AJJ Isela Blanc

Eddie Chavez Calderon (right) and Rep. Isela Blanc with volunteers for Arizona Jews for Justice.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, Arizona Jews for Justice will present its first Partner in Justice awards to Rev. James Pennington, senior pastor of First Church UCC Phoenix, and Arizona State Rep. Isela Blanc.

The award recognizes the contributions and dedication of AJJ partners from outside the Jewish community.

“We said, ‘How do we honor partners who have been overwhelmingly showing their support, who have been vibrant and unapologetic about showing that they stand with the Jewish community?’” said Eddie Chavez Calderon, campaign organizer for AJJ. “And we spent a long time of thinking about who would really stand out.”

Pennington’s work with AJJ includes planning vigils, rallies and educational events. His church also hosted asylum seekers and worked closely with AJJ to provide them with food, clothing and transportation.

Chavez Calderon also praised Pennington for reaching out to support the Jewish community after recent anti-Semitic attacks.

“No matter what happened, he said that he wanted to stand with the Jewish community,” Chavez Calderon said. “James Pennington has been such an amazing person in pushing for Jewish inclusivity, pushing for Jewish values.”

Blanc’s involvement with AJJ has included speaking at vigils, helping to plan protests and teaching educational workshops. Chavez Calderon called Blanc a “hero-advocate.”

“Isela Blanc was an outspoken ally, helping us not only when we were advocating and at our solidarity march in front of ICE, but also helping us at the churches where people were being hosted,” Chavez Calderon said. “We thought that Isela Blanc was overwhelmingly deserving of this award.”

An awards presentation and dinner for donors will be held at Temple Solel at 6 p.m. on Jan. 23. Guest speaker Rabbi Dr. David Ellenson will present a lecture titled “Is Our Time Unique? Jewish Social Responsibility in America Today!” for donors attending the award celebration.

Both Pennington and Blanc credit their work with AJJ to the relationships they built in the community. Pennington met Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of AJJ, almost six years ago, when they both answered the call for faith leaders to attend a protest outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office in Phoenix. 

“Rabbi Shmuly and I immediately had a kinship,” Pennington said. “We’re both about justice, about equity, and really sensed that it was important for all of us who live in the margins to stand in solidarity with each other and to speak on behalf of each other.”

Blanc credits her work with AJJ to the relationship that she built with Chavez Calderon as an community activist and organizer.

“From the beginning, I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing Eddie Chavez Calderon,” Blanc said. “It just highlights the importance of the relationships that we build in the community, especially when we’re organizing, and the value of organizers connecting and reaching out to their elected officials.”

Throughout her work with AJJ, Blanc is most grateful for the opportunities she had to meet the families of asylum seekers, to help to translate for them or drive them to the airport, and to hear their stories.

“Just to be there, just to talk to the families that are seeking asylum from whatever country they’re coming from — for me, it was those moments that were really important and powerful,” Blanc said. “I was undocumented at one point, I was an immigrant. For me, it just took me back to that moment in time.”

For Pennington, a queer man, his work with AJJ reflects the importance of working together with people from other marginalized communities. 

“It’s really important for people on the margins to really join together and work together,” Pennington said. “What’s really been powerful about working specifically with Rabbi Shmuly and Chavez (Calderon) has really been our ability and our synchronicity to call or email and say, ‘Hey, can you show up here? Can we partner together here?’ As a progressive, liberal Christian and as a modern Orthodox Jew, just working together has been really powerful and profound and life-giving.”

Pennington and Blanc both learned that they’d be receiving the award in December.

“It was really, really exciting. I actually cried for a while, just because I felt like that’s a huge honor,” Pennington said. “I have such a great respect for this organization and for the way they walk in the world, the way they show up.”

Blanc said that it was AJJ, not her, that deserved to be honored for their work.

“I honestly don’t feel like I deserve the award,” Blanc said. “They’re giving their heart and their soul and their time and their energy and their love, and that is much more powerful than anything I’ve done. I just happen to show up and support the amazing work that they do.”

She says that whenever AJJ asks for her help in the future, she’ll answer the call.

“I will continue to be the best supporter of what they do, to volunteer where I can volunteer, be a voice where they need a voice, share my story and my experiences,” Blanc said. “They’re doing the real work. I’ve just been granted an invitation to something incredible and I will always accept.” JN