6 Ways to Strengthen Social Justice Work in Your Congregation – and Strengthen Your Congregation in the Process

May 15, 2018Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner and Amy Asin

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)

At the core of our creation story, Judaism teaches us that our world is broken – but that it can be repaired through righteous, reflective, and deliberate action.

In 21st-century congregational life, a deep commitment to social justice work is critical. It also serves two purposes: It fulfills our sacred mandate to improve our world, and it provides an important avenue for those seeking a values-driven community. Congregational social justice work empowers those who may be otherwise unengaged to find vital leadership roles in our sacred communities. It also offers a way to strengthen existing members’ connection to your congregation, to your local community, and to the larger Jewish world.

Through our work with congregations pursuing justice across North America, we have identified several principles that can help you strengthen social justice work in your congregation.

1. Ground your work in Jewish texts and traditions.

Social justice has been a pillar of Reform Judaism since its establishment. To mobilize all of your members while respecting the diversity of opinions within your congregation, ground the pursuit of justice in what unites us – our core Jewish values.

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Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, MN, launched "A Year of Tzedek," a program designed to help each member connect their personal life story to one of three Jewish motivations for social justice: leaving Egypt, being in the image of God, or tikkun olam (repair of our broken world). Through the program, the congregation was able to overcome political divides and unite to tackle community issues.

2. Find your community’s personal connection to social justice.

Different communities will be drawn to different issues. Congregation size, local concerns, and skills and talents of members will all impact what your congregation is positioned to do. Research and speak to your members to determine what kind of work will be most meaningful to them and have the most impact. Listening campaigns are helpful.

Temple Beth El of Augusta, ME, engaged congregants in conversations about how they experience the brokenness of the world. Many members surfaced the challenge of being a religious minority in their school systems, which often meant that events such as field trips and “back to school” nights were scheduled on significant Jewish holidays. The congregation soon learned that the growing Muslim population in their community was facing a similar problem. As a result, Temple Beth El realized that increasing knowledge and tolerance of religious minorities was a shared priority for their community – one on which they were positioned to take action.

3. Engage more than just the “usual suspects.”

In many congregations, social justice work is driven by a small committee run by a few passionate leaders. In order to truly galvanize the community, reach out to your entire membership and involve a diverse group of congregants of different backgrounds and ages in the planning and implementation of your social justice work. Bringing new people into social justice work will infuse new energy and help cultivate the broader congregational leadership pipeline.

Don’t forget to look outside your congregation’s walls for strong partners. Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple of Beachwood, OH, reached out to members of churches, mosques, and synagogues across Cleveland to help form Greater Cleveland Congregations, which has been instrumental in local criminal justice reform efforts. Joining forces on social justice issues with a sibling church, a local immigrant justice group, or an interfaith group can be a great way to build deep and ongoing relationships across lines of difference.

4. Integrate social justice into all facets of congregational life.

Ask yourself: What would it look like for your whole congregation to take action? For Temple Emanu-El Beth-Sholom of Westmount, QC, the answer was the Syrian Refugee Sponsorship. The congregation sponsored two refugee families; 40 members volunteered for a welcome committee with subcommittees addressing issues such as housing, employment, and social services; other members raised and contributed money, furnishing, and clothes. Because everyone was invested, the initiative gave the entire congregation a common experience and helped build bonds within the community itself.

As the teen-led Gun Violence Prevention campaign has taught us: Remember to engage your youth or young adult group in social justice initiatives, too, and be prepared to embrace leadership from any part of the congregation.

5. Celebrate your successes, big and small.

Structural legislative change is a long process, and it can often take time for a few passionate leaders to mobilize others. Instead of counting heads at social justice events, redefine success: Focus on the impact these events have on those who do attend, on the relationships built, and on the sense of meaning that they infuse in participants’ lives. Make sure people feel the momentum of the work by celebrating and recognizing those who have contributed and what has been accomplished – both when you have major achievements and also along the way.

6. Leverage the power of a network of Reform congregations doing this work.

You are not alone in this work. There are nearly 900 URJ congregations across North America with whom you can connect both virtually (in the Social Action group in The Tent) and in person.

For example, as part of the California Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (formerly Reform CA), local congregations have come together and successfully helped pass legislation on sentencing reform and immigrant rights. Find your local Reform Movement allies through RAC state-based initiatives, through your URJ Community, and through the Religious Action Center’s Brit Olam network – congregations that have recommitted to putting justice at the center of their congregation.

Social justice is an investment in our future. When we work together, the Reform Movement has tremendous potential to build a world of wholeness, compassion, and justice. This is how we answer our divine charge: tikkun olam, to repair the world.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

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