On May 17, 2007, representatives from eight JRF congregations, national and regional JRF staff, and representatives from the Jewish Funds for Justice gathered via conference call to discuss their ongoing community organizing efforts.
Read my synthesized notes from the discussion.
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, 215-782-8500, ex.24, and see our Step-by-Step Guide to community organizing.
Jeannie Appleman – Jewish Funds for Justice, NY
Benjamin Ross- Jewish Funds for Justice, NY
Rabbi Steve Booth-Nadav, Bnai Havurah, Denver, CO
Joel Boymel – Bnai Havurah – Denver, CO
Cherie Kirschbaum – Bnai Havurah, Denver, CO
Randi Brenowitz – Keddem Congregation, Palo Alto, CA
Doug Smith – Keddem Congregation, Palo Alto, CA
Shoshana Bricklin – Mishkan Shalom, Philadelphia, PA
Val Kaplan- Oseh Shalom, MD/ JRF board
Rabbi Steve Segar – Kol HaLev, Cleveland, OH
Rabbi Toba Spitzer- Dorshei Tzedek, Newton, MA
Jane Susswein – Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ/ JRF Board
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman – Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ
Devorah Servi- JRF Western Regional Director
Brian Fink - JRF CBCO Intern/ Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student, PA
Rabbi Shawn Zevit- JRF Director of Outreach and Tikkun Olam
Shawn – welcome:
“Jewish civilization is a means to greater ends – the fulfillment of the individual, the responsibility of individuals to treat others as reflections of the divine image, and the responsibility of each community to seek global justice and peace among all communities.”
- Alpert, Rebecca and Staub, Jacob, Exploring Judaism A Reconstructionist Approach, Recon Press, p24
“At our best, Reconstructionists are willing to experiment and to act. If we immerse ourselves in this work we will be better Reconstructionists. Our critiques/perspectives will be a “gift” to the CBCO network. I want us to be agitational partners for each other - so that every single Reconstructionist shul will be involved in doing this work.”
- Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ
“In community organizing, we draw ourselves back to listen. This way of carrying on a conversation mostly by listening seems very values-based and Reconstructionist to me.”
- Doug Smith, Keddem Congregation, Palo Alto, CA
“The CBCO focus of examining the contrast between ‘the world as it could be’ and ‘the world as it is.’ I find similar to the Reconstructionist contrast of living between two civilizations”
- Michael Ramberg, RRC student
“I’m thinking of the term “organic community” which was coined by Mordecai Kaplan, which defines Jewish identity and self through belonging and connections with other people. CBCO reflects a new way of harnessing this energy. It is very Reconstructionist.”
- Rabbi Brant Rosen, JRC, Evanston , IL
“Congregation-based community organizing is not counter-cultural to Reconstructionism. Kaplan said that you start where Jews actually are. You start by sitting down and asking, “Who are you?” We need to learn how to use power in good ways, thereby adding to our language as Reconstructionists for dealing with power.”
- Rabbi Toba Spitzer, Dorshei Tzedek, Boston, MA
“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 Maddy Lee 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.”
- Karen Greenberg-Perkus, the SAJ, New York, NY
Rabbi Toba Spitzer:
One of the things that I’ve learned in this work – is that using an “external/internal frame” is a bad division to keep reifying.
The point is to strengthen our communities in service of greater transformation. We’re not honoring the internal coherence of this work if we don't talk about social justice/relationship within the community.
CBCO is about power - relational power. It helps us develop leaders; we then work together to take action.
From the house meetings that we completed almost a year ago, we have begun to develop a new elder care initiative. Now, a year later, we’ve defined a need to do a Torah of Chesed process – to figure out how we better support/care about each other. It is more internal but contiguous with this process, similar to our previous Torah of Money process, that has transformed our dues structure
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman:
The two things work well together.
Community organizing can become a shallow process if we don't find a way to take action after someone shares something in their life.
E.g, now that we've had people share info about their lack of healthcare, how can we position ourselves to address some of the real needs of our members. This helps us ... break down the dichotomy between community building and social justice...
Joel Boymel – Bnai Havurah:
I’m involved with affordable housing. We’re just starting to get things moving.
Jane Susswein – Bnai Keshet:
I have participated in 2-3 house-meetings.
The issue that has struck me, has been the issue of how we can find meaning after retirement. In the house-meetings that I attended, I remember hearing some heartbreaking testimonies – people are really searching for a meaningful life after they’ve stopped working. They are trying to figure out how we can create intentional communities as we retire - how can we be taken care of without being warehoused.
Shoshana Bricklin – Mishkan Shalom:
Mishkan Shalom has had a sample house meeting – with people involved with tikkun olam – led by Brian/Michael.
Right now, they have put things on hold because of their rabbinic search process. Things haven’t progressed further, though rabbinic candidates are committed to this work.
Mishkan had been involved in CBCO in the past, but had withdrawn from a network.
Benjamin Ross- Jewish Funds for Justice:
Recognized Toba and Elliott’s work.
1. Connect to other leaders who are doing this work. Connect with local clergy and members of local congregations who are already engaged in this work – discuss what it what it has meant to them and to their congregants.
2. Connect with a local organizing group. You may have do do some research – mostly through relational 1on1 work - to find out their history – find out if they’re an organization with whom you want to develop a relationship. Start scoping them out; attend meetings/actions/events. Get to know their organizer.
It’s very difficult for a synagogue to build power and do change-work on their own – it’s important to be part of a larger interfaith organization.
3. If this work is something that you’re interested in – you should think beyond the tikkun olam committee and the typical people who tend to do social justice work.
This approach is about tapping into and expanding a relational culture. Through the community organizing process, you need to bring in new people, developing new leaders. Often creating structures that are parallel to previous and other ongoing social justice work within your communities.
You need to build a strong core team, who understands the arc of organizing work, and what’s ahead...
4. You need to work with skilled trainers. This is one of the benefits of being connected with a local organizing group, and their national affiliate. The goal of CBCO organizations is to transform congregations and communities, investing them with leadership development and training.
If you have a good trainer, it’s a blessing to work with them. Attending a bad training can be more harmful than not being trained at all.
5. Taking things slow is often fruitful. Don't rush ahead. Take a second to check-in, making sure that you have the right group of people with you. Build a base. Have a solid core group. Don't bring an initiative or a proposal to a board of directors and larger congregation before you’re ready. Otherwise, it could be detrimental to your long-term goals.
6. If community organizing is only an exercise in building community - it can be very frustrating. Make sure that there’s an understanding that there’s an action component at the end of the work. The tachlis justice/change work needs to be there.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman:
I agree that there ultimately has to be an action component as well. You’ve been talking to each other, listening to each other, because you care deeply about the challenges that each other faces. If you then don't take action on the issues that affect the members of your community with whom you have a relationship, that can be very insulting.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer:
The action can be internal or external. In both cases, it’s not just leaving the issues as the problem that we’re all just kvetching about.
It is not necessarily just one linear process. You can work on many different levels, with a few different issues, at the same time. Some people like a long-term process, other people want to take action right away. It depends on their temperament.
At Dorshei Tzedek, people were taking actions on issues, visiting the local CBCO organization, going to pickets, meetings, etc, at the same time that we were getting the core commitments in place internally. This initial activity took place even before we began our internal house meeting process.
In this way, people are able to get a taste of what it feels like. It can be hard for people to understand community organizing until they experience it first-hand.
When 500 people show up, gathering to take action on health care, and the governor of the state comes to you – it’s a very different experience than writing letters to your local congressmen.
To be successful, you need organized people, and organized money, creating organized power.
The process will look different depending on the city/synagogue/leaders, etc.
It’s important for congregations to keep in mind the concept/idea of power. While a synagogue may not have the luxury not to run a local homeless shelter or other kind of service project because there are dire individual needs, they also need to do something larger, in order to have the ability to move people off the street. It can be very difficult, to almost impossible, for one individual synagogue to move a 2 billion affordable housing project – but a coalition of 40 congregations may be able to.
There is a housing/justice-nonprofit in Denver. While, one rabbi is a part of it, but no one else in the community. How can we get more of the mainstream Jewish community involved in these efforts?
Rabbi Toba Spitzer:
It starts from a simple place – people take action based on their self-interests.
This approach is relational based, not issue-based. We move from relationships, from people’s self interests, and then the issues later come out of that. You find out, that affordable housing and health care is actually really in everyone’s self interests.
This process is not about getting rabbis to show up, but is about mobilizing the Jewish community. In order to make change –you need to be in these relationships
You can look at the example of Columbus, Ohio – a small city with only about 20,000 Jews – 4 synagogues are involved, including a mainstream conversative synagogue. Being part of a smaller Jewish community doesn’t make it any easier or more difficult– it’s not any better or worse. It’s key, though, to have a good local organizer, like they do in Columbus. [Ben offered to connect Sheri with MOP (local Denver CBCO group)].
I’ve been teaching a course for credit at RRC, on community organizing. Teaching the methodologies/approaches of community organizing from/in a Jewish perspective. How to act powerfully in a public arena – in an interfaith process; in the context of a synagogue’s developmental process.
The challenge is adapting how this methodology has been taught from a more intensive week-long/3-day course into a longer 2-hour, once a week course. Context in which to practice what students have learned is very important – there is a need to internships and other fieldwork.
In terms of the students taking the class now:
- One is doing 1on1s with key people in order to create a map of the reconstructionist movement
- Elliot / Toba – both have interns – these students are learning how this works in a synagogue
- Other students that have more traditional pulpit internships have been doing 1ons with members/lay leaders - meeting with people – getting a sense of their communities
One of our goals is to create a market/pool of rabbinical students interested in this model; that can use this approach more readily when they are ordained rabbis
How can regional directors be of support?
Several congregations are involved with synaplex. How can synaplex events help CBCO planning?
Rabbi Lori Geller – in LA – synnaplex was successful at her synagogue, but she found that there were some people who hadn’t been engaged through this process.
Rabbi Elliott Tepperman:
Bnai Keshet is a synaplex synagogue = the goal of synaplex is to make Shabbat into prime time for members of congregations. Then, the next question is, what do we want to happen on Shabbat?
Can we use Shabbat and the structure of synaplex for house meetings? Broader congregational conversations, on issues that resulted from house meetings and 1on1s? Synaplex is merely the vehicle – creating a structure for having events on Shabbat.
Also much of community organizing doesn't just happen on Shabbat. Community organizing is about creating a relational culture; it is less about creating specific programming Both – CBCO and synaplex – are ways of making synagogues meaningful in people’s lives...
Rabbi Toba Spitzer:
regional staff –
- there’s no short cuts. You can’t do this work/this organizing over conference call/email
- very intensive 1on1s
- visiting congregations
- helping to make the match
-focusing on 1-3 congregations/areas – intensive 1on1 work
- Boston Nov 2008 – next JRF convention