How Social Justice Work Blossoms in One Congregation

January 4, 2018Rabbi Suzanne Singer

I have always had a passion for social justice, both in my career as a television producer and in that as a rabbi. Over my nearly 10 years at Temple Beth El (TBE) in Riverside, CA, I have pursued this work with interfaith partners but rarely with my own congregation. There is a twofold reason for this. One, when I first arrived, the congregation had been through a decade of several different rabbis. I determined that my job was to heal the wounds, not to rally folks around causes. Two, TBE had no history or culture of social justice engagement. I make a distinction between social justice and social action. Feeding the homeless is social action, and many of our congregants are involved in that. Addressing the causes of hunger or homelessness is social justice, and this is where we have not participated.

A little over a year ago, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) offered a community of practice called “Moving Justice to the Center of Your Congregation.” This was a two-year training program in how to engage one’s congregation in this work. I immediately signed up with two lay leaders, Diana Goldman and Dalia Martinez. Over the past year, we attended monthly webinars, consulted with our coach, Lee Winkleman, and began the process of community organizing. This initiative involved finding folks who would hold one-on-one conversations, as well as house meetings with other congregants to determine how they viewed the brokenness of the world and what their vision of a more perfect society looked like. Eventually, the idea would be to find an issue we could all work on together, an issue that would represent systemic change.

Our congregation is pretty solidly middle class. There are not many people of means and leisure: the vast majority of our younger families have two working parents who also spend a great deal of time shepherding their children to a wide variety of activities. Our older congregants have, for the most part, been there, done that. They want to enjoy life and spend their time with friends, family and, particularly, grandchildren. All to say that this model of community organizing, where people need to step up as leaders and take ownership of the process on a consistent and long-term basis, did not work for us. We conducted some one-on-ones and some house meetings, but the appetite for undertaking advocacy work on the part of a majority of the congregation was not there.

On the other hand, through this process, we were able to identify 15-20 people who were enthusiastic and eager to become involved in some way. It became clear that a different model was appropriate for us: rather than a grassroots effort which characterizes community organizing, we needed a more grass tops one. I found that, if I proposed an action, I could rally these 15-20 congregants to join me in the work of Reform CA, on whose leadership team I serve. Reform CA, the West Coast arm of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, determines which California legislation to support, and educates our congregations about the issues involved prior to lobbying our state representatives to vote in favor of these bills. I have had success in bringing TBE members for legislative visits, both here in Riverside and in Sacramento, to make phone calls to constituents, to educate other congregants, and to attend a regional meeting of Reform CA. Indeed, with 11 people from TBE attending the Los Angeles area gathering of Reform CA in early December, we had the largest delegation of any congregation by far.

My congregants and I learned that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be effective social change agents, and that it is absolutely essential to work in coalitions. With Reform CA, we have been able to join forces, not only with other Reform congregations, but also with partners such as the national network of faith-based community organizations, PICO, and the ACLU.

I am grateful to the URJ and to Lee Winkelman for helping guide us on this path. I know we will continue to do important work in the year ahead.

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