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Action: Confronting the Healthcare Crisis
by Donald Cohen-Cutler

Metrowest Free Medical Program
Photo by Art Illman

“More than 47 million Americans are uninsured and lack basic medical care, and 9 million children do not see a physician because their families can’t afford it,” Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie stated at the Union’s 2007 Biennial convention in San Diego, California. He called upon the 5,000 Reform delegates to take action in their home communities to expand access to affordable healthcare in the United States.

So what are Reform Jews, Reform congregations, and our Movement doing to help these families?

For the past eleven years, the Church Health Center has treated the working uninsured of Memphis, serving 50,000 people a year for about $20 a visit. Founder Scott Morris, a physician and ordained United Methodist minister who developed the largest such clinic in the U.S., explains that he “grew up in Atlanta and was always interested in two things: providing faith and health or pitching for the Braves, but the Braves never called.”

Among the clinic’s mostly volunteer staff are hundreds of doctors, nurses, dentists, and non-medical professionals from Temple Israel of Memphis, one of the Center’s first partners. The congregation’s religious school students help too, collecting sufficient funds this past year to provide 200 people with a day of services. “I am often asked, ‘What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing promoting the Church Health Center?’” says Rabbi Micah Greenstein, a close friend of Dr. Morris. “And I say, ‘It is the most Jewish place I know.’ Elie Weisel said our job is to make the world more human, and if this is our mission as Jews, then we need to work at the Church Health Center.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Pastor Mary Overstreet of Powerhouse Temple–Church of God and Christ in Portland, Oregon put her plans for a free neighborhood health clinic on hold and, instead, brought and established forty families affected by Katrina in Portland. To fund the evacuees’ transportation, provide three months of housing and utilities, and help organize their employment and medical care, she sold her second home in Arizona. “I wanted to give people a key, not a cot,” she says.

Reading about Pastor Overstreet’s actions in the local newspaper, Dr. Jill Ginsberg, a member of Congregation Beth Israel and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, was inspired to help. She collected donations to continue to support these families, and in November 2005 brought them to Pastor Overstreet’s church—the first time the two had met. “A black Pentecostal preacher and a Jewish doctor don’t have many opportunities to interact,” comments Dr. Ginsberg with a smile.

It was then that Pastor Overstreet told Dr. Ginsberg of her plans to open a free health clinic in the neighborhood. “Great,” Dr. Ginsberg responded, “let me know if I can help.”

Pastor Overstreet escorted the doctor a block and half to a vacated bakery. Announcing that this would be the site of Dr. Ginsberg’s new free clinic, she asked the doctor, “When do you think you can get started?” Pastor Overstreet assured the startled doctor, “We aren’t going to take it one day at a time; we are going to take it one step at a time.”

“The message reminded me of the teaching in Pirkei Avot that we don’t have to finish the work but we can’t ignore it either,” Dr. Ginsberg recalls. And that’s how she took on a forty-hour-a-week volunteer position running the North by Northeast Community Health Center.

Since opening its doors in August 2006, the health center has provided healthcare and medications to more than 1,800 neighborhood residents. About 100 people are helped each month, and all services are free. Dr. Ginsberg explains that more than half the patients are employed but still cannot afford healthcare; some are employed just under full-time—a common tactic to keep them from receiving insurance coverage. Others have lost their jobs. “This center won’t fix the huge problem,” she says, “but it can save some lives right here in our community.”

Across the country, a group of volunteer doctors, nurses, interpreters, social workers, and others—about twenty people a week, most of whom are members of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Massachusetts—gather every Tuesday night to make their synagogue “a real place of healing.” For the last three years, the congregation’s MetroWest Free Medical Program has assisted thirty to fifty uninsured or underinsured individuals each week, the brainchild of Dr. Paul Hart, a congregant and local medical provider. “Nothing gives me more pleasure,” says Rabbi David Thomas, “than using our sanctuary for our medical program—the same space we celebrate our baby namings, b’nai mitzvot, and weddings, and say goodbye to loved ones. It is truly a holy place.”

Rabbi Thomas recognizes that MetroWest serves as “a stop-gap solution” for those who need and cannot afford medical attention. “The program’s ultimate goal,” he says, “is to put itself out of business. And the only way to do that is to match our direct-service work with advocacy. Our program has given us a moral mandate to ask the people in power to partner with us to address the healthcare crisis in a more systematic way.”

To this end, Sudbury’s Congregation Beth El has adopted the advocacy tools of Congregation Based Community Organizing (CBCO), whose vision, says the Union’s Just Congregations director Rabbi Jonah Pesner, is to “enable synagogues to engage in internal conversations on questions of justice and then work with like-minded people across cultural, racial, class, and religious lines.”

Congregation Beth El did just that, joining with local and regional congregations to advocate for both the expansion of the state’s existing healthcare and universal healthcare, a campaign spearheaded by Temple Israel in Boston.

Temple Israel in Boston took up this and other healthcare causes in 2006, when the Federal Medicaid funding waiver, which provides access to affordable health services to seniors and other vulnerable communities, was scheduled to expire. The congregation joined the ACT Coalition (Affordable Care Today) and helped lead the campaign to pressure the state government not only to extend but also to expand the waiver’s coverage. “We called legislators, wrote letters, and participated in rallies,” says Cindy Rowe, co-chair of Temple Israel’s Social Action Committee. Members also collected 5,000 signatures to get “Chapter 58,” the first statewide program providing Universal Health Care coverage, on the state ballot. “We coordinated the petition push with the High Holidays,” Rowe explains. “Our clergy spoke from the bimah about how Jewish tradition requires us to take immediate action to heal the sick, and after services we stood with clipboards and petitions in the temple parking lot collecting signatures.”

Once the healthcare initiative campaign had gained sufficient momentum, another Boston-area temple, Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, called a press conference and invited local government officials to attend. “We announced to the officials: ‘We are doing our part, now it is time to do yours,’” recalls Rabbi David Thomas. “We spoke not only with the moral convictions of our religious tradition, but with the knowledge that we had done everything in our power to help solve the problem.”

In April of 2006, thanks to the work of Temple Israel, Congregation Beth El, and their coalition partners, Chapter 58 passed, reducing the number of uninsured people in Massachusetts by as much as fifty percent.

For the past fourteen years, more than 300 members of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim on Chicago’s north side have been working with United Power for Action and Justice, a group of churches, mosques, synagogues, and other communities dedicated to making healthcare services more available to at-risk populations in Illinois. So far they’ve succeeded in obtaining insurance coverage for more than 30,000 people and induced the state legislature to commit $2 million annually for new expanded affordable community health centers.

Now, the congregation and its coalition partners are writing letters, organizing phone banks, and traveling to Springfield in a campaign to urge their senators to support the Insurance for Young Adults bill, which would provide health insurance to the half million uninsured young adults in the state. While passage of this bill is by no means assured, Rabbi John Linder (now at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona) is not discouraged: “United Power’s past victories buoy us in these difficult times.”

In Tarzana, California, the healthcare issue is high on the list of Temple Judea’s social action priorities. “It’s a big problem in L.A.,” says Rabbi Donald Goor, “from older parents without enough coverage, to high school students who can’t get the coverage they need, to the lack of affordable care for those in our emergency rooms.” The congregation’s Judeans for Justice action group has met with local nurses and healthcare providers, lobbied state representative staffers, and participated in the national Cover the Uninsured Week campaign. “We are hitting this issue from all sides,” Rabbi Goor says, “in our social action programming in religious school, and from the bimah.”

On the national front, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the hub of the Reform Movement’s social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C., has been advocating for universal healthcare since the early 1960s. Intensifying its efforts following the launch of the Union’s healthcare initiative at the 2007 Biennial, the lobbying has expanded to the state as well as federal levels. The RAC also has teamed up with the Commission on Social Action, launching a website that helps individual congregations engage within their local communities to fight for better access to healthcare. Moreover, the RAC’s social action manual, Lirdof Tzedek: A Guide to Synagogue Social Action, by Evely Laser Shlensky, is tailored to help North American Reform congregations create and run effective social action programs.

In addition, the Union’s Just Congregations program has helped many synagogues maximize their social effectiveness through community organizing. Just Congregations’ process of listening campaigns, for example, helps congregants pinpoint the most salient issues affecting their lives and then empowers them to take political action with like-minded church, mosque, and other groups in their area. As a result, some Reform congregations have played key roles in extending healthcare coverage in Massachusetts, California, and Illinois.

As part of his Biennial initiative, Rabbi Yoffie also urged congregations to promote wellness and healthy lifestyles among members and staff. To this end, the Union’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns created a congregational and personal health audit that guides congregants through the process of living a healthier life, along with other health- and wellness-related resources on mental health, end-of-life decisions, and more. In addition, the Men of Reform Judaism (formally the NFTB) created the Men’s Health Initiative to help Brotherhoods and other men’s groups provide vital information on men’s health issues such as heart disease, prostate cancer, and the importance of regular medical examinations. “The Talmud instructs us that when a man is in pain, he should visit a physician,” says MRJ executive director Doug Barden. “We can fulfill the important mitzvah of saving lives.”

The Reform Judaism magazine editors also wish to acknowledge the research of HUC-JIR rabbinical student Erin Glazer that showcased some of the congregational exemplars in “Action: Confronting the Healthcare Crisis.”



Union for Reform Judaism.