Rabbinical Students Focus on Activism

By Jennifer Siegel

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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After several years of volunteering in a soup kitchen, rabbinical student Stephanie Kolin felt like a modern-day Sisyphus, pushing the rock of poverty endlessly uphill.

“Every Monday I would go, and every Monday the same people would come back,” said Kolin, a fifth-year student at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary. “Logically it made sense, but emotionally I could not handle it.”

Kolin’s frustrations spurred her to look for more systemic ways of making a difference, eventually leading her to sign up last fall for the first inter-denominational for-credit class in community organizing offered to rabbinical students. The effort, spearheaded by the anti-poverty advocacy group the Jewish Fund for Justice, involves four seminaries, ranging from Orthodox to Reconstructionist.

The class is one of several efforts to inject a dose of activism into communal life.

A new organization called Jewish Seminarians for Social Justice brought students from 10 seminaries to the April 30 rally for Darfur in Washinton, after which the group held its first official meeting.

The Union for Reform Judaism, America’s largest synagogue movement, is preparing to launch its own major initiative in community organizing this summer. The Just Congregations program will offer to 12 pilot synagogues advice and technical support for social justice work.

The initiatives are emblematic of the rising profile of political organizing in the Jewish community. While American Jews have been linked closely to activist campaigns since the dawn of the labor movement in the 19th century, synagogues and rabbis often have failed to take part in such initiatives. But according to Jewish community leaders, that has begun to change.

According to Benjamin Ross, organizing director of the Jewish Fund for Justice, ambitious synagogue-based social action efforts have taken root over the past decade in several cities, including Omaha, Neb.; Columbus, Ohio, and Austin, Texas. Ross said that his organization is launching its own pilot program, which will create partnerships among synagogues in several different cities as well as assist the Reform union with its new Just Congregations program.

“All people of faith who care about everybody having a decent home to live in — everybody having a living wage, access to public education, health care — have seen the language of faith co-opted by those who claim to have a monopoly of faith on certain social issues,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, head of the Reform movement’s Just Congregations program. “I think there is a hunger among people… to take back the church or synagogue as an engine for social change in this country.”

Members of Boston’s Temple Israel, where Pesner currently coordinates social action programs, took the lead in designating the congregation’s 150th-anniversary year, 2005, as one of “acts of justice.” The project was developed through a synagogue-wide consultation process, during which roughly 500 members met in informal groups of 10 to 15 people to study Jewish texts and discuss public issues that concerned them. The decision to focus on the health care campaign emerged out of those conversations.

We want to move beyond “My kid needs to be bar mitzvahed, [or] the building needs to be fixed,” said Anne Gorfinkle, who, as chair of the Tikkun Olam Committee at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J., worked with Stephanie Kolin. “This model can help us move beyond that to be an institution that is in a development mode or an action mode. We have a stake in accomplishing something.”

At the same time, as with any endeavor that aspires to a deep and honest exchange of viewpoints, there are clearly risks involved.

Gorfinkle acknowledged that she sometimes wonders: “What if the outcome is not something nice?”

“We are sort of opening ourselves up to hearing some things that are not consistent with some of our values.… The discussion could be very myopic or based on self-interest.”

In Boston and elsewhere, many faith leaders rely on a model for community-based work that was pioneered in the 1930s by organizer Saul Alinsky, whose how-to book, “Rules for Radicals,” has been mandatory reading for American leftists for more than a quarter-century. Rather than starting with an issue such as homelessness or pollution and then recruiting people to work on it, they attempt to follow the interests of community members. In many areas, this has led to interfaith coalitions on issues of mutual concern, such as affordable housing and public education. In Boston, local churches and synagogues collected 40,000 signatures to help put a health-care access initiative on the statewide ballot in November.

The goal of the new interdenominational course is to equip young rabbis to organize such efforts.

In the class of 15 rabbinical students, which brings several Modern Orthodox students and two Modern Orthodox teachers together with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist students, the task of sharing across denominational differences can be a challenge, despite the group’s commitment to the communication process.

“We’re definitely coming from different definitions about what a just Jewish community would look like, and we haven’t fully addressed” it, said Eli Kukla, who, in her student pulpit, serves a 500-family Reform congregation in Toronto that actively welcomes lesbians and gays as well as non-Jewish partners. “In terms of really tackling the fact that gender and sexuality are a big divide between the more progressive movements and the more traditional movements, there has been a certain amount of fear” about “how would we keep this pluralistic group together, if we really spelled out what our different goals might be.”

On a recent Sunday evening at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rabbinical students — whose course is known officially as the “JFSJ Rabbinical Student Fellowship for Leadership in Public Life” — were gathered around a conference table and eating kosher pizza. The evening’s agenda included a Jewish text study about the origins of power, a case study of a community housing campaign in Brockton, Mass., and a free-flowing discussion about the qualities of leadership. During much of the discussion, students wrestled with how they would balance their many competing rabbinical roles — pastoral counselor, religious leader, teacher, prophetic voice — and the degree to which they should attempt to set the social justice agenda in the congregations they will serve.

Margie Klein is one of the organizers behind Jewish Seminarians for Social Justice. Before becoming a rabbinical student at Boston’s Hebrew College, she spent four years as an environmental organizer. For Klein, faith and values are two of the most powerful tools in sustaining political action over the long term.

“Often in the activist community, I think people forget why they started working on a campaign in the first place,” Klein said. “I came to rabbinical school to learn to speak prophetically. The Jewish tradition and the Jewish community allow us to talk about what we care about in ways that connect with people’s values and motivation for doing social justice work.”

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