to the role of faith and God in development. For many years, the difficult question has stuck with me: what role, if any, does religion plays in making the world a better place? Every day I read about religion as a source of conflict, violence, political repression, and the denial of equal rights. It can be easy to jump to cynicism. Yet, to engage in the work of international development and human rights throughout the world, a world that is predominantly religious, how can one ignore religion? In my studies at Brandeis and individual pursuits, I have come to understand that these holy texts ultimately provide foundations for peace, the recognition of full human dignity, and a greater existence. AJWS has further opened my eyes to see how faith – Judaism in this context – can play a practical and inspirational role in the work to promote the human rights of people around the world.

     Faith manifests in various forms throughout the work of the organization, each of which are exemplary. It works mobilize our own communities in the U.S., knit by religions bonds, to further drive change. It emerges in customs and events, such as the Global Justice Shabbat. And additionally through text and study, seen in the published materials highlighting the nexus of Judaism and the commitment to justice (one of which I wrote for Tisha B’Av), and in the delegations of Rabbis that go abroad to meet with the grassroots partners and study Jewish principles in an international context. To an unmatched degree, faith enables us to organize and deepen connections within our communities.

AJWS Supporters Lobbying in Washington

AJWS supporters lobby in Washington.

   For the international component of AJWS’s work, the role of faith remains less explicit. But I see it emerge in this context with perhaps an even higher degree of integrity and righteousness. It manifests in the grantmaking to organizations and individuals, who fight day in and out for their divine image to be seen. They fight to be truly recognized by politicians, corporations, and public as “good”; how the Hebrew God saw his creations throughout first six days of creation, before arriving at the seventh day of rest and peace. This continued quest for justice and a dignified existence, where AJWS supports people all over the world making headway to maintain sustainable livelihoods, have proper rights to the land, bring about true equality, and be heard, is nothing but a prayer of Shalom Aleichem.


AJWS grantee Inter-Ethnic Association for Development in the Peruvian Amazon (whose leaders are pictured here outside of Peru's Congress) won a major land rights victory this year when the government passed a law that guarantees indigenous people the right to prior and informed consent for any land-use projects on their territory. PHOTO  Evan Abramson
AJWS grantee Inter-Ethnic Association for Development in the Peruvian Amazon (whose leaders are pictured here outside of Peru’s Congress) won a major land rights victory this year when the government passed a law that guarantees indigenous people the right to prior and informed consent for any land-use projects on their territory. PHOTO Evan Abramson

Halfway through AJWS

AJWS Logo     

 The Work

Halfway through my internship, my work in the Experiential Education department has progressed with increased clarity and productivity. Now with a stronger grasp on the organizational culture, language, and processes, I am making greater headway on various tasks. One project I am working on is a retrospective for the service programs, that are now coming to a close, in order to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of these programs, share learnings and reflections, and highlight the transition to the new educational and leadership program that AJWS is pioneering, the Global Justice Fellowship. Another element of my work has been conducting research, also in support of this program. I am conducting interviews with other international programs that similarly aim to deepen understanding and commitment to global justice. My research and supportive work behind the program has demonstrated that AJWS is innovating in the world of global justice solidarity work and organizing, with the combination of an immersive educational opportunity, activist training, and campaign mobilization in the U.S. Another function I am contributing to is a Campaign Toolkit, which will serve as a resource for activists in the forthcoming campaign of AJWS. I have additionally spent some time reaching out to alumni, updating the database, and plugging upcoming events.

One of the biggest highlights of being an intern, though not exactly task oriented, is the multitude of  sessions the interns have with various directors and executives of the organization. This opportunity gives us the chance to see how these dynamic individuals each uniquely contribute to the greater mission, managing their their various teams to address critical functions of the organization’s operations. Getting exposed to the ways in which each of these functions – from development and communications, to grant making and advocacy – fit into the theory of change, has opened my eyes to the far-reaching work that makes an organization effective at driving change.

Staff and friends of American Jewish World Service marching in the 2013 NYC Pride March.
Staff and friends of American Jewish World Service marching in the 2013 NYC Pride March.


Learnings in an International Non Governmental Organization

Efficiency, Coordination, and the Role of Process:

Some of my most significant leanings at AJWS have been about process; how an organization (or any group of people for that matter) with a serious mission, drive, and no time to waste, can work best to accomplish their goals. I have witnessed a number of tools that I will undoubtedly continue to use at any workplace or organizing situation in in the future. Foremost, I have seen the significance of role clarity. It happens informally, revealed naturally through conversation, and institutionally, in various forms of “responsibility assignment matrices.” And the results are noteworthy. It better assures a shared vision, creates accountability, prioritizes tasks, and helps utilize people’s skills most efficiently. For the type of work I aspire to accomplish in life, prioritizing both stakeholder participation and productivity, these lessons of process are invaluable.

Furthermore, I have encountered modes of facilitation and delivering information that additionally emphasize the role of process. While in the university setting I have learned to write with an affinity for words and delve into the depths of ideas, I see how these skills are not necessarily best for productive functioning in an organization. Conversely, using as few words as possible to articulate an idea, ask a question, and deliver an update is critical for dynamic and efficient collaboration. How important to recognize and develop this skill early on!

And perhaps most importantly, process and efficiency includes people feeling good! Google has received much attention for their remarkable incorporation of this value into the workplace – with play time, healthy food, haircuts, and childcare, all complimentary at the workplace. And while AJWS (like every other company and organization) is no Google, it does quite. In the office, we are fortunate to hear inspiring grantees come and share their stories, and it is not rare to find oneself celebrating a colleague or historical moment. I feel invigorated each morning walking into an office that radiates with positivity, passion, and work that matters deeply.

AJWS staff members celebrate the repeal of DOMA

– Samuel Porter


AJWS Week 1

The Organization

My first week at American Jewish World Service provided for a joyful, eye-opening experience. This summer, I am working as the Experiential Education Intern for the organization. To set the scene, AJWS is a non-profit organization based out of New York, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brandeis’s own Professor Larry Simon. Their mission states: “inspired by the Jewish commitment to Social Justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.”

To bring this vision to life, the organization focuses on two spheres of empowerment that together embody one transformative force of global justice. The first sphere works domestically, with the focus of:

  1.  Creating a greater critical consciousness of inequality and global struggles for human rights through outreach and education.
  2. Mobilizing political activism to end regressive US international policies that harm millions of people abroad and inhibits development.
  3. Leveraging the resources of our communities and nation as a whole to make the second sphere of the AJWS’s work – the international operations – possible.

This second component, the international work, serves to advance the goals of fighting poverty and progressing human rights by awarding grants to hundreds of grassroots organizations in marginalized communities throughout 19 developing countries, focusing on pressing issues from land rights and sustainable livelihoods, to gender inequality and health care.This approach to international development speaks to the very core of AJWS’s values – that people on the ground know best what is needed to create change. And with the solidarity and support of AJWS, these local (yet global) leaders and movements can make major strides towards a more just world.


This young woman from AJWS grantee Southern Farmers Alliance, in Thailand, is using sustainable agriculture practices to increase local food yields. PHOTO  James Robert Fuller
This young woman from AJWS grantee Southern Farmers Alliance, in Thailand, is using sustainable agriculture practices to increase local food yields. PHOTO James Robert Fuller


Experiential Education

Reflecting on my role as the experiential education intern and the EE department as a whole, I have come to see that how this work exists at a crossroads among the organization’s duality of operations, one that I find to be very deep. In rooting the educational approach in experience and critical reflection, the learning and pedagogy that AJWS brings to our communities is undoubtedly unique and visionary. It immerses the American (and for many of the supporters, Jewish) identity and existence into challenging truths of global injustice, while always shining a light down the road towards justice. And there is no better place to encounter both sides of this coin – the difficult realities of the world and hopeful future – than in the courageous work of the grantees

These encounters allow us to see that the narratives of “us” and “them” are but one – now ever apparent as we experience the forces of globalization and confront world-wide collective challenges like climate change. In contextualizing our separate existences into one shared struggle, we are empowered to launch down a powerful path towards more informed, compassionate, and productive change. This process of critical reflection and action, often called praxis, is most eloquently described by the late Paulo Freire as the pursuit of “the vocation for humanization.” To come into work and be a part of an education which serves to make us more fully human is a truly beautiful thing.

AJWS program participants establish relationships that, inspiring their activism and advocacy on global justice issues long into the future. PHOTO  Melissa Sobin
An AJWS travel program participant and a host-site collaborator. PHOTO Melissa Sobin


Beginning Work

As for my own role, the first week comprised of a fair amount of learning about the organization and discovering what I can bring to the EE department and their initiatives. There is a pleasant irony in holding an internship with this department. In being surrounded by a group of unbelievable, thoughtful, and witty educators, the learning curve was a dynamic, informative, and fun-filled process with great intentionality.

The EE department is now in full throttle working to implement a brand new program called the Global Justice Fellowship (GJF). The GJF is a yearlong program for American Jewish leaders to facilitate the deepening of knowledge and engagement with global justice issues and give them the tools to better mobilize for change. For me, seeing first-hand the process of crafting and implementing this fellowship is an exciting new lens of engaging with an educational pedagogy that I have long sought out and experienced from the student perspective. At AJWS, the process it is certainly collaborative, innovative, and detailed. My work thus far entails supporting a few projects related to the GJF, and in the coming weeks will also include helping to reach out to alumni of various programs in addition to helping create a capstone homage to the work of the service trips that AJWS ran for many years, which are now coming to a close. More details to come as the internship proceeds!


Happily sitting at my desk at the AJWS's New York office.
Sitting happily at my work station in the New York office.

 – Samuel Porter ’14