A Conversation Between Rabbi Jonah Pesner and Jess Becker, NFTY Social Action Vice President-elect
On Wednesday, March 13, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, met with the NFTY Social Action Vice President-elect Jess Becker to discuss their shared visions for the Reform Movement’s commitment to social justice. Their conversation – which covered gun violence prevention advocacy, the power of the youth vote, the Torah’s teachings on pursuing justice, and more – highlights the power of the adult-teen partnership. When our entire Movement, from teens to grandparents and everyone in between, is united in our pursuit of justice, we can be a powerful force for change. Read on to learn more about Jess and how NFTY will be leading, mobilizing, and acting in the year ahead.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
RABBI JONAH PESNER: Why don’t you begin by sharing a little bit about who you are and what your history is with the Reform Movement?
JESS BECKER: I’ve kept Judaism constant throughout my life. I’ve always been a proud Jew. I’ve been involved in my temple ever since I was a little kid. I joined NFTY freshman year, initially very apprehensive about it, but as I went to more and more events, I began to really fall in love.
I wrote social action programming for my [NFTY] region. I joined NFTY’s North American Environmental Justice Task Force. I went on L’Taken and lobbied my Senator Chris Murphy, which was a very pivotal moment in my social justice trajectory. I went to URJ Kutz Camp and did the Action and Advocacy program with the RAC. These were monumental experiences for me, not only because I got to learn about different social justice issues, but also because I got to learn about myself as an advocate.
RJP: Why does social justice matter to you? What inspires you to be an advocate?
JESS: I remember the day of the Sandy Hook shooting more clearly than my own bat mitzvah. I asked my sixth-grade science teacher if I could go to the bathroom. I walked towards the door and opened it. A teacher from down the hall ran in to my classroom, in tears, saying, “Children have been shot. Look at the news. It’s in Newtown. Children have been shot.”
That was my first wakeup call to the reality of this world and its injustices. The next day I felt scared to go to school – [Sandy Hook Elementary School] is 20 minutes away from where I live. Could that happen to me? That’s when I started to advocate for what I believed in.
RJP: Thank you for sharing that powerful story. Let’s zoom back out for a second, to Judaism and social justice more broadly. I’m curious about how you’ve experienced the authenticity of social justice within Jewish tradition. Are there different texts that you’ve read or Jewish experiences you’ve had that have shaped your understanding of the relationship between Judaism and social justice?
JESS: One quote from Torah specifically comes to mind: Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. This really resonates with me because the Torah is clearly telling us: Go pursue justice.
When I learned that the Torah supports us working to make a difference, well, I wouldn’t say it shook my world, but it definitely felt powerful [to know that] the religion I care so deeply about is telling me to go out and do what I love, to go and pursue justice and make the world a better place for others. That’s something that NFTY can really hold onto.
RJP: Why do students matter? Why does it matter to the Reform Movement that we have young people leading our social justice work?
JESS: I turned 18 about a month ago. I registered to vote on my birthday. I got the [confirmation] letter in the mail the day after and felt so powerful; now I have the power to put people in office who I see fit for the change I want to make. So that was an important step in my life, but I obviously haven’t always been able to vote.
As teens, using our freedom of speech is so important, because if we start that now, we can continue [speaking out] until we’re 50, 60, 70, 80 years old. And if my generation never stops speaking up, then our country will move forward in a positive direction – all thanks to young people who want to make change.
RJP: I love your story about turning 18 and registering to vote on your birthday. Think about other people who are turning 18. You have a big platform now to speak to thousands of 14 to 17-year-olds. What advice do you have for them?
JESS: Be aware. They tell you in fifth grade: don’t be a bystander when you see bullying. Well, don’t be a bystander when you see this country bullying minorities. Just be aware of what’s happening around you and be [politically] active. Because if you’re not active, then no one else is.
RJP: Along those lines, having given advice to 14 to 17-year-olds, now give advice to 88-year-olds or 98-year-olds. You can speak to the whole Reform Jewish Movement. What do you want them to know about you, and what do you want them to know about NFTY’s social justice agenda?
JESS: There’s a stereotype about teens, that we can’t do anything or we can’t really know how to make change. I don’t think that’s true. No matter how old you are, you can be part of a movement, too. We’re not just teens, we’re changemakers.
Jess Becker is the NFTY Social Action Vice President-elect. Her term will begin in June 2019. Jess is from NFTY-Northeast and a member of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She is an alumna of the URJ Kutz Camp’s Action and Advocacy Immersive and the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. Besides social justice, Jess spends her time performing, whether it’s theatre, all-state choir, or playing guitar at a local record store. Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and a Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism.