Q&A with Allie Zeff: Nonprofit Journal Project

Detroit Jews for Justice was founded in 2016 with the mission to organize the Jewish community in Metro Detroit to participate in movements for racial and economic justice. Allie Zeff has been the executive director of the organization since early 2022, previously holding roles as an organizer and a volunteer. 

What was the impetus behind Detroit Jews for Justice? Why did it form? 

In 2015, after the murder of Mike Brown and the subsequent national uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, a call went out to the metro Detroit Jewish community to gather at the menorah lighting that takes place at Campus Martius every year, and to say Kaddish, which is the Jewish prayer of mourning, for Black lives that had been lost to police violence. That call went out and 70 metro Detroit Jews showed up at Campus Martius to declare in one voice that it is a Jewish value that Black Lives Matter. That was sort of our origin story and how our organization came to be.

Our work is done only in coalition, so the story is illustrative of a need and a void that was in the Jewish community. People wanted a place to participate in progressive movements with Jewish identity front and center and Jewish values as part of that. When that call went out and so many people showed up, it showed that there was a need and that there was more to be done, so that’s when we were born.

What campaigns are you currently working on or standing behind in metropolitan Detroit? Why were those chosen? 

We are multi-issue, and we do all of our work in partnership and coalition. We have a lot of longtime trusted partnerships across the city with all different issues. Right now the issues that are bubbling to the top are centered in the state legislature, because of where we are in the cycle. 

Just before Rosh Hashanah, we went to the capitol, pushing to pass the Drive Safe package of bills before the session ends. We've been in a longstanding coalition with Cosecha Detroit and the Drive Michigan Forward Coalition on helping to get driver's licenses for undocumented folks. 

We just went to the capitol yesterday for Clean Energy Lobby Day to pass clean energy legislation. We have a lot of longstanding city relationships and campaigns around ending tax foreclosures, stopping illegal foreclosures and compensating folks who have been illegally foreclosed and dispossessed. We've also done a lot of longstanding work around water access and affordability in the city with the People's Waterboard Coalition, and We The People of Detroit, among others. 

What state legislative efforts does the organization focus on?

We created a legislative slate for the end of the session because we know this is a really powerful time, we’re likely going to be losing our majority, at least temporarily. DJJ’s 2023 state legislative agenda includes driver’s licenses for all, a statewide water affordability plan, clean energy, fair chance housing, and repealing the rent control ban. Those are the big things that we’re focused on this part of the year.  

How are you involved in or lending support to these campaigns?

It's different for each campaign, but essentially, we have one volunteer leader or staff organizer who serves as a liaison to our partner on a campaign, and they work together with that partner to determine what the best way to contribute to the campaign is. In the case of Drive Michigan Forward, sometimes it's turning folks out to actions and sending them to lobby days to talk to legislators. Sometimes it's asking our folks to serve as the safety team for an action that's being led by directly impacted folks or undocumented folks who are doing some kind of direct action and just need people there for protection and support.

On the water issue, sometimes it's going to Detroit water and sewage department meetings and taking really good notes and bringing those back to the coalition to help inform their strategy. Sometimes it's doing education for our community, especially in cases when the broader metro Detroit Jewish community actually has some power in changing policy. We did a lot of political education around the abortion issue and proposition three last year. We see community education and political education as a big piece of it.

Why is it important for people in Detroit to know about Jewish issues and the impacts of antisemitism?

There's this national narrative that antisemitism is on the rise. We think it's really important as a community that we're really clear-eyed about what that is and what the threat is and what the threat is not. We often believe that the mainstream narrative about antisemitism is actually being used to push regressive and conservative agendas and policies, and our community is really focused on how to fight antisemitism and how to stay safe. We believe that being safe means being in solidarity with other marginalized communities. We don't give in to isolationism or pushing regressive policies out of fear. 

What role does antisemitism play in how you approach your work? 

Our community has a lot of internal work to do, like any community facing oppression. So, building a strong analysis among our community is an important precursor, we think, to being in meaningful and right relationships with directly impacted communities. It allows us to do our work and reinforces the need for a deep, thoughtful solidarity model to know that we're only safe when we're together. We're not safe in isolation.

Can someone who is not Jewish join the organization? 

Yes, totally! We always like to say that DJJ is for Jewish folks and people that like to hang out with Jews. 

What else does the organization hope to accomplish in metro Detroit moving forward? 

We want to continue to add capacity to the most important issues of our time. We want to be a part of moving the needle on these issues. We also want to be a home for Jews who are feeling activism-curious and want a space to explore that with their Jewish identity at the center.

Also, we have an orientation coming up, so if you’re a metro Detroit Jew who is interested in learning more about our work and getting oriented and getting plugged in, you can come to this event

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work  and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.

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