Shuls organize for social justice

LOS GATOS, Calif. (JTA) – Three state Assembly members and a lone
county supervisor were no match this week for 500 Jews demanding more money
for health care. “We meet tonight to ensure health-care coverage for all
county residents,” said Rabbi Joel Fleekop of Congregation Shir Hadash, a
local congregation and host of the Feb. 12 event in this Silicon Valley
town. Invoking Judaism’s exhortation “to care for the widow and the
orphan,” Fleekop and a dozen other speakers presented universal health care
as a God-given right. If funding is not forthcoming, they warned the
four elected officials, more than 300,000 children in California will be
uninsured by 2012. “As people of faith, we won’t stand for it,” one
speaker declared. It was hardly a fair fight. But that’s how it usually
goes at such events, whispered Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for
Justice, which had bused in more than 200 participants for the meeting from its
national conference, “Holy Congregations, Just Communities,” in nearby Santa
Clara. It’s not surprising to see Jews heavily represented among
activists for health care, or any other social, political or environmental
cause. But these people Monday night were doing it as congregations,
following a model of congregation-based community organizing put forward by
Jewish Funds for Justice five years ago. By joining with like-minded
churches and civic groups in large, regional interfaith networks, Greer
said, these synagogues are multiplying their strength and enhancing their
effectiveness. Participants from around the country said they are
helping to transform their congregations into more caring, connected
communities. On the social action front, they are moving beyond
once-a-year “mitzvah days” to become effective agents for social change in
housing, education, crime prevention and health care. They are helping to push
through laws and policies at local and state levels that they never could
have alone. “Hundreds of thousands of people have access to health care
because of this work,” Greer said. The model is proving to be popular.
In 2002, when the Jewish Funds initiative began, 20 synagogues signed on.
Today that number has climbed to 70. Staffers hope it will move past 100 by the
end of the year. Nearly 300 Jewish clergy, rabbinical students and lay
leaders, representing 63 of those 70 congregations, spent three days this
week at the group’s second national gathering devoted to the issue.
Forty-four rabbinical students, from Reform to Orthodox, have taken the group’s
semester-long course in leadership development and community organizing. It
is required of all second-year students at the modern Orthodox seminary
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. Synagogues engaged in the work are
reporting success. A congregation near Chicago, working in concert with
other faith-based groups, shut down one of its neighborhood’s main suppliers
of guns. Another congregation in Columbus, Ohio, secured $1 million to
expand community health-care centers to serve an additional 3,500
people. A third, in northern California, convinced county officials to
set aside $18 million for affordable housing. And a fourth, in a Maryland
town, doubled the number of taxis so local seniors could get around.
There are bigger victories as well. Rabbi Jonah Pesner spearheaded a successful
organizing initiative at Temple Israel in Boston before being hired by the
Reform movement to head its national “Just Congregations” project. He said
the statewide health-care reform in Massachusetts passed last March because of
the efforts of the 55 churches, synagogues and civic groups in the Greater
Boston Interfaith Organization. Beyond the tangible victories, those
involved in this work say it has transformed their synagogues
into communities where the people know and care about each other. In making
the world a little better, they are making their congregations more warm,
friendly and caring. “My relationships with people are deeper,
stronger,” said Rick Zinman of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif. Zinman
said that after 18 years as a synagogue member, he only began to consider the
shul his home when he became involved in its community organizing project two
years ago. The process itself is important, say participants. Instead of
having the rabbi or social action committee decide which projects to work on,
congregants sit down with each other to talk about who they are, what they
care about and why. Each congregation sifts through its members’ stories to
hone in on the issues they want to focus on. With this model, Greer
said, “Not only do you have greater effect on the issues, you have a
synagogue where people share their concerns and hopes. It’s a transformative
process that changes people’s lives.” Congregation Keshet Israel in
Montgomery Village, Md., decided to work for affordable housing because many
of its members’ children couldn’t afford to buy homes in the area. “My
empty nesters said, ‘Our kids are moving out, we want to be near our
grandchildren,’ ” Rabbi Mark Raphael said. Keshet Israel joined
Action in Montgomery, a group of 31 local churches committed to social action,
and together they got the county to earmark $140 million for affordable
housing on public land. The congregation still collects clothes for the
homeless and holds its annual mitzvah day. “We should never stop doing
direct service,” Raphael said. “It saves lives. But the underlying causes
of health care, education, housing problems are deeply rooted and need
fundamental solutions. By pooling our efforts with other congregations, we
can make a difference.” The process is also time consuming. Congregation
Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco held 150 one-to-one meetings over the course of
a year before joining the San Francisco Organizing Project, an interfaith
network, to work for health-care reform. “There was a lot of
hesitancy in the synagogue,” congregant Susan Lubeck said. “The idea of being
the only Jews in a Christian context was unnerving.” It turns out
that the churches had been seeking a way to draw synagogues into their social
justice work, said Erika Katske, associate director of the San Francisco
Organizing Project, just at the time that synagogues nationwide were becoming
more interested. Last June, Sha’ar Zahav hosted its first meeting with
city officials to push for health-care reform. Rabbi Camille Angel watched as
her congregants stood up and, one by one, told their stories: One had AIDS,
another couldn’t afford medical insurance. The politicos voted
unanimously, and San Francisco became one of the first cities to pledge
universal health-care coverage. That was terrific, Angel said, but
what the process did for her congregation was just as important. “I saw
my congregants become leaders,” the rabbi said. “It was one of the most
religious moments I’d ever seen in my sanctuary.”

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