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RJ Guide: Reform Judaism—30 Stories
Section VI. Making a Difference

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RJ: Is social action central to your identity as a Reform Jew?

Mike Sims: Social action is not only central to my identity as a Reform Jew; social action led me to become a Jew.

Growing up Christian in the small Texas town of Bailey, I was surrounded by good, decent folks, all of us trying to live a good life on earth while looking forward to rewards in heaven.

After college I moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Senator Lloyd Bentsen. On the streets of D.C., I confronted urban poverty and homelessness for the first time. Seeing such pain and suffering, I began to realize that people need help in the here and now as much or even more than they need rewards in the hereafter.

Salaam Shalom
Photo courtesy of Congregation Shir Heharim

Returning to Texas, I married a nice Jewish girl and we agreed to raise our kids as Jews. I wanted to understand my children’s religion, so I read books about Judaism. Discovering a religion that was dedicated to doing things in the here and now, to repairing our world, I knew I had to convert.

Since then, my Judaism has centered on social action. For the past few years I have served as chair of our temple’s Social Justice Advocacy Committee, using the skills I learned working in government to help change government. Our committee worked to defeat a Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and to pass legislation condemning the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Recently I returned to Washington with 15 Temple Emanu-El high school students who were among the hundreds of young people attending the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. After exploring a wide range of issues and learning how to lobby Congress, the students chose their issues, and, working with the RAC staff, put together a lobbying presentation that explained why the issue was important to the country, to us as Jews, and to them personally.

Monday morning we walked up Capitol Hill to the offices of two conservative Republican senators and one very conservative Republican House member, hoping to change their positions on immigration reform. Armed with text from Leviticus reminding us of our duty to the stranger and a story of one of their grandfathers who had immigrated illegally but went on to become a prosperous businessman, these young people made their presentations beautifully, even though they changed no minds.

Walking back down the Hill, the students felt good about the process. They understood that elected officials need to hear differing views. I also reminded them that as Jews we are not called to completely fix the world; we just have to do our part to repair it—to make things better in the here and now.

I think those 15 Jewish kids made Capitol Hill a better place that day. I was proud to be there with them as a fellow Reform Jew.

Marzy Bauer: My parents were socialists…culturally Jewish, but they rejected what they deemed to be irrelevant Jewish ritual. So, other than attending an occasional cousin’s bar mitzvah, I never set foot in a synagogue for most of my childhood or adolescence. That being said, I was taught certain values from an early age: thou shalt not cross a picket line nor buy clothing without a union label; thou shalt give to the poor and to oppressed minorities, feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and treat people fairly without regard to differences. And so my passion for social justice was instilled, along with a desire to keep learning.

Two factors led me to join an organized Jewish community. One was moving from New York City, where one can be Jewish by breathing, to Indiana, where explanations are required. The second was having children. My husband and I became members of a Reform congregation when they were small, and got involved. I joined an adult b’nai mitzvah class in 1986. Having never read Torah in any form, I was pleasantly surprised when preparing my Torah portion, Emor, to read verse 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field…you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.” Aha! That was the genesis of the stuff I’d heard about all of my life!

Two decades and many classes later, my social justice leanings have morphed into a Jewish context. I am now the Social Justice chair for our congregation, and my passion is Just Congregations, where we enact meaningful social and political change by building relationships within the temple community and with neighboring groups outside of our tradition, with whom the majority of our congregants have no natural interactions. Speaking truth to power, empowering groups that have never been players in the political system—it’s inspiring. Reform Judaism weaves in our traditional teachings with the present day and urges us to action.

Kathy Ruiz Goldenkranz: Social action has always been central to my identity. I am a Mexican American and a Jew by choice. My extended family, both my mom and dad’s families, were all Central Valley farm workers. At the age of 14, I worked for the United Farm Workers, setting up and participating in corporate grocery store chain picket lines. As a high school student I marched in the streets of Modesto against the Gallo Wine company’s practice of hiring non-union labor at below the union wage to work in the grapevine fields in deplorable conditions. That same year, 1972, I wrote a letter to then California Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy, who was authoring a bill to make it illegal for companies to hire children under 14 to work in the fields. I knew this issue well because starting at age 7 I’d been cutting grapes from the vines outside Fresno, working 8 hours a day in the hot sun and earning about $3 a week. As a result of my letter, I was invited to testify in Sacramento, and I am proud to say that the bill passed.

That experience transformed me. I have been an activist ever since—union organizer in the building trades, board member of a community dental clinic providing excellent care for low- and moderate-income people without insurance or on assistance, and founder and chair of an interfaith coalition which promotes full lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender inclusion within houses of worship in our neighborhood.

In addition, through my temple I co-chair the healthcare team that is part of Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, a 25-member faith-based community organizing group that advocates for justice and fairness in healthcare, immigration, public safety, education, affordable housing, and economic justice. This issue is deeply personal: I am one of 22,000 women in America who is a victim of a faulty jaw joint implant that was untested yet approved by the FDA, and which has cost me upwards of $25,000 a year for the last 17 years.

When I teach community organizing, I like to tell the story in Parashat Jethro/ Yitro (Exodus 18:1–27). Burdened by his workload, Moses has sent his wife and children to live with her father, Jethro, who is a Midianite priest. At the Israelites’ camp Moses holds court in his tent for many hours each day to hear and decide upon the disputes of the Israelites, one by one.

After a while, Jethro comes to see Moses; he wants Moses to be reunited with his family. Seeing the long line of people waiting for Moses, Jethro knows that his son-in-law cannot continue to live like this. He advises Moses to establish a leadership council within each tribe to hear and handle individual grievances, except for the most extreme cases. Moses follows Jethro’s advice.

This parashah teaches two lessons: First we can benefit from the insights and ideas of people from other faiths. No person can or should try to handle all matters alone. Instead, he or she should empower others to share in the workload—it’s through teamwork that we create a just society. Second, family comes first, followed by the needs and concerns of others. Once the tribal leadership subgroups were created, Moses’ family could return home and be with him once again.

To be most effective we need balance in our lives. When I prepare my 7th grade temple school students for becoming b’nai mitzvah, I always tell them that doing their own social justice work will add to the joy of this milestone, creating a balance between being the center of attention/receiver of gifts and helping others in the community. This is how we perform God’s work on Planet Earth.

Liz Cohen: When my husband and I joined our congregation 20 years ago, I wrote in “social action” on the interest form. As a “wannabe activist,” I felt this would be my path to acting on my good intentions. Eventually, from that note, I was asked to form and chair a social action committee. This turned out to be a transformative moment for me—finding my place to do social action creatively and consistently.

For the past 15 years, as host congregation in our county’s Interfaith Hospitality Network, we have been welcoming homeless families into our synagogue in up to 6 weekly rotations per year. I feel this embodies all that is best in our Jewish tradition: welcoming the stranger, seeing the worth and dignity of every guest, joining together as a community to help, and addressing root causes through advocacy.

My activism is strongly guided by the teaching in Pirkei Avot, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Initially I focused on finding the task, the piece of healing that felt within reach. But over time I have found that it is the reaching out and joining with others that really gives this text its meaning; there is great power in connection and shared values, and it is our task to find and build on that with others.

Part of this means reaching out, one person at a time. For our temple’s social action service last year, I asked several people to share their stories of how they got involved in social action, and much to my surprise, a repeated refrain in these stories was “Liz asked me.” It was a valuable affirmation that efforts to engage others really do matter.

Still, I do struggle with meeting my “ideal of social action.” At times I feel I fall short by not getting others to share in the work, and then I feel isolated and sometimes overburdened. Also, occasionally I get excited about so many issues and needs, I’m ineffective in acting on any of them. I am trying to be more aware of attaining balance in my efforts; my growing attention to building relationships in the work is very helpful here.

Mark Young: Do our lives have a divine purpose or are we just specks of dust in the universe? No matter which answer is true, you can’t go wrong by reaching out to help other living creatures on Earth. I can think of no better way of doing God’s will than performing mitzvot and acts of gemillut chasadim (lovingkindness).

For me, one of the most attractive aspects of Reform Judaism is its emphasis on social action. Before I became a Jew by choice, participating with my synagogue in supporting food banks, homeless shelters, coat drives, etc. gave me time and space to become familiar with practical Jewish values and teachings.

These days, one of the greatest joys for my wife Jane and me is when our 24-year-old musician son visits children’s convalescent hospitals with us, our temple’s mitzvah group, and recently our cantor and junior choir. Many of the patients we see have profound congenital disabilities and will never fully recover. Some people think they’re unable to communicate, but we’ve learned this is far from the truth.

Our son finds ways to make contact, soul-to-soul, by singing and playing music. So-called “unresponsive” children begin to smile, laugh, clap, move, vocalize. One teenager was even moved to write a beautiful poem, which Harrison set to music on the spot. The kids let us know they don’t want the music to end, so the Youngs are usually the last ones to leave. At these times we know we must have done something right, teaching the joy of sharing the gifts that God gave us—l’dor v’dor.

Judy Fisher: My path to social action began in 1964 when my father participated in the March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I was 6, and I still remember my father talking about it. It was a defining moment, for him and for me.

As an adult, I believe social action is a moral imperative; as Pirkei Avot 2:20-21 says: “You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” At Congregation Beth Israel I’ve chaired the Tikkun Olam/Social Action Committee, where our Hunger Project, in partnership with St. Vincent de Paul, has offered about 750 homeless people a lovely brunch every Sunday morning for the last 22 years. Our synagogue provides funding for the food and CBI volunteers, including b’nai mitzvah students and their parents, serve the meal. I’m also proud of having chaired the San Diego Walk for Darfur in November 2006, in which nearly 2,000 walkers—400 from our synagogue alone—raised almost $100,000 for medical supplies in the Darfur and Chad refugee camps.

There is so much to be done….

Jennifer Warriner: Each of us has a moral obligation to try to set right what is wrong in the world. I remember the phrase Theodor Herzl placed on the cover of his 1902 novel about a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, Altneuland (Old New Land): “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Marchen” (“If you want, it is no fairytale”). If people really want change and are willing to work together and make sacrifices for the common good, they can make the fairytale a reality—as any map produced after 1948 demonstrates.

Ellen Morrow: I feel both commanded to engage in social action and guilty that I’m not more involved in a regular way, though I do take small individual steps, inspired by the Hillel quote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Marjorie B. Green: As a secular Jew, I didn’t turn to Jewish sources to inspire my commitment to tikkun olam, but I was thrilled to find in Torah texts a message that reinforced my commitment to social justice, or what I now call my Sinai consciousness. My rationale for why I care so much for the stranger is right there in Exodus 22:21: “For I was once a stranger in the land of Egypt.”

I was raised in a secular household by politically progressive parents, but my views were also shaped by beloved grandparents whose world was still influenced by the shtetl and the cautionary “sha, sha, don’t speak out.” And, after my father was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, he too urged me to be careful and “for Heaven’s sake, don’t sign anything.” But I seemed to have a nerve that jangled whenever I perceived injustice. Perhaps Rabbi Sidney Schwarz was right when he said: “The concern for the stranger, the pursuit of justice and peace, the empathy for the poor, and the commitment to truth and fairness is buried deep in the soul of every Jew.”

When the Civil Rights Movement began—not with preachers, but with students just a bit older than I was sitting in at lunch counters—I suddenly had role models. No, I did not have the courage to do as I longed to, to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer. But I was able to march—for fair housing, for women’s rights, and against the Vietnam War.

And when the courts ordered Los Angeles schools to desegregate, I spoke out across the community, urging parents to comply and concluding my remarks by saying my 3rd grader would be riding the bus in the fall. He did. And because the fear that not all children would be receiving a quality education kept me up at night, I became an activist.

A year ago, I read Sue Fishkoff’s article, “Social Justice Moves to Front of Some Congregational Agendas,” and learned that others were sharing my feeling that temple mitzvah days are not enough. Although feeding the hungry is an act of lovingkindness and makes the mitzvah doer feel good, it doesn’t make the hunger vanish. That’s why our temple is taking the first steps toward congregation-based community organizing. We’re part of a collective that crosses lines of race, class, and religion to “extend the boundaries of righteousness and justice in the world” (Genesis 18).

Barbara K. Shuman: Social action is not central to my identity as a Reform Jew. I recognize this as an area where I fall short of the mark, but I continue to be drawn to other ways of experiencing and expressing my Judaism. While I try to support a number of causes financially, and do not deny the obligation of Jews to repair our broken world, I myself am just not called to do this politically.

Abbey Shepard-Smith: These days social action is more important to me than it once was, mostly due to my greater awareness of injustices and my rabbi’s deep, intense, unwavering commitment to making a difference in the world. I formed a committee at my temple which, in November 2006, led our first annual community Mitzvah Mall, a unique, alternative holiday shopping experience that featured local, national, and international charities. Approximately 40 tables were set up like a traditional holiday bazaar—but instead of representing different retailers, each table represented an organization that provides assistance to those in need. Rather than buying yet another tie or bottle of perfume, shoppers honored friends and family by purchasing groceries for a hungry local family, a juvenile diabetes testing kit, a therapeutic outing for a child affected by terrorism, or a cell phone for a battered woman. The 250 shoppers of all ages raised nearly $7,000.

Dawn Mollenkopf: What’s important to me is encouraging people to become more accepting of those whose beliefs and cultures differ from theirs. At the university campus where I teach, I persuaded the administration to add Chanukah and Kwanza symbols to the Christmas displays, and introduced a policy allowing faculty and students to take time off to celebrate religious holidays not recognized by the state. In my department, I bake foods for different Jewish holidays and put them out with a description of the food and the holiday; people have been very appreciative. I’ve also encouraged local stores to carry Jewish cards and displays for other ethnic groups.

Martin Graffman: In my view, Judaism is a 5,000-year-old conversation between God and the Jews about what is the right thing to do and how to do it. Doing the right thing defines the Jew.

The Rabbis Speak

“We are obligated to pursue tzedek, justice and righteousness, and to narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor, to act against discrimination and oppression, to pursue peace, to protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources, and to redeem those in physical, economic and spiritual bondage.”

—A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999

To Learn More...

about making a difference in our world, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism website; you’ll find news, advocacy ideas, publications, action alerts, congregational tools, a blog, and more:


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