It’s Thursday afternoon, delivery day for Austin Davis.
He packs hand sanitizer, water bottles, face masks, deodorant and other toiletries into dozens of clear plastic bags to load into his car.
Davis arrives and parks at a place he and other volunteers have nicknamed “The Zone,” Phoenix’s central tent city. Rows of tents line the dirt lot and house children, families and elderly.
Joined by other volunteers, Davis will walk down these rows, tent-by-tent handing out individual care packages to the hundreds of residents of this makeshift shelter just blocks away from the state Capitol.
Davis is a proud member of Arizona Jews for Justice, a pluralistic Jewish organization dedicated to providing a safe space for the Jewish community and engaging in social activism through rallies, events and donation drives. Since January, Davis has led the organization’s Homeless Outreach Program.
Arizona Jews for Justice also serves the community in other ways.
Unfortunately, Arizona is no stranger to anti-Semitic rhetoric. Students at Arizona State University found posters reading “Hitler was right” across campus on two different occasions this semester.
And just over two weeks ago, a campaign sign for legislative candidate Seth Blattman, a Jewish man, was found vandalized with a swastika and other hateful markings.
“One of the roles we play is being a process space for Jews in the community to talk about their experiences of anti-Semitism or fears of their security,” said Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Arizona Jews for Justice.
“When anti-Semitic acts happen, I receive texts and messages from other leaders outside the community, and I certainly do the same,” Yanklowitz said.
Group becomes a bridge across vulnerable communities
Arizona Jews for Justice, a non-partisan organization, has spoken out against injustices within immigration, homelessness, criminal justice and more. They have openly joined efforts with other activist organizations like Black Lives Matter and immigration rights groups.
To campaign organizer Eddie Chavez Calderon, his duality of identity as a Jewish man and Mexican American DACA recipient has underscored the systemic issues that transcend these identities.
“We have to fundamentally understand that systems of oppression and systemic issues collectively harm all of us,” Calderon said. “The folks who are after our Black and Brown people are the same folks that have the anti-Semitic tropes and rhetoric.”
“Social justice activism is very central to the national Jewish landscape,” Yanklowitz said. “But there was no address for a Jewish social justice movement in Arizona. Jews were often not invited to the table.
“These communities were not in relationship with each other, the Muslim and Jewish communities, people of color. There just wasn’t a collective communal response.”
Arizona Jews for Justice became a bridge across these communities to communicate messages of peace and tolerance.
“The idea when Arizona Jews for Justice began, about five years ago, was that our religious studies should lead to social action,” Yanklowitz said. “Whether it’s in our Muslim Jewish dialogue or Native American Jewish dialogue, any way we can.”
For Davis, he turned his words into action by supporting the causes he cares about in the language he knows best: writing.
After attending several of this summer’s protests speaking out against police brutality, Davis published a collection of poems entitled “Celestial Night Light,” in which a portion of its proceeds went to support the national Black Lives Matter movement.
“I just want to use my privileges and abilities to make an impact and help people,” Davis said. “My biggest goal is to use my poetry to enact change, to mobilize action and progression.”
To Davis, writing is not just an escape, but an agent of change and a deep reflection of his own experiences.
“I recently wrote a poem about masculinity, and it was about me reflecting about the toxicity in just growing up,” Davis said. “What I’ve been told and what I’ve seen of what a man should be and what a man shouldn’t be.
“I paint my nails, and sometimes I do makeup and lipstick and stuff. And really just, you know, becoming more comfortable with myself.”
To Yanklowitz, fostering acceptance and community means leading life by the sacred text.
“I view activism for vulnerable populations as a spiritual act, a religious action. Rallying is a form of prayer for me,” Yanklowitz said. “Developing relationships with other faith communities or with other ethnic groups is a spiritual act.
“I view dialogue as a spiritual encounter. Our interpretation of the text, I believe, compels us to leverage our power and privilege to support those who are most marginalized.”
To Calderon, his love for helping others is driven by the central values of his faith and his upbringing. Calderon, who started his path to conversion more than a year ago, leads his community efforts with this passion in mind.
“My grandmother, before she passed away, always told me that one of my gifts is to make people smile and inspire others. And with AZ Jews for Justice, I can do that,” Calderon said. “I get to spark the little flame of leadership and ignite the fuel and passion for communal change that I don’t think I felt anywhere else — and it’s guided by Jewish values.
“A huge Jewish value is our Jewish tradition of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ which is ‘repair the world,’ but I believe it goes further than that. It goes through advocating, whether that’s both advocating at the systemic issues and advocating at the direct needs issues, as well as providing hope for people.”
The Mask Project supports out-of-work mothers, helps the community
Yanklowitz and his wife have seen firsthand the troubles faced by the community’s most vulnerable after becoming foster parents. They have fostered eight at-risk children over the years.
“It exposed me to just how deep the problems are. And I said, in addition to having these kids, I really want to do what I can to tackle some of the systemic issues,” Yanklowitz said. “Each of them has a complicated story and their own traumas that kept them up at night, their own unique form of neglect or abuse and their own relationship to our family.”
This dialogue was one of the inspirations for The Mask Project, a program that supports out-of-work immigrant mothers to make cloth masks for the communities most in need during the coronavirus pandemic.
The masks are distributed to members of the Navajo Nation, homeless people, seniors, refugees, asylees and more who may not have access to this essential resource.
“This virus doesn’t discriminate if you’re wealthy or if you’re suffering from homelessness. This virus doesn’t see any classes. It doesn’t care about capitalism. It doesn’t care about any social structures, it just attacks anything and everybody,” Calderon said.
“We have the privileges of being able to look at the news, things on our phone, or listen to the radio and understand what’s going on. For a lot of the unsheltered population, they don’t have access to the nuances of what’s going on in the global world, what’s going on in their own city,” Calderon said.
Thousands of masks have even been distributed to different Jewish organizations and individual synagogues in New York, Boston, Detroit, and L.A. since the project began in the spring.
An average of 100 masks are handed out by volunteers each week, added Calderon.
“I think that it’s very easy, especially in the pandemic, to feel isolated and disconnected,” said Yanklowitz.
Despite being a local organization, Arizona Jews for Justice has expanded its reach outside of the state, connecting communities of all different backgrounds.
“Whenever I show up at solidarity events, there’s so many relationships across race, faith and interest,” said Yanklowitz. “There’s a sense that no one is alone, and that we stand up for each other.”
“I’m so grateful with my ability of being able to have DACA and be here in the United States. For me, I can’t vote. I can’t run for public office. But what I can do is I can mobilize my community to make some sort of change, to provide some sort of hope, and be a light of support to my community,” said Calderon. “If I can do that then I’m providing my civic duty to my community. That’s how I make my change.”
To find information about how to get involved with Arizona Jews for Justice, visit the group’s website at http://www.arizonajewsforjustice.org/ or find it on Facebook and Instagram.