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On Social Issues, Jews Making Common Cause with Other Faiths

February 23, 2005
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In October, some 600 people packed the Boston area’s largest Haitian church, demanding to be heard. They had come to insist that the state’s attorney general, who was in attendance, issue an advisory they hoped would spur improved treatment for residents and employees at local nursing homes.

Among those filling the pews that evening were about 75 immigrants from Haiti who worked as certified nursing assistants. They were angry that their employers forbade them to speak in Haitian Creole even during breaks, and that they often made the long trek to work only to be told they weren’t needed that day.

Sitting beside them were about 100 Jews, most members of Boston’s Temple Israel, angry that low funding, along with mistreatment of employees at the nursing facilities, had bred low-quality care for their aging parents who populated such centers.

And so these Haitian Christians came together that night with a group of American Jews — and 400 other allies — to tell their stories to the state’s top legal official, Attorney General Tom Reilly.

Reilly listened — and took the step they requested.

“He said, ‘I’m moved by your stories,’ ” recalled Rabbi Jonah Pesner, associate rabbi at Temple Israel, a Reform congregation. “He issued the legal advisory. It was very powerful. It was much more strongly worded than we even thought it would be.”

“I think he was moved by the testimony, by the power of the room,” Pesner added. “By all those people of different backgrounds speaking together.”

Increasingly, synagogues nationwide are joining faith-based community organizations like the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization — which called the October “action” in the Haitian church — to work for social change together with non-Jews.

Adherents say community organizing isn’t simply social service work, like volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Rather, it involves religious groups from churches, synagogues and some schools determining through discussion which issues they believe are most pressing, followed by actions like the one in the Boston church, where they try to win over politicians and business leaders to their agendas.

They address domestic issues, typically those that directly affect the majority of their members. They do not take on foreign issues, like the Arab-Israel conflict.

According to the Jewish Fund for Justice, an anti-poverty group that recently began encouraging congregations to join these faith-based community organizations, synagogue participation in such FBCOs has jumped by some 200 percent in the past five years.

Five years ago, just 20 American synagogues were affiliated with FBCOs, whose memberships consist primarily of churches. Today, 61 synagogues have joined up, with 24 more “seriously contemplating” joining, the group said. Of the 135 FBCOs in the United States, 38 have synagogue members.

Those involved say that the recent growth has to do in part with Jewish Fund for Justice’s push to enlist synagogues in organizing networks, as well as with growing awareness of such groups through word of mouth.

Still, synagogues remain underrepresented in interfaith organizing groups, insiders said.

“I think we’re behind the curve,” Meir Lakein, a Boston-area organizer, told JTA during a recent conference in New Jersey that brought together members of Jewish congregations from across the United States that take part in FBCOs.

“I think our community needed time to develop the collective ego and recognize both how much we could accomplish and gain from this thing that we’d stayed out of before,” he said.

Faith-based organizing originated with Saul Alinsky, a Jewish sociologist at the University of Chicago, who founded the first FBCO group in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1939. In following years, Jews were active in such causes as civil rights and women’s liberation, though mostly not through FBCOs.

But in ensuing decades many Jews turned inward to focus on issues that were particular to the Jewish community, insiders say, such as freedom for Soviet Jews. When they worked on matters that weren’t specifically Jewish, such as apartheid, they did so largely as individuals.

“Did they do it in a public way as Jews? Did they do it as a congregation of Jews? The answer, generally, was no,” said Jeannie Appleman, executive director of the Syosset, N.Y.-based Interfaith Funders. “That’s what’s different about this.”

The majority of synagogues affiliated with FBCOs are Conservative and Reform, and there are several Reconstructionist congregations as well. Orthodox shuls come in far behind. At the New Jersey conference, about 50 synagogues were represented. Only one was Orthodox.

Although there is organizing within the Orthodox community, particularly among the fervently religious around the issue of aid to low-income individuals and families, certain attitudes in the Orthodox community largely have kept them on the sidelines.

In his 1964 essay “Confrontation,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a father of modern Orthodoxy, argued that Orthodox Jews should not engage in most theological discussions with non-Jews. But the essay also said it was essential for Jews to cooperate with Christians on social, political and moral matters.

“The Orthodox community took the first part of his statement very seriously, and ignored the second part for the most part,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress and a modern Orthodox Jew.

Though there has been some exchange between Orthodox and Christian leaders, Korn said, it has been “on a very infrequent, ad-hoc basis.”

Further, those familiar with the issues involved say, there is a halachic concern among some members of the Orthodox community about entering churches, where many interfaith sessions are held.

“I think over time there will be more Orthodox synagogues involved. First, it’ll take more rabbis willing to work through the halachic issues of interfaith organizing,” Lakein said. “There’s definitely a tradition that the appropriate realm for interfaith connection is community improvement. There is that intellectual and religious tradition for us to work with.”

Indeed, Lakein is himself a member of the modern Orthodox community, as is Appleman.

Organizing sometimes has proved beneficial to the synagogues’ own vitality.

Rabbi Charles Briskin of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., a Reform temple, said his congregation’s involvement in community organizing has spurred activity in all facets of synagogue life. Indeed, he said, organizing has been an “entry point” for increased synagogue involvement.

“A lot of people who had been doing this work in the community through secular avenues are now finding a way to connect their Jewish faith with these civic values,” he said.

The FBCO’s seem happy to have growing Jewish membership.

“The engagement of Jewish leaders brings an enormous set of values, powerful relationships, powerful institutions,” said Cheri Andes, the lead organizer at the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization. “Having their energy and talent inside of a broad-based mix is tremendous.”

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