Molly Amster found her dream job at Jews United for Justice.
Whether it was working on a sheep dairy in Wisconsin and teaching schoolchildren about where their food comes from, working at Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI) and bringing together African-American and Orthodox girls to talk about identity or planning BBYO conventions in high school, Amster has been building momentum toward her new position for nearly her entire life.
“I knew I wanted to be doing social justice work in this city. I’m really committed to Baltimore,” she said. “I knew I wanted to help create positive change, really lasting structural change.”
And when she saw that Jews United for Justice was looking for a Baltimore executive director, she thought, “This is perfect. This is exactly what I need to do.” She started on Sept. 2 and has since met with other nonprofits, activists and potential partners to inform JUFJ’s campaign selection process and built a base of nearly 50 people hoping to be involved.
“We’re looking to create an intergenerational progressive Jewish community in Baltimore,” she said.
JUFJ formed in Washington, D.C., in 1998 to concentrate on issues of local concern through a Jewish lens.
“In the past few years in the D.C. area, we’ve helped to win higher minimum wage, paid sick days for all workers in the district, marriage equality, [getting] the Maryland DREAM Act on the ballot and key funding for safety-net programs like homeless services through a fairer tax system in the district,” said Jacob Feinspan, executive director of JUFJ. The organization is now working on issues of affordable housing and paid family leave in D.C.
With a JUFJ community already established in Montgomery County, where the group has worked on the DREAM Act, marriage equality and paid family leave, and organizations asking the group to come to Baltimore, it was an obvious move. A Baltimore presence coupled with the Montgomery County branch will also allow the organization to build more clout in Annapolis.
“We know that Baltimore faces many of the same challenges that the D.C. area faces of huge income and opportunity gaps, and we think that the Jewish community can and should be part of the response,” Feinspan said.
And for the woman who will be leading the charge in Baltimore, advocacy runs in the family.
Amster’s great-grandparents and grandparents were members of the Jewish Labor Bund, a Jewish socialist group, and Workmen’s Circle, respectively. Growing up, her mother worked as a social worker and spent most of her career working in the Jewish communal field. She also grew up in what she described as an “egalitarian, conservative, socially progressive” synagogue, Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.
“Those values of justice and equity were very much instilled in me as a kid,” she said.
In addition to celebrating Shabbat each week along with the Jewish holidays, the Amsters would host about 30 people for Rosh Hashanah and other celebrations.
Amster, 31, a Montgomery County native, spent time in high school and college in various community organizing and advocacy capacities. In high school, she served as the D.C. Council president for B’nai B’rith Girls, in which she had the “formative experience” of booking her chapter’s convention as a high school freshman, which she said was her first time creating her own Jewish community. She was also involved in a program that offered peer education on dating, domestic violence and bullying in high school.
In college, Amster ran a girls mentoring program called All Kinds of Girls and worked for the Main South Community Development Corporation, which left a significant impression on her. Main South, a neighborhood near Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where Amster attended college, had a reputation for being downtrodden and dangerous.
“That was the first time where I really saw how power works in a real way in neighborhoods,” she said. “I think also it was a good lesson — rather than just dismissing the neighborhood as [awful] and full of problems and danger — to work in solidarity with the people who are living there to try to make it better and to use my power and privilege to aid in that effort.”
After spending a year at the London School of Economics and Political Science and traveling to Scotland, Amster got interested in farming. That led her to work on a grass-based cow dairy in northern New Jersey and then a sheep dairy in Wisconsin. Through those experiences, Amster taught people about where their food comes from and what it takes to raise food, and she learned a lot about the environmental impacts of raising food. That led her to Baltimore, where she became a member of the Pearlstone Center’s first summer staff at the farm.
“I was interested to hear what Judaism had to say about the environment and agriculture. Those were the things that were really important to me at the time and made me feel connected,” she said. “I was interested to learn about stuff I wasn’t taught in Hebrew School.”
From Pearlstone, Amster went to CHAI, where she spent the past seven years. Most recently, she was working with public schools to develop resources and establish new partnerships but brought political organizing into it. Through that effort, CHAI joined the Baltimore Education Coalition and worked to get additional funding for school construction in Baltimore.
JUFJ was the perfect place to continue working for structural change, she said. Since starting, Amster has been forming a coalition of like-minded organizations and individuals, including Rabbi Geoff Basik of Kol HaLev Synagogue.
“There is a hunger for Jewish progressive activism that is not being tapped in Baltimore,” said Basik. “There is this hunger, or pent-up energy, to express ourselves politically.”
Kol HaLev has been around for seven years, and the congregation has grown developmentally each year, but the social action piece is still missing, Basik said. He hopes JUFJ can help get that off the ground at his synagogue.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he plans to have a working relationship with Amster’s organization.
“We want them to have input on our decision-making processes,” he said. “They represent a segment of the Baltimore community. … We will take that into consideration as we develop policy.”
Baltimore’s JUFJ chapter will decide what specific issues it plans to tackle in its first year at a community meeting in February.
Issues on the table include paid sick leave, police brutality and criminal justice reform, returning citizens’ quality of life, water privatization in the city and the Curtis Bay incinerator, a proposed trash incinerator in the south Baltimore neighborhood that has a number of environmental and neighborhood concerns, Amster said.
For more information, contact Molly Amster at [email protected] or visit jufj.org.