How I Raised My Game From Social Action to Social Justice

Inside Leadership

How I Raised My Game From Social Action to Social Justice

Statue of Justice -- blindfolded with a sword in one hand and a scale in the other

This past year, I had a wonderful experience as a participant in the Rabbi Balfour Brickner Rabbinic Seminar and Fellowship through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC). Open to clergy of all Jewish denominations, the Brickner Seminar and Fellowship brings together rabbis and cantors who want to learn about how they can make social justice an integral part of their work.

Social justice is different from social action. Social action meets the world where it is, and includes such things as making sandwiches for the homeless and participating in clothing drives for people in need. Social action is about assistance or even just awareness.

Social justice is about advocacy or trying to change the world into the way it ought to be. Creating alliances, lobbying legislators, and changing policies are efforts around social justice.

Most of us are far more comfortable with assistance and awareness than we are with advocacy. After all, advocacy is political. Even Moses was uncomfortable. “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” Moses asked (Exodus 3:11). In other words, “Why me?” But the One-Who-Demands-Justice responds, “Why not you?”

Although most of the Brickner Fellows were nervous about what kind of commitment we had made, there was no need for anxiety. It wasn’t work; it was fun. We studied together on retreat. We networked with one another and found friends with whom to compare notes. We picked our own work and pursued it, whatever that was. We supported each other. Perhaps best of all, we attended this year’s amazing Consultation on Conscience – many bringing a delegation of congregants with us – that culminated with lobbying on Capitol Hill. This heavily subsidized program enabled us to spend time doing the work we wanted to be doing, work many of us envisioned we would do when we became rabbis and cantors.

For me, that work focuses on food insecurity. I have always been concerned about hunger. Growing up in a modest household, I knew classmates and friends who did not have much food at home. As a teenage boy with a huge appetite who could always grab a snack, I was aware that abundant healthy food was not always available to everyone.

In my synagogue, Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA, we have always been involved in social action around hunger: working with Jewish Family Table to help sort and deliver groceries to South Boston families in need; recruiting people to make and serve meals at a homeless shelter; creating  a Yom Kippur “Hunger Game” and other educational exercises to teach children what it is like to live on SNAP; participating with our youth group in Boston’s Walk for Hunger; using pasta boxes as groggers on Purim before donating them to a food bank, leading a Passover hunger seder each year with our teens, and so on.

But through the Brickner Fellowship, I could raise my game from social action to social justice: I have become an anti-hunger advocate to the Massachusetts Commonwealth Legislature. By working with the Greater Boston Food Bank, I was able to meet with our legislator from the state’s House of Representatives about increasing the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), and work on a bill called Breakfast After the Bell, which would make breakfast in public schools a meal everyone eats together in homeroom rather than in the cafeteria before the school day begins, which can be embarrassing and challenging, especially for kids who arrive late. The legislative hearing will take place in the fall.

Recently, I organized a teach-in at my synagogue about hunger in our area. Participants included our legislator from the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a liaison from the Greater Boston Food Bank, clergy from various faith traditions, and other concerned citizens.

Using the lessons from my Brickner Fellowship, I also have been able to change how our congregation’s leaders approach social justice. I’ve learned to introduce priorities and policies at the board of trustees’ level. Now, our board dedicates one meeting a year to setting our tikkun olam (repair of the world) priorities based on what has consensus in the congregation, and we’ve adopted a policy to approach issues outside that mandate if they arise throughout the year. This is how prophetic Judaism gets done.

This change in my leadership, enabling me to rise from social action to the higher level of social justice happened because I participated in the Brickner Fellowship. I am grateful to Rabbi Michael Namath and the staff of the RAC for making this amazing program possible, and I encourage my clergy colleagues in Judaism’s many different denominations to apply.

Apply to be a Rabbi Balfour Brickner Fellow before the July 31, 2017 deadline.

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Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA.

Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

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