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Rabbis hit the streets of Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA, March 28 (JTA) — More than 200 Conservative rabbis gathered here from around the world have visited parts of Philadelphia tourists rarely see.

In an effort to elevate the issue of social action in the movement, Rabbinical Assembly members attending their annual convention volunteered for community service.

The rabbis dispersed to more than a dozen faith-based social service projects around the area Monday.

“We want to show our lay people that we are not just preaching but doing,” said Rabbi David Seed of Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pa.

Seed and about 10 other rabbis spent the afternoon at Project HOPE, which helps the homeless return to mainstream society. The rabbis helped prepare a meal in the center’s cafe and unpacked clothing in the thrift shop.

Some rabbis created care packages at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s three Mitzvah Food Pantries. Others cleared a yard at a Habitat for Humanity site.

Before the rabbis headed to their volunteer sites, Philadelphia Mayor John Street greeted them with the Hebrew words for welcome and told them he was impressed with their agenda of social action.

“We all have common ideas of brotherhood that include the goal of improving the quality of life at home and abroad,” Street said.

For the 100th anniversary of the Rabbinical Assembly, the host committee added a new social action component to the annual conference in the hopes of stimulating their colleagues to do more work in this area.

“Part of our way of celebrating is to take what we learn in Jewish texts and turn it into action,” said Rabbi Andrea Merow of Temple Sholom in Philadelphia, who coordinated the social action projects.

Indeed, Jewish tradition teaches that the world stands on three principles: Torah, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness.

While the Conservative movement has always preached the search for a balance among these commandments, some leaders acknowledged that the cause of social action has often gotten short shift.

“Social action has become one item on the menu, but people don’t feel it as an ethical, divine mandate,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

“We need to step up our commitment to mending the world through words and actions.”

Rabbinical Assembly leaders also stressed the need for a lobbying office in Washington, similar to the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

“We’ve abdicated our role to the Reform movement,” acknowledged Rabbi Seymour Essrog, the outgoing president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, the incoming president, agreed, adding that “the R.A. has to look at what kind of political issues it wants to be involved in.”

Assembly leaders said the organization is trying to raise money for a Washington office.

Event organizers said they hope the community service sparked something within the hearts of the rabbis.

There is a need for both political action and community service, said Merow, but she added, “The only way a political office has credibility is if the people back home are doing the work.” — Jewish Exponent

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