Will Synagogues Organize for Justice?

January 1, 2007
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Jonah Pesner

The pages of this issue of Sh’ma share stories about the revolutionary way in which the Jewish community is pursuing justice: tales of training seminary students and synagogue leaders to engage in strategic campaigns to create networks of relationships inside congregations and tales of serious Jewish engagement with broad-based organizing efforts that cross lines of race, class, and faith to act powerfully and effectively for social change.

I have known the power of synagogue life since my father died when I was fourteen years old. I grew up at a small, Reform temple in New York City. My mother, grandmother, brother, and I discovered the power of a network of relationships — from my youth advisors to the sisterhood ladies — committed to caring. I also learned through retreats, summers in Israel and at camp, the Jewish ideal of a redeemed world. Rallies for Soviet Jewry, to end nuclear proliferation, and to defend a woman’s right to control her body in Washington, D.C. were integral to my synagogue involvement. The same year my father died, I joined a small group of high schoolers who traveled as an experiment to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to study Jewish texts and their applicability to social and economic justice, culminating in lobby visits with our Congressional representatives. Tens of thousands of teens have participated since. By age fourteen, I knew my Jewish tradition and community loved and cared about me; I also knew we wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of the suffering of another.

Twenty years later, having chosen to become a rabbi out of that experience, I discovered a shared frustration with other rabbis and leaders at my congregations. The social network of caring was being frayed by the intense pressures of work and life on member families. And despite our sincere desire to fulfill the Jewish mandate to pursue justice, we engaged only a slim portion of our members. More disturbing, our best efforts were superficial bandaids on profound wounds of suffering. While we served hundreds at our soup kitchens, millions more slipped deeper into poverty. While we tutored a handful of children, public education skidded ever closer to collapse. While we built one house at a time, our streets were flooded by millions of homeless people.

Today, synagogues are joining together with churches, mosques, and other civic institutions to create authentic relationships to addresses the systemic issues of injustice. My own movement, the Union for Reform Judaism, has launched Just Congregations, which will systematically engage our member congregations in the work of congregation-based community organizing (CBCO). This effort builds on the work of the Jewish Funds for Justice, which has been supporting synagogues in CBCO for several years and is our partner in the work.

The model is not new. Saul Alinsky launched the Industrial Areas Foundation decades ago, and there are now three other national networks of broad-based organizations that bring together congregations and other civic institutions as engines for the common good. And though there is a long history of Jewish support for organizing movements (including civil rights and the farm workers), today, through CBCO, Jews across the country are discovering the incredible power of our congregations to act effectively for social change. Below is a scene from a synagogue in Boston.

A synagogue is packed with hundreds of people. Seated on the bimah are the rabbis and social justice leaders of the temple who have rehearsed for the night’s action. The mood is intense, for the meeting has been preceded by inspiring teachings of Torah and moments of prayer. The atmosphere is electric: the standing-room-only crowd cheers raucously each time a speaker — a synagogue member — calls for the building of more affordable housing. People are angry because the governor has just slashed the state’s affordable housing trust fund. They tell powerful stories of the lack of affordable housing in their own community. A 14-year-old girl tearfully shares the story of a homebound senior, a temple member, who cannot leave her home because she no longer can climb the stairs, and she cannot afford to move! Listening carefully are seven state legislators representing the districts in which temple members live. One after another, they are called to the podium and asked, “Will you vote to restore the $100 million affordable housing trust fund?” The applause is deafening as one legislator after another commits to a “yes” vote. The closing speaker congratulates the hundreds of temple members for honoring their deeply held Jewish values by holding their elected leaders accountable to principles of social justice.

This scene could have happened anywhere. With the support of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, Temple Israel of Boston conducted a relationship-building campaign in which hundreds of members talked to each other. They shared their stories, their concerns, and their vision for a more just world. Leaders identified compelling justice issues that were deeply and widely felt by members who then ratified an action strategy that they committed to engage in directly. Out of those conversations, and thousands like them in religious institutions across Massachusetts, came broad-based and powerful movements for affordable housing, universal healthcare, equal marriage, and eldercare.

In one of the first conversations I remember, a synagogue leader told me how she grew up in Stuyvesant Town in New York, housing built with government subsidies so middle class people could live in the city. I told her that I had grown up in a rent-controlled apartment in New York, and if it weren’t for that apartment, we would not have survived financially after my father’s death and the loss of his income.

Today, Stuyvesant Town has been sold for billions of dollars; it will become luxury housing. I know my temple cares. I know my tradition demands we not stand idly by in the face of injustice. Will we get organized?

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Founding Director of Just Congregations, an initiative of the Union for Reform Judaism. As a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, he developed the social action initiative “Ohel Tzedek/Tent of Justice,” which campaigned for affordable housing, gay and lesbian rights, nursing care workers rights, and living wage. Rabbi Pesner is a leader in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and serves on the Task Force on Congregation-Based Community Organizing of the Jewish Funds for Justice. Most recently, he chaired the GBIO effort in the Massachusetts “Affordable Care Today” coalition that successfully secured healthcare for more than half a million uninsured residents.

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