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Partners in Power
by Daniel David May

Reform congregants throughout America are engaged in a radical rethinking of social action—community organizing—using the same community organizing model that propelled President Barack Obama to victory.

I’m a goody two-shoes,” Fran Godine tells me, and she looks the part. At 5'0" with a wiry frame and a tuft of curly grey hair that juts from her head like a pompom, she comes across as exuberant but harmless. It’s hard to picture her demanding $100 million of investment in affordable housing from the legislature of Massachusetts or leading a statewide campaign for universal healthcare policy in the nation. Yet, backed by her synagogue, Temple Israel, and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), Godine has negotiated with CEOs, mayors, and governors—and won.

At Temple Israel and other Reform synagogues throughout the country, congregants like Fran Godine are engaged in a radical rethinking of social action. In addition to collecting food on the High Holidays or sponsoring temple-wide mitzvah days, they want to take action that will have long-term societal impact. “Many synagogue members feel that bringing a can to shul is not sufficient in fulfilling the Jewish mandate to do justice,” explains Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein. “They understand that to address root issues and be part of real change, they need to be organizing.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner came to the same conclusion in 2002 when he was associate rabbi of Temple Israel in Boston. To encourage social action participation, he constructed a mitzvah chart, a thermometer that rose a notch with every mitzvah performed by a congregant. As he tells it, “a GBIO organizer, Rebecca Gifford, inquired as to why I was making the chart, and I responded, ‘to enact meaningful justice in the world.’ ‘And tell me how this is meaningful justice?’ she asked. And I realized that the world would look the same after our mitzvah thermometer had reached its peak, and so would our temple.”

Today, as founding director of the Union’s Just Congregations program, Rabbi Pesner encourages congregants to tackle the root causes of poverty, hunger, and homelessness through congregation-based community organizing, a grassroots approach to social activism originated by Saul Alinsky. In the 1960s Alinsky brought together low income churches and other community groups to leverage their political power. Until the late 1990s, his organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—the same group that trained President Barack Obama (see sidebar)—worked almost exclusively with Christian churches. IAF spawned several church-based networks, including DART (Direct Action Research and Training), Gamaliel, and PICO (the People in Communities Organizing).

In 2000, fewer than a dozen congregations were working with community organizing groups. Today, more than 100 Reform congregations participate—due in large measure to Just Congregations, the Jewish Funds for Justice (a national foundation instrumental in encouraging synagogues to explore organizing), and the various organizing networks’ recruitment of Jewish groups.

Community-based organizing generally begins with a congregation or other group joining an organizing structure network, such as GBIO in Boston. The organization meets with the clergy and some lay leaders and training follows. The congregation is now ready for a series of one-on-one or small group conversations (house meetings) about the most influential people in members’ lives and the experiences that have shaped their values, hopes, aspirations, and fears. What emerges from these conversations eventually leads to targeted political action.

Rabbi John Linder of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona believes these encounters have had a profound impact on members of his previous congregation, B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Glenview, Illinois. “People would tell me, ‘I’ve been a member of this community for thirty-five years and nobody ever asked me these kinds of questions—what I hoped for my family, who were the most important people in my life, what did I worry about when I couldn’t sleep.’ They had never had someone approach them to share a part of their soul.”

“It’s a myth that [as Jews] we’re all comfortable,” says Temple Israel’s Fran Godine. “From our conversations, we discovered that many people are worried about their parents’ healthcare, their children’s housing, and their own debt.” “One of the profound impacts of these meetings,” adds Rabbi Linder, “is the recognition that members of a middle-class suburban congregation share common concerns with people who live in the working-class neighborhoods of South Chicago. Both have families without healthcare.”

Congregation-based organizing represents a paradigm shift, explains Rabbi Pesner. “Instead of asking, ‘what can we do to help?’ we ask, ‘who has the power to change the situation?’ Rather than asking, ‘how much money can we raise to help adult children of congregants who don’t have health insurance?’ we ask, ‘who has the power to make sure these young people are insured, why aren’t they exercising this power now, and what can we do to convince them that change is necessary?’”

At Temple Israel, “we kept hearing people talk about how nervous they were about whether their children could afford a home in Boston,” Godine says, so affordable housing became their first community-action issue. At a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (an IAF affiliate) community assembly hosted at the synagogue, seven city and state officials listened as congregants from churches and synagogues across the city told their stories. In the end, each official agreed to reinstate a $100 million trust fund for the building of affordable housing. “We saw that we could leverage some of the power in our community to make an impact that will affect many more people than, for example, a temple’s Habitat for Humanity project—although that kind of direct service is important,” says Godine. “As a synagogue we could, hypothetically, build a few homes a year—but, partnered with other congregations of different faiths, we can get the state to build hundreds.”

Temple Israel then began a second series of conversations. “We heard stories about parents receiving unacceptable care in several local nursing homes,” Godine says. “And we learned from the Haitian churches in GBIO that their congregants were receiving terrible treatment as employees of those same nursing homes.” From there, Temple Israel and GBIO organized a large assembly on the nursing-home industry.

Understanding that “employees who are treated with dignity will provide better care,” Godine says, Temple Israel, in partnership with Haitian churches, tackled worker’s rights in nursing homes. At an action held at a Haitian church, Temple Israel members urged Tom Reilly, the then state attorney general, to issue a legal advisory to the nursing-home industry mandating that nursing homes could no longer restrict the speaking of foreign languages among the staff during their breaks, a prohibition widespread in Boston facilities.

“Reilly, who was running for governor, had told us before the meeting not to expect his support,” recounts Rabbi Pesner. “We understood he was courting the nursing-home industry to help fund his campaign. But seeing how moved he was by the personal stories he heard and by the people he saw in that room, we pressed him to make a choice. He chose us.” As a result, facilities throughout the city stopped restricting their employees’ speech during breaks. “Yes, we live in a society where organizations with money, including nursing-home operators, have influence,” says Rabbi Pesner, “but those can’t be the only voices at the table. Our officials should hear from patients, family members, and workers in those homes as well. And that’s what we did—we made them recognize us.”

On the heels of that victory, Temple Israel and the GBIO’s seventy congregations began a campaign to pressure the Massachusetts legislature to pass universal healthcare legislation, but not before studying the Torah texts on the obligation to care for the sick and holding months of preparatory meetings in which doctors told stories of patients dying from preventable illnesses and parents spoke of their uninsured adult children.

On Rosh Hashanah 2005, worshippers were asked to sign a petition in support of a ballot initiative calling for universal health coverage in Massachusetts. With 40,000 signatures in hand, many collected by the synagogue, Temple Israel and other GBIO congregations pushed the state legislature to come up with a plan. Lay leaders and clergy met with state representatives, and in 2006 their efforts paid off: Governor Mitt Romney made history by signing the nation’s most comprehensive healthcare coverage plan.

Word of these victories began spreading to synagogues around the country. After Rabbi Michael Lezak of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California attended a community organizing workshop at the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2005 Houston Biennial, the congregation launched a program they called panim el panim, meaning face to face, that would eventually involve 300 members. “Congregants who had sometimes felt invisible were now coming together to tell stories and listen to others,” Rabbi Lezak says. “And everyone loved it.” Rodef Sholom now holds house meetings weekly before Friday night services, the synagogue providing wine and cheese. “This new Shabbat initiative has caught fire,” Rabbi Lezak says. “Today we have anywhere from 300 to 600 people coming to Friday night services. Without the house meetings, we never would have been thinking about the Shabbat service as an opportunity to build relationships.”

Last May, the Marin County Organizing Committee (MOC) held its first public action. Members of twenty-five interfaith congregations, including Congregation Rodef Sholom, joined with Latino, Portuguese, and Vietnamese service workers in demanding affordable housing, adequate funding of mental health services, and higher environmental standards. The 750-person assembly (including 100 from Congregation Rodef Sholom) was the largest political gathering in Marin County any congregant could remember. “That meeting was the first time that the visible community of Marin County stood together with the invisible community—those who wash dishes, who mow lawns, who provide the services we take for granted,” says Rabbi Lezak. “We said to our elected officials: there is a new voice here, unlike anything that has come before, and we are here to stay.”

Since that initial meeting, Rodef Sholom congregants, along with other MOC leaders, have met with every county supervisor in order to craft a budget to ensure mental health services and additional emergency shelter beds. “Voting isn’t the end of the exercise of citizenship; it is just the beginning,” Rabbi Lezak says. “We’re changing the political landscape of our community.”

In Beverly Hills, Temple Emanuel’s community organizing effort has changed the social climate. After identifying elder care as a key issue of concern, the temple worked with other member congregations of One LA–IAF, the Industrial Areas Affiliate in Los Angeles, to move two bills through the state legislature mandating greater oversight of and more rapid responses to complaints about abuses in state nursing homes. The bills received wide support in both houses of the state legislature, but Governor Schwarzenegger later vetoed them, citing the high costs in a difficult budget climate. The campaign, however, had a transformative effect on the congregation. “Temple Emanuel is now a place where people talk to each other,” says Rabbi Laura Geller. “This past year, we invited congregants to sign up to either attend a seder at the temple or to invite guests to their family seder. Dozens of people opened their homes, which never would have happened before. We’ve become a place where it is not unusual to invite strangers into your home.”

Rabbi Donald Goor at Temple Judea in Tarzana, California describes a similar shift: “When people know each other and share stories, the consumer-based service model shifts to one of relationship. In a relationship you can’t say, ‘I got what I came for’ and close the book on it. The relationship is ongoing.” Now the temple is making the leap from relationship-centered social justice to relationship-centered temple life. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, for example, Rabbi Goor devotes part of his sermon to one-on-one meetings designed so congregants can get to know each other. “The effect has been profound,” he says. “People who’ve seen each other for years are learning new things about one another, and those who come infrequently are engaging with consistent members. This is how we create community.”

“At its best, organizing raises up the moment of interaction to the most sacred thing that we can do as human beings,” says Rabbi Stephanie Kolin of Boston’s Temple Israel. “It teaches us that relationship is tikkun—it repairs brokenness because it addresses isolation. It encourages us to recognize the person, and the moment, as sacred.” In so doing, she says, it draws upon Martin Buber’s teaching that our full humanness is best expressed in “I-Thou” encounters with others who we see as full human beings experiencing the same breadth of emotion, confusion, and passion as we possess.

“I was interested in organizing to make a political difference in our community,” says Rabbi Goor. “And I still do. I just didn’t realize that the community we first needed to transform was our own.”

Daniel David May is a freelance writer and organizer who has worked for ACORN, the IAF, and SEIU.

 




 


Union for Reform Judaism.