Ellie Sims, 17, has always felt a connection to social justice because she’s Jewish.
“I believe that the most direct ask out of Judaism is not only to treat people fairly, but to actively work for equity and equality,” she said.
Sims now finds herself in the midst of that work as one of six young adults hand-picked by Arizona Jews for Justice for its new leadership development program.
“We’ve always had teen volunteers, but at AJJ we really wanted to see how we can maximize Jewish teen leadership,” said Eddie Chavez Calderon, AJJ campaign organizer. Together with Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, AJJ founder, he began looking for young adult leaders about three months ago. Sims was the first to be recruited in November.
It wasn’t hard for Chavez Calderon to recruit leaders. “With the pandemic, folks were eager to really find an avenue that gives them a pathway to leadership and a pathway to advocate for and support communities,” he said. Each leader is “hyper-focused on” something different. Some are working on unsheltered populations while others concentrate on women’s rights or gun violence.
As AJJ’s youth organizer, Sims’ main focus has been getting other teens involved by encouraging them to have topical conversations with their friends, collecting supplies and preparing packages for those in need. The excitement is there, but teens need to be pointed in the right direction, she said. “My work is not usually about convincing people why they should care about things, but rather providing people with opportunities.”
Chavez Calderon met Sims at a social justice event over the summer and saw a “spark in her — the potential to be an amazing leader,” he said.
Sims directly oversees three other volunteers and has developed leadership skills over the course of the last few months. Her work at AJJ has already improved her facility with public speaking and writing, she said. “Even more than that, I’ve gained a new sense of how to manage others — and not in the sense of delegating, but how to communicate with others what needs to get done, how to motivate a team, how to make sure that their voice is heard,” she said.
Another young leader for AJJ, Talia Hoffer, 17, focuses on indigenous justice, environmental justice and women’s rights.
“I think anyone who really learned a lot about the indigenous community can see how much they have done for everyone around them, and how little they’ve received,” she said.
On Feb. 17, Hoffer collected supplies to be donated to native communities, which have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, through an event she organized.
Next up, she is putting together a webinar related to women’s rights for Women’s History Month in March, as well as hosting a webinar on environmental justice. Following that, she plans to organize a panel where she and other Jewish teen leaders will discuss civic engagement with Native teen leaders.
Chavez Calderon approached Hoffer in December on Sims’ advice. Hoffer was drawn to volunteering at AJJ because it’s a Jewish organization with a hands-on approach to issues.
“Social action has always been super important for me, and I think a lot of it comes from my Judaism,” she said.
AJJ youth leader Sophia Hammer, 18, is working on gun violence and suicide prevention. She is preparing to moderate a webinar with local and national experts about both issues.
“I’m young and gun violence has affected me in schools, especially with lockdowns and shooting drills, and it’s something that not only affects the Jewish community, but affects every student,” Hammer said. “To have a youth run the event is really, really something special for me.”
Her work for AJJ will also involve supporting and lobbying for bills about preventing gun violence.
Chavez Calderon got to know Hammer at various protests and seeing her on local news. “I knew that she was phenomenal and definitely somebody who could be a huge addition to our organization,” he said.
Hammer became a youth leader in January. Living in Gilbert, she hasn’t had the opportunity to do much work within the Jewish community.
“It felt great being introduced to a community where I could actually express my Judaism and work for the betterment of not only Jewish people, but everybody,” she said. JN