Based on his 2016 book, “Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change,” Rabbi David Jaffe founded the Inside Out Wisdom and Action (IOWA) Project last October. Through his book and IOWA Project, Jaffe has introduced the concept of Mussar, or applied Jewish ethics, to a new generation of readers and Jewish leaders. Using his groundbreaking book as a platform, he launched the IOWA Project to give social justice leaders and change-makers “accessibility to deep Jewish wisdom to make their work more spiritually grounded, nourishing and sustainable.” In this first iteration of the project, 12 social justice advocates make up the first IOWA Project cohort, in which they integrate their work with a self-tailored spiritual practice.

Jaffe and four Boston-based members of the IOWA Project cohort recently spoke to JewishBoston about the project and their experiences at the first retreat. The IOWA Project came about in part from Jaffe’s realization that his book needed to be taught, as well as read. “Some people devoured the book, and it really impacted them, and for others it remained on their nightstand,” he said. “The book created a structure to help people learn in small, accessible groups.”


Jaffe, along with his IOWA Project colleague Dan Gelbtuch and their team of volunteer advisors, came up with a three-pronged approach to spreading the word about Mussar and the attending middot, or Jewish traits. They created an 18-month retreat-based fellowship, Jaffe said, for “experienced people on the frontlines doing racial, LGBTQ and social justice work. The idea was to have them learning spiritual practices in a spiritual community supporting each other and their work. They were already doing the social change work on the outside, and it was time to do the spiritual work on the inside to support that.”

Their second tack was to initiate integrated learning based on Mussar and Chassidut (applied Jewish mysticism) groups that had been running on select college campuses, along with Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network and JOIN for Justice. Jaffe noted there is also a program for young rabbis to teach material based on the IOWA Project. He expects that more groups like that will happen in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston and New York.

(Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

The third strategy was to interview people doing integrated spiritual social activism. To that end, Jaffe established a Facebook page to promote growth in the field of activism.

David Schwartz, Rachie Lewis, Michelle Weiser and Idit Klein are part of the inaugural IOWA Project cohort. Each has had a notable impact on Boston’s Jewish social activism landscape.

David Schwartz
David Schwartz

Schwartz is the director of programs for JOIN for Justice. His work includes supporting the Boston-based Jewish organizing fellowship and developing curricula for clergy and general online courses that teach anyone to learn about social organizing and how to implement social change.

For Schwartz, the recent IOWA Project retreat helped to begin to cultivate a deeper spiritual practice. “I spent so many years organizing often on the road, I lost touch with a piece of myself and felt a spiritual loneliness,” he said. “Coming back to the Jewish community has been a big part of my re-grounding. I love the fact that Rabbi Jaffe is bringing in a highly accessible format to access the wisdom of centuries of mystics, rabbis and miracle-workers from our tradition.”

Rachel Lewis
Rachie Lewis

Lewis has worked for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston for seven years. As the director of synagogue organizing at the council, she ushered a variety of synagogue communities into campaigns for gun violence prevention, affordable housing, climate change and, more recently, immigrant solidarity work. At the retreat, Lewis was especially grateful to think about the middah, or the trait of humility. “It’s a concept that everything can teach you something,” she said. “No one dogma makes everything clear or leads us to a straightforward win.” Lewis noted that social activism work is ripe for working with middot. “It feels relevant to the way I show up in my space and work,” she added. “Do I have enough patience? Am I paying enough attention to the small things? It feels granular to have these tools of Mussar to better equip myself for the hard work of justice.”

Michelle Weiser

Weiser, deputy director of Jewish culture and social justice for Boston Workmen’s Circle, was seeking to integrate her activism with her Judaism. A longtime activist at Boston University and beyond, Weiser returned to her Judaism as a JOIN Fellow. She noted that being part of the IOWA Project cohort has allowed her to be “in a Jewish or a justice space where I could be intentional and pause. I could step into and consider a spiritual practice that nourishes my activism and enriches the organizing work that I do. It feels so important to supplement social justice work and solidarity work with this framework of spiritual practice.”

Idit Klein

Klein, founder, president and CEO of Keshet, was inspired by Jaffe to experience the four days at the retreat as an extended Shabbat. Like Weiser, Klein saw her time at the retreat as psychically nourishing. “The primary nourishment came from the other people in the cohort, and from our shared purpose and commitment to our own growth and supporting each other’s growth,” she said. Klein emphasized that we are not living in normal times. Engaging in social justice requires “a connection to hope and reminders of our own resilience. If we can find that more deeply in our community, in our history and tradition, we will be stronger for it and better equipped to face the challenges of our day.”