Below is our growing collection of stories from the field, from JRF Rabbis and lay-leaders engaged in community organizing.
To learn more about community organizing and ways in which JRF can assist your congregation's tikkun olam activities, please contact Rabbi Shawn Zevit at JRF, and see our Step-by-Step Guide to community organizing.
There are well over 100 synagogues currently involved with congregation-based community-organizing.
The Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) is trying to involve more synagogues in this work. There are several large networks around the country, each one divided into regions. A synagogue or church works within these regions.
The basic idea is to tap into what each individual or community is passionate about, then work within the context of the community and the context of issues that we care about. The process starts with 1-on-1 conversations.
We have to build to relationships with people in order to understand what issues matter to them. 1-on-1 conversations first take place within a congregation, then from these individual conversations, the information about what people care about helps each congregation decide what issues they’re interested in, in conjunction with the other congregations that are part of the network.
The local CBCO network picks issues in the community that are of interest to all of the congregations involved. Healthcare, housing, and education are the top three issues being worked on across the country, as the process is mostly focused on local issues.
The emphasis is placed on the local, municipal, and state level and then only occasionally on the national level. The theory is that you place your attention and energy in places where you have access to levers of power and the ability to actually make concrete change for members of your congregation.
I believe that this is a very “Reconstructionist” model, as it is a type of lay-rabbinic partnership, with the potential to help transform a congregation. It really is a classic example of “empowering,” working to empower everyone in the congregation. The methodology builds leadership from grass-roots level upward, building leaders within the congregation.
JFSJ's approach is to work through the national Jewish denomination, working with all levels of the movement, to encourage synagogue involvement. We’re especially focusing on training rabbis and rabbinical students. We’re currently working in eight different seminaries and will be teaching a practical rabbinic’s class at RRC this spring.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Director of Outreach, External Affiliations and Tikkun Olam for JRF.
The CBCO model includes extensive training over months – the entire training process can take over a year – it represents a long-term methodology.
The model can affect transformation internally within the synagogue as well as transformation externally across movements and denominations, affecting social justice change in the world.
During this process, people come together regarding a shared issue in which there’s not controversy (i.e., not gay marriage or abortion). The issues selected are those that everyone can sign onto.
Through our partnership with the National Coalition Building Institute, our own resources and other organizations we are affiliated with, we hope to bring to the table a specific skill set to augment the process with a greater awareness of class dynamics/issues and internalized and externalized ant-Semitism in these types of interfaith coalitions.
Class and variations of anti-Semitism may get in the way as more Jews get involved. Additionally, as more of our Muslim brothers and sisters get involved, we’ll be in the position to help address those issues as well.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ:
I first became excited about this approach by attending the first K’hilot K’doshot conference two years ago in New Jersey. Shortly afterwards I called everyone in the Reconstructionist movement that I could think of and told them, "This is our model!"
This fall, I also attended a seven-day training sponsored by the Gamaliel Foundation, the national network to which our CBCO organization belongs. I found this training to be one of the most transformative and profound training experiences for my rabbinate (apart from rabbinical school which took place over 6 years).
Initially, there were some frustrations that we didn’t immediately dive in to working on local community "tikkun olam" issues. We first need to understand what our problems/interests are, and then these eventually lead us to issues to address.
The more relationships we have, the more redemptive the process will be. Developing and strengthening the relationships amongst members of our community is valuable regardless of whether we ever bring any issues into action through the CBCO process.
This is a spiritual process – you need to enter into it with an open mind. Initially, we had no idea of what would come from the involvement and participation of our own members
As we build momentum through the 1-on-1 and house meeting process, we have a lens to find out both what is in my individual self-interest, and what is in the self-interest of my congregants.
Through this process, we’ve been able to identify challenges and issues unique to our congregation. From there we can discover how to address these issues, finding the appropriate mechanism, whether within the context of CBCO or through other vehicles.
Specifically through our 1-on-1s, we discovered a need for Israel programming of which we had not been aware, and now have developed the infrastructure to address through member-sponsored programming.
Integral to this approach of tikkun olam is the importance of doing things in community. At Bnai Keshet, we’ve found it to be extremely important to always be continuing to bring people along.
Several members of Bnai Keshet had attended an action with Jubilee Interfaith Organization before I had. Two years ago, I attended the first Jewish Funds for Justice sponsored K’hilot K’doshot conference with other members of the synagogue.
The best way to understand congregation-based organizing is just to do it. Taking the leap and attending an event or training will speak volumes more than any conversation or any book that we can read. The process itself changes the dynamic of the conversation. The whole surrounding process changes people’s desire to buy-in, and has the potential to impact other aspects of the congregation.
Members of Bnai Keshet had an initial expectation of high levels of transparency and high levels of process. However, since we found this to be of higher importance for us than it was for the other members of the organization, we became willing to advocate for it.
We came to understand that while it was imperfect that our CBCO may not have been as democratic as we wanted it to be, since it does so many other things right, we are still willing to be engaged. We also believe that our efforts to democratize the organization will be beneficial to the organization as a whole.
At Bnai Keshet, our involvement with community organizing happened alongside our pre-existing Tikkun Olam committee framework, and didn’t replace it. We came to understand that we ultimately needed to bring in more people than just the members of the tikkun olam committee in order to be successful. For example, the current Bnai Keshet president is planning on attending the next Gamaliel-sponsored seven-day training
Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA:
Dorshei Tzedek has been involved with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) for approximately 6 years, and has been a formal member for 3 years.
Members of Dorshei Tzedek began attending GBIO events before we officially joined and before we started our own series of house meetings and 1on1s. In our case, one of our members, a professional organizer, pushed it, and through her leadership, she eventually got other people excited and involved.
It’s very important to involve the board of your congregation in this process. There needs to be buy-in from various segments of the community. You can’t just depend on the rabbi. If just the tikkun olam committee is involved, the same 5-6 people running around and doing things, you won’t be successful.
Formally joining a CBCO organization is a sizable commitment. We contribute approximately 1% of our annual synagogue budget as dues. Each involved congregation becomes an organizational member, and pays dues.
Therefore, formal affiliation usual requires a vote because of the financial commitment. In our case, at a critical point in the process, as a sizable number of people were involved, we joined through majority vote of the synagogue’s membership.
There are various ways for members to be involved. These range from one-time commitments to attend a large action where a local politician is held accountable to support a certain position, house meetings at someone’s home in which congregants each share a brief personal story and meet other members of the community, to more involved commitments.
In Reconstructionist communities, we tend to talk to each other anyway. Therefore, this model may end up being less transformative than it would be in synagogues that are run via a more top-down, rabbi-driven model of leadership and decision-making. But the process can be very transformative in other ways. By having members talk about things happening in their lives, not just one-on-one with the rabbi, but in context of the greater congregation, the process can bring issues of the middle class to the forefront in ways that otherwise don’t happen.
At Dorshei Tzedek, many of these conversations happened during communal Shabbat dinners. Members are given an opportunity to share a personal story with public implications.
Even with the preconception that we are a largely middle/upper class community, experiences were raised that both touched and surprised people. People brought parts of themselves to the synagogue that had not yet been shared before, apart from individual side conversations.
Especially in regards to our efforts fighting for affordable healthcare, we discovered that there are really no issues that Dorshei Tzedek is going to “win” by itself. Taking a bus to Washington D.C., is nice but won’t be enough to pass a bill. But we passed a health care bill through GBIO. It’s hard to imagine any other type of activism that would have the same type of concrete actual results.
At Dorshei Tzedek, this is our main Tikkun Olam activity right now. It isn’t displacing other initiatives. Before our involvement with GBIO, there really wasn't much else happening.
In terms of communication, each new member has a 1-on-1 with a member of the membership committee, and the tikkun olam leaders reach out to new members for actions and other GBIO-related activities. Ultimately, though, this type of relational approach to tikkun olam happens best in person, and via phone, and not on email, apart from announcing events.
Lisa Schneier, member of Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA:
One-on-ones are counter-cultural in our society. These interactions create a deep sense of connection. We become aware of each other on another level, leading to internal actions. We become able to create structures in our community that can respond to people’s stated needs. The level of contact with one another increases and transforms the community and people’s level of connection to the community.
Karen Greenberg-Perkus, member of the SAJ, New York, NY:
I did a number of one-on-ones with SAJ members and found them to be very rewarding. But before that, I was interviewed by a member of our congregation who made me feel very comfortable by taking a keen interest in everything I had to say my Jewish background and my commitment to social action. I was then able to approach other people in the same manner, and I learned a lot about who they were, what really mattered to them, why they were members of our synagogue, and what their aspirations were.
The interviews also made me feel a special rapport with them that I didn't feel with those I knew only casually, and a couple of lasting friendships developed out of this. I think the one-on-ones are a wonderful way to bind people together and make them feel like they're a community and important to one another, which merely labeling the membership "a community" cannot do. This is important nowadays and in a big city, where it is easy to feel disconnected.
Also, a number of suggestions for making our synagogue more responsive to members' needs were forthcoming and very useful. I would recommend that all synagogues do it.
Ellen Kolba, member of Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ:
House meetings have been a very important part of the experience for Bnai Keshet, helping use to build a base within the congregation.
They have been enormously helpful – one of the most important pieces for me, in enabling us to increase the involvement of our members – so that they understand what we’ve been doing.
Everyone has felt that the house meetings have become a useful membership in-reach tool on their own, even if we don’t go beyond the actual meetings to address of the social justice issues that were raised during the meetings.
And to some degree, we have managed to go beyond these meetings, to deal with the issues that were raised - which is good too, when that happens.
House meetings succeed because they bring together groups up people, members of the congregation, that don’t necessarily hang out together at Kiddush, or other synagogue functions.
After having attended a house meeting, participants often say that this was "… the first time that I’ve really felt connected to the community, more so than just talking with other people at Kiddush." This has even been true for some long-term members of the community.
The house meetings are successful, not just because we’ve created new physical groupings of people – bringing together members from different segments of the community – e.g., newer members and people that have been around longer -but that during the house meetings, a very structured conversation takes place. They’re not really social gatherings. Through this conversation, the attendees reflect on deep feelings and aspects of their lives. The “intense” nature of this conversation is what leads to this feeling of connectiveness.
I’ve been a very active member of Bnai Keshet for more than 25 years, including having served as co-president in the early 90s. After a period of high involvement, feeling that I had served on many different committees, in various roles, I needed a break. I dropped back, and took a bit of a sabbatical for a while.
In the meantime, the synagogue continued to grow – a lot of new people had joined. I still had friends within the community, people I was close with – but I also noticed many new faced of people that I didn’t know. I was still somewhat involved – but mostly with things that didn’t involve going to committee meetings. They were mostly one-shot things that I could do on my own, in which I wasn’t running into a lot of new people.
>b>Eventually, I wanted a new role, something new to do within the community- and hoped for a way to connect with all of the new members. I eventually found that through participating in the one-on-ones and house meetings at Bnai Keshet.
For me personally, one of the frustrating things has been our involvement with the our local CBCO group. It has sometime been a little bit of an uphill struggle to find our place within the organization, in our attempt to work on issues that that matter to our community, but that also serve the interests of a large group of people. This has been a hard balance to keep. There has also been some structural problems between the local and state CBCO group that has worked to the disadvantage of both organizations.
My degree of personal involvement has somewhat ebbed because of these hurdles , as the organizations are still figuring out their restructuring. It’s more difficult being involved on the state level, working on broader state issues, as opposed to only working on local concerns.
In the two years of being members of our local CBCO, we’ve managed to make some inroads on the issue of affordable housing.
Although we haven’t achieved any concrete policy changes yet, we’re researching and learning about the issue – including noticing how it affects members of Bnai Keshet, living including right here in Montclair and the surrounding areas.
The involvement with our CBCO has become a good vehicle, giving us a push to get out there and find out the history of past affordable housing efforts and campaigns, such as past the history of past attempts to create a "rent control" program in Montclair – learning how and why these past attempts have failed.
Some members of Bnai Keshet are moving away from Montclair when they retire, even though they would ideally like to remain within the community. It has mostly been because of the rising cost of housing, including the high property taxes. This issue also sometimes affects young couples who are members of our community.
It has been reported that low-income and below African-American enrollment in our public schools is gradually decreasing, as more and more African-American families no longer can afford to live in our community. Many residents of Montclair, including Bnai Keshet members, especially take pride in its diversity, and want to remain living in a truly integrated community.
Property tax reform and the issue of education funding are two issues on the horizon, that might be addressed by our CBCO in a substantive way – that reflect issues about which Bnai Keshet members care deeply. It is less so for immigration issues, which are also being addressed by the CBCO.
Role of the Rabbi/convincing the congregation
At Bnai Keshet, our rabbi has had to spend a good amount of time “selling” the congregation as a whole, that this kind of “political” involvement is good.
He’s had to convince them that this approach is “..not just something that he’s thought off” – but that it’s part of and reflective of a certain time-tested approach of community building and social action, that has been successful in synagogues in the past.
He needs to show how CBCO work connects with Jewish values.
He needs to address the question of
- Why not just care about Israel?
- Why is he talking about politics?
Time needs to be spent on "selling" this approach within the congregation, because of the potential disconnect – in that it is not necessarily addressing/solving concrete day-to-day problems in the lives of Bnai Keshet members.