Moving Social Justice to the Center of Synagogue Life

April 6, 2016Lee Winkleman

On an otherwise unremarkable Friday night in January, extra chairs were set up as Reform Jews filled the sanctuary for Shabbat evening services at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. The room shone with the positive energy of a community engaged in a shared purpose. 

Or Ami congregants celebrated the conclusion of a series of discussions about how the world is broken. That Friday night, they shared their personal stories about how mental illness, violence, segregation, fear, and hope have touched their lives. All present stood up and broke into thunderous applause when Rabbi Paul Kipnes asked his congregation if they wanted to embark on a journey together as a congregation to heal the broken world and bring justice to their city and state. 

Today, dozens of Or Ami lay leaders are meeting with organizations that are addressing the key issues touching the lives of Or Ami congregants. They will bring back to their synagogue community the most promising opportunities to make a difference. Once the congregation gives its assent, they will move into sustained action for justice, with all Or Ami members who want to contribute in their own way to make a real difference in the world.

A new URJ Community of Practice, “Moving Justice to the Center of Your Congregation,” will bring together clergy and lay leaders from 12 Reform synagogues to do what Or Ami did: to use the tools of community organizing to bring together your synagogue community to make the world more just. They will give everyone in their congregation an opportunity to participate in a sustained effort to address a root cause of the world’s brokenness. In the process, they will make a difference in the world and transform their synagogue, by moving social justice to the center of the congregation so that a spirit of tikkun olam infuses everything, and new social-justice minded people are brought to the center of synagogue life.

Synagogues who are part of this Community of Practice cohort will develop and train a team of lay leaders to partner with clergy in leading this social justice work. They will engage in a focused listening campaign to build broad agreement within the synagogue to work together on a major tikkun olam effort. Synagogues will select an issue campaign that both comes from the hearts of synagogue members and has the potential for major impact. And synagogues will move their congregants into action together on the issue they have chosen. 

Participants in this Community of Practice will participate in a monthly webinar that includes training from experienced organizers and rabbis, and sharing of best practices and challenges. The participants will also meet with an experienced coach to help them implement the lessons from the webinars. There will also be an in-person gathering for the participants in late April 2017. 

If you would like more information about this Community of Practice, check out the URJ’s Communities of Practice page and sign up an informational webinar on Thursday, April 14 at 3:00 ET/12:00 PT

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