[URJBiennial] What Does It Mean to Be Good?
[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Heller and Rabbi Michael Melchior

[URJBiennial] Integrating Social Justice Throughout the Congregation

"It has been said, don't just build a congregation -- build a just congregation!" This panel aimed to help us figure out how to integrate social justice throughout synagogue life. It was led by Rabbi Marla Feldman of New York, NY (the URJ's director of Social Action), Rabbi Steven Chester of Oakland, CA, and Sharon Polansky of Toronto, ON. They began by handing out a veritable library of papers, including two little bound booklets, Speak Truth to Power: A Guide for Congregations Taking Public Policy Positions and K'hilat Tzedek: Creating a Community of Justice.

I arrived slightly late to this one, having spent a while standing in line at Starbucks for a truly enormous mocha (a scant five hours of sleep + lots of intellectual stimulation = Rachel In Need Of Coffee) so I walked in as they were beginning a text study session looking at Jeremiah 22:13-16, a passage which begins, "Woe to one who buildings a house by unrighteousness, and chambers by injustice, who uses a neighbor's service without wages..."

Rabbi Feldman led us through the Jeremiah passage, looking first at Jeremiah's context and then at the messages in the text. We need to consider how we treat those who build our structures; we need to build structures (both literal and metaphoric) with mindfulness; just because we can build with expensive materials, doesn't preserve us from sorrow. Only those who build on a foundation of justice will survive.

Think of our sanctuaries: most of them are beautiful. And that's a mitzvah, to beautify our practice of mitzvot! But it's not enough for our congregational structures to be beautiful on the outside; the measure of our wealth is not our buildings, our Torah mantles, our expensive artwork or stained glass, but rather how we treat our employees. Our workers, from the rabbinic and professional staff all the way down to the janitors. Do we pay our janitors a living wage -- not minimum, but living? How do we treat our secretaries when we walk in the door? How do we treat our youth workers, usually the most underpaid members of our staffs?

Our wealth lies in how we infuse our programming with justice. How does the board begin its meetings, how does it perceive its role? Does the board only deal with the color of the carpet and the ordering of a new copier, or does it also deal with questions like "why are we here" and "how are we using this building?" Do we worry as much about whether children are playing in our classrooms, about whether we can shelter the homeless under our roofs, as we do about the construction of the places?

It is permissible to sell a Torah scroll if it is needed to feed the hungry in our community. There's a real imperative in our tradition to social action and creation of justice!

Rabbi Feldman asked us about our congregational mission statements: how many of them include language about justice or social action? (Most, apparently.) So then, do our various committees -- worship, ritual, education, building and grounds -- do their work with that in mind? Do they integrate the trio on which the world stands (Torah, service/worship, and gemilut chasadim/acts of lovingkindness) into everything they do?

When we join Reform congregations, we know we're part of a community for which social justice is a pillar. We join expecting worship and holiday services; we should also join expecting to be a part of a community that works toward social justice, a community that values everyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation, a community where gemilut chasadim and Torah are both the pillars of our world.

What would it look like if every aspect of congregational life really integrated social justice, really integrated Torah and avodah and gemilut chasadim? (Not a rhetorical question!) Arguably our education programs "get" this -- they do book-learning, alef-bet and Torah; they worship and learn prayer; they collect tzedakah money and decide where to put it. Social justice and worship and learning are all wrapped up together.

"Because we're Jews and we're Reform Jews, we need to be engaged in the world around us, and we need to partner with others to make the world a better place. This is the totality of what we are."

Sharon Polansky offered a case study of her shul, Temple Sinai in Toronto, from the creation of a focus group to discuss these matters, through a series of meetings (with names like "The Roles of Individual Social Activists and Synagogue Leadership in Social Action" and "Institutional Emphasis on Social Action" and "Methods of Social Action Integration") and then the outcomes of the process.

Then Rabbi Steven Chester gave his congregational history, as another illustrative example of a community that made a concerted effort to integrate social justice into everything that they do. His shul is also called Temple Sinai, though they're in Oakland, California -- which is relevant, because they made a conscious choice to stay in the inner city of Oakland rather than going someplace else. They want to be a downtown congregation, putting their fate and their faith in that context.

He talked about their process of coming to integrate social action with other parts of their congregational life: inventorying their activities, identifying other needs in the area, identifying issues that weren't currently being addressed (everything from domestic violence to the need for a livable wage), and then building a social action committee that could begin to deal with those issues.

One of his handouts included some interesting and instructive points: in 2002 their board adopted a resolution to speak publicly on issues of social justice. Every year they open their doors to welcome members of neighboring communities, for a Pesach celebration, their annual Freedom Seder, which always involves members of at least four faith traditions. And they place a lot of import on the dichotomy outlined by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, who outlined Judaism's two distinctive roles of "priestly" (feeding, helping, healing) and "prophetic" (exposing the underlying causes of problems and changing them).

On the whole: the latter two-thirds of the panel didn't captivate my attention, maybe because my brain is getting a little bit full and I'm having an easier time connecting with interactive presentations than with lectures, but the first part was terrific, and I came away with a clear sense of the importance of integrating social action with the rest of the things our congregations do.

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