When Jacob Feinspan came to the RAC as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in the class of 2002-2003, his last name was Fain, big organizations like American Jewish World Service didn’t have Washington, DC, offices and a small Jewish community organizing group called Jews United for Justice was somewhat unknown to the D.C. community. In less than 10 years, all of those things have changed – and in no small part due to Jacob.
After hearing Rabbi David Saperstein speak at a URJ Biennial in Boston, Jacob was inspired to come to the RAC and play a part in the way the Reform Movement transforms Jewish values into meaningful public policy. His portfolio as a legislative assistant consisted primarily of issues concerning foreign affairs that were not related to Israel — such as Darfur, global HIV/AIDS, and international debt cancelation. The issue of debt cancelation was of particular interest to him because of the inherent Jewish value of recognizing Jubilee years – a time described in the Torah when all debts are supposed to be forgiven.
By the time Jacob was preparing to leave the RAC, he wanted to find a job that continued to engage the Jewish community on issues of international aid and debt relief. So when American Jewish World Service’s Director Ruth Messinger came to town, Jacob was prepared to pitch her the idea to open a D.C. office and take the risk of hiring him as their first D.C. staffer. To his surprise, Ruth Messinger was the one who pitched him on the idea of starting a D.C. AJWS office that he, a young 20-something, would run. “You don’t need to give me an answer right away,” she said, “but we’re going to meet with Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s Chief of Staff right now and I’d like you to represent us in this meeting.”
And like that, the AJWS D.C. presence was born, and within five years it went from being a one-man operation in the basement of the RAC to a multi-person advocacy force with coveted office space on D.C.’s K Street.
“I wouldn’t have been able to take a job with American Jewish World Service and start an office for them as a 23-year-old without the training I got at the RAC,” Jacob says, “The RAC taught me how to work in coalition effectively, how to advocate internally… how to be taken seriously as somebody who is new to D.C.”
In his role at AJWS, Jacob – who upon marriage changed his last name from Fain to Feinspan – was tasked with influencing how Congress viewed the importance of U.S. aid, particularly around the issues of hunger, global AIDS and Darfur. During his time at AJWS, Jacob says, he “came to realize that in order to make change on the issues… it was about making elected leaders pay attention and making them care enough to actually do something.” So Jacob built up a grassroots network of trained organizers in states with early primaries who got local activists to go to candidate events and ask questions about the same international issues AJWS was busy lobbying about on Capitol Hill.
The experience of organizing people on the ground to influence elected leaders is what inspired Jacob to make the shift from what he calls “global work to local work.” At the age of 27, Jacob became the Executive Director of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), which conducts community organizing in the D.C.-area Jewish community.
“Suddenly I went from fighting for $50 billion for Global AIDS to fighting to restore $150,000 to the (D.C.) Department of Employment Services for wage theft investigations,” Jacob says. “The scope was very different, but [it had] the same set of values and animating principles. The same reason people were motivated to do things for AJWS was the same reason they wanted to do things for Jews United for Justice.”
In his four-year tenure at JUFJ, he has more than tripled the size of the organization and the amount of people it reaches and ushered in programs such as the Jeremiah Fellowship, which trains community members to be the leading organizers in the D.C. community.
Only a few short years after working under Rabbi David Saperstein, Jacob sits in coalitions alongside them, discussing how to build a stronger commitment to social justice in the North American Jewish community.
“There is something really special about having that conversation with the people who first introduced me to the intersection of Judaism and social justice,” Jacob says. “It is really powerful and meaningful for me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the training I got at the RAC and the opportunities it gave to me.”
“I never question whether or not I can do things because the RAC just trained me to go do it and empowered me to not be afraid.”