It’s the people, stupid!

It’s the people, stupid!

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

Evan Robbins stands with some of the young people he’s helped free from slavery.
Evan Robbins stands with some of the young people he’s helped free from slavery.

I  want to bring you along with me, dear reader, on a journey of discovery. But the title of this story might be a spoiler.

I baldly write “It’s the people, stupid,” with a nod to James Carville, because I think we all need to be reminded of the obvious sometimes. Profound learning is largely remembrance.

Recently, synchronicity and repetition got my attention. Event after event drove home the point that change and connection occur most reliably when they are about people. Not facts or statistics. Not persuasive arguments or ingratiating communication. Not exciting announcements or terrific ideas. People and their stories motivate other people.

My first “hit in the head” with this perspective came from Miriam Brosseau of Tiny Windows Consulting. She gave a workshop in early 2023 sponsored by SLI (the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative) called “Communications and Marketing Strategy.” One of her bon mots was “people don’t care about your programs. They care about people.” She encouraged synagogues and other organizations to share stories and pictures on social media. That advice is not exactly revolutionary, but it’s important — and too often ignored. Social media is, to coin a term, social. So are Jews. And people generally. Cue the song “People” from “Funny Girl.”

On the Friday of Martin Luther King weekend, my synagogue hosted the 13th annual Freedom Shabbat, celebrating the legacies and friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Each year, faith leaders from varied backgrounds and communities join my congregation, adding readings, songs, and a guest sermon to our Shabbat prayers. This year was particularly moving to me. We all relished gathering in person again. People arrived early and lingered afterward. Guest speakers from earlier years came back just to listen. This year’s guest sermonizer, Rev. Mark Suriano of Park Ridge, drew on his own personal story and the story of Moses, inspiring empathy, allyship, and kindness. The absence of a few regular attendees was noted; they were missed. There was an air of reunion, even as we welcomed new people.

A critical mass of participants had spent enough time together to form genuine and lasting connections. At this year’s Freedom Shabbat, I realized that somewhere along the line, we had graduated from the status of being strangers of good will and shared values to friends  — even kin — despite all our demographic and devotional differences. In that way, we didn’t just tell the story of Heschel and King. We lived it.

That evening, and the earlier years of engaging meaningfully with one another, influenced the response of my community when the earthquake in Turkey hit on February 6. Members of my synagogue immediately reached out as brothers and sisters to the dozen or so Muslims from Turkey who had attended a Freedom Shabbat. We are continuing to help in that region, even as members of Peace Islands, the Turkish Muslim community, contribute, with us, to the federation’s March Mega Food Drive. On Thursday, we gathered for a kosher Iftar (Ramadan-break-the-fast) dinner hosted by our congregation, with other faith communities attending, too.

When I teach and mentor rabbinical students, I find that sometimes they are overwhelmed by the many tasks and endless mitzvah opportunities that a career in the rabbinate entails. Rabbis juggle life-cycle events, administration, curriculum development, teaching, preaching, pastoral care, counseling, preparing and leading services, outreach, in-reach, programming, interfaith dialogue, social justice work, and more. (Of course, rabbis are not alone in filling many roles and feeling themselves stretched.)

The longer I have served the Jewish people, the more I am convinced: simply getting to know members of the community is vital. It is holy work in and of itself, and it also inspires and contributes to other holy work and collaborations.

I have been to my share of meetings that I thought were a waste of time (who hasn’t?), but I have never spent time, one on one, with anyone in my synagogue or the wider community and regretted it. Just visiting with people and connecting soul to soul is valuable. It is easily pushed off, due to pressing matters with deadlines attached. But when it comes to spiritual calling and leadership — and I mean this kindly — it’s the people, stupid!

Note to self (and feel free to read over my shoulder): Even when time is tight, make time for getting to know individuals. Life becomes more expansive when you do. As a history of the shtetl declared in its title, Life Is With People.

Another reminder that “it’s the people”: The latest meeting of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, led by Rabbi Jen Schlosberg, featured training on community organizing by Michael Stanley of New Jersey Together and Jeannie Appleman of Join for Justice. The theme was “building relationships across lines of race, faith, and class.” Role-playing breakout sessions were simple but powerful exercises in listening. It turns out that asking people to tell their stories fuels rapport, connection, and your own genuine curiosity. Who’d have thunk it? Only everyone who has ever paid attention! Yet how often do we fail to pay attention?

This winter, the New York Times offered a 7-Day Happiness Challenge. Journalist Jancee Dunn cited a famous longitudinal study of Harvard graduates, local Bostonians, and their descendants that started 85 years ago and is still going. “If you do one thing this year to ensure your own health and happiness,” she summarized, “find the time to nurture and develop relationships.” Doink! Another hit in the head — this time by social scientists from Cambridge. Connecting in person and in depth with other human beings is restorative — for you and for them.

As spring arrives, and Passover with it, Jews gather with friends and family — check! — to find inspiration and relevance in the shared, foundational story of our freedom — double check! For the last several years, I have worked to raise awareness and funds to help liberate people now enslaved and to end human trafficking. Given our immersion in the Exodus narrative, how could Jews not “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”?

Evan Robbins was motivated to help child slaves when he read an article in the New York Times featuring a 6-year-old who had been kidnapped to work on fishing boats on Lake Volta in Ghana. His daughter was 6 at the time, and the story spoke to his heart. It was not the widespread practice of enslaving children that ignited him, but the humanity of one child which touched his own.

Here is what I have noticed: When you tell people that “25% of the approximately 41 million people enslaved today are teens and children under the age of 18,” it registers. That’s more than 10 million enslaved kids! But when you show people a picture of child slaves in quarries, sweatshops, brothels, or fishing boats, they feel it. When a survivor of slavery tells their story, people cry.

Over the last 17 years, Evan has used his platform as a high school social studies teacher to educate students about the persistence of slavery, through the stories of individual human beings who have been treated as chattel. Working to save one child at a time, he eventually built a school in Ghana for children freed from slavery. Some of those kids are now adults, whom Evan and a small band of supporters — including students from Metuchen High School and the Golda Och Academy in West Orange — have shepherded into wellness, productivity, connection, and joy.

The photo that accompanies this article puts faces to the statistics on child slavery. The radiant smiles tell a story of hope and resilience. You can learn more and donate at Breaking the Chain Through Education — You can emulate Evan by learning the stories of oppressed people and supporting them in gaining freedom, justice, and dignity.

Like Evan, I was moved to help child slaves in Ghana by reading an article. It was a profile of Jessica Baer, who, after hearing Evan speak, raised money with her bat mitzvah project to help free 30 slaves. I photocopied the Jewish Standard article and wrote in Sharpie above the headline: “This is what a 12-year-old can do; what can you do?”

When it comes to eradicating slavery, “it’s the people, stupid!” To discover and execute on a soul mission and sense of purpose, people need and inspire each other.

If you were waiting for a new insight, I am sorry to disappoint. But I do hope that repeating my theme relentlessly might prove helpful. Let it sink in. For health and happiness, for freedom and fulfillment, there is no substitute for really seeing people and hearing their stories, nor for being seen and heard.

I have sat with enough people at the end of their lives to know that what matters most at that poignant time, looking back with sharpened clarity, is not usually a “what” at all. In the end, it’s “who” that matters most. Missions, passions, purposes, achievements, lessons, memories, good deeds, and accumulated wisdom are valid, even crucial, in a well-lived life. But who loves you and whom you love fill up your living and your dying. Any legacy is a legacy to someone. It’s the people, sweetheart.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, spiritual leader of Congregation Israel in Emerson and instructor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, teaches online and regularly serves as a scholar-in-residence. Go to  to learn more.

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