From Activism to Emergency Aid

To meet basic needs for people fleeing violence, a pro-democracy movement became a buzzing volunteer hub with leadership from a HUC-JIR professor and a commitment to civil society.

November 9, 2023

A Movement Pivots to Meet the Moment in Israel

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When Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) professor Michal Muszkat-Barkan helped spark a pro-democracy protest movement in Israel earlier this year, she could not have predicted the profound transformation that movement would undergo.

Following the horrific recent attacks by Hamas militants, the framework she and two other local activists had created to protest plans for judicial reform in Israel transformed overnight into a support structure for the tens of thousands of people who have had to flee homes near Gaza and in the north of the country.

Suddenly, the civil society infrastructure created to get people out marching in the streets was helping people get off the streets and settled in their temporary new homes. In making this whiplash pivot at a time of crisis, professor Muszkat-Barkan and her fellow organizers demonstrated the very real impact of the focus on applied Jewish wisdom that guides HUC-JIR.

The Jerusalem Civilian Command Center (JCCC), established in October in the midst of ongoing tragedy and crisis, occupies five floors of a performing arts school. It provides food, clothing, toys for kids, books, and other essentials like personal care products to those who need them in a familiar store-like environment. A call center has allowed the JCCC to expand its offerings to include psychosocial support from mental health resources to guidance on social services.

The “command center” in its name indicates something of the massive scope of its activities. So far, the JCCC has shipped out more than 15,000 boxes of food and equipment, including warm clothing and medical equipment for Israelis in the army. The JCCC counts 5,000 volunteers, a quarter of whom can be accommodated at its building on any given day, and around 1,000 families in Jerusalem volunteered to “adopt” another family relocated to the city, helping them acclimate to daily life in a new place.

Helping supply what the new arrivals–who may not have had time to pack–with what they need to feel at home is a key priority for the JCCC, whose premises also offer a safe space for those who are not comfortable going out. Communications from the JCCC go out in five languages, including, for instance, Amharic, to reach the multicultural population the center is serving.

Professor Muszkat-Barkan, whose work at HUC-JIR focuses on pluralism in Jewish education and teacher training across cultural boundaries, has long sought to effect change beyond the academy, including by educating for democracy in Israel. Before the war and the heartbreak it caused, as initiator and academic head of the Teachers’ Lounge, she helped bring together Jewish and Arab teachers for professional development. Promoting multicultural tolerance and peaceful shared society, this one-of-a-kind program fostered collaboration by enabling educators from diverse, often adversarial, communities to create an open dialogue centered on overcoming barriers to peaceful coexistence and included deep conversation and visits to each other’s homes.

For her, in spite of the radical shift in the substance of the work, the JCCC represents a continuation of the pro-democracy activism she was engaged in before.

“In an instant on October 7, ‘citizens’ became ‘civilians,’ but our responsibility to act remained the same,” said professor Muszkat-Barkan. “Our volunteers’ capacity to step in and help meet essential needs so quickly is a testament to the natural inclination neighbors have to help one another in times of need–an inclination whose role it is for civil society organizations like ours to channel. Their response also speaks to the fact that the very same sense of solidarity that unites our voices against anti-democratic reforms also binds us to one another to provide mutual aid in times of need.”

HUC-JIR President Andrew Rehfeld visited the JCCC in late October and saw hundreds of volunteers organizing and tracking donations, as well as welcoming children who had had to leave their homes. For him, the work the JCCC is doing is core to HUC-JIR’s mission.

“Recent years have underscored the fundamental role robust civil society organizations play in democracies around the world, but also the all-too-common limits to their ability to adapt in times of crisis,” said President Rehfeld. “In rising to meet this tragic moment, the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center and professor Muszkat-Barkan’s leadership offer a counterexample of flexibility, transformation, and growth. They demonstrate how applying Jewish wisdom to civic efforts can help them navigate extreme situations to meet society’s needs.”

In charting the JCCC’s course forward into an unknown future, professor Muszkat-Barkan and her collaborators are not only looking to the days ahead, but also thinking about what Israel will, and should, be like after the war. Whatever comes, the need for robust civil society organizations will remain, and the throughline from the pro-democracy movement to the JCCC shows that, guided by shared and sacred wisdom, they can rise to the occasion.