One Sunday last summer a group of congregants from Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, gathered at a local church. There, alongside their Christian and Muslim neighbors, they hammered stakes into the ground and built what looked like a solemn, free-standing clothes line, a sea of multi-colored t-shirts set in neat rows across the lawn.
In fact, what they built was a memorial, in which each tshirt represented one of the 145 people who had lost their lives to gun violence in Delaware County over the past five years. The event was organized by Heeding God’s Call, an interfaith group dedicated to preventing gun violence, and one of several organizations Ohev Shalom volunteers with in the Chester area. That location is no accident: the town, next to Wallingford, was once home to the congregation. Today it’s a community in need. From fighting gun violence to improving the educational system to providing supplies and food for low-income families, the synagogue is involved with every aspect of life in Chester in a hands-on way.
This large-scale, sustained involvement in social action is not isolated to Pennsylvania’s Ohev Shalom. Rather it is part of a larger change in the way many Conservative synagogues incorporate social action and tikkun olam, repairing the world, into the lives of their kehillot. These congregations are moving social action from an occasional community activity to a core part of what defines synagogue life.
And as they do, they’re finding it a powerful tool for engaging people who no longer join synagogues out of obligation, but as a way to find meaning in their lives.
“If we want to bring more people into our tent, we need to broaden our perspective and challenge ourselves to see things differently, to see God’s work as outside of the synagogue,” explains Rabbi David Baum of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton, Florida.
To do this in South Florida, Baum and his congregants partner with an interfaith group that gleans extra produce from local farmers’ fields at the end of the season and donates it to the local food bank. Aside from the obvious biblical allusions, Baum encourages his congregants to see the very performance of service as holy and integrally connected with Jewish tradition.
“We have these commandments to feed the hungry and look out for the less fortunate,” he says. “When people learn and then do it, they become more connected to Judaism and God.”
Baum and his fellow Conservative rabbis engaging in this kind of work believe that connecting the Torah’s commandments to hands-on social action breathes new life into Jewish observance and creates more entry points into a synagogue.
“Seeing tangible results from what a religion says about the world is really important,” says Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom, a large congregation in Encino, California. “So when our religion says that we should think about the stranger and the orphan that means we need to think about the stranger and the orphan and act on their behalf – otherwise these words become hollow.”
Valley Beth Shalom runs several initiatives focused on the homeless and the hungry, including running a full-scale food bank out of the synagogue. “It’s about showing that Judaism doesn’t end in the four walls of the synagogue, when we take our tallis off – it begins in that moment,” Farkas believes.
Like several of his colleagues, Farkas capitalizes on the community organizing skills he learned as part of JOIN for Justice, which trains Jewish leaders in building community to effect social change. For the last several years, JOIN has trained hundreds of rabbinical and education students, as well as rabbis across denominations, to use the tools of organization to deepen community engagement.
In 2013, the group held a training for members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Jay Kornsgold, chair of the Rabinical Assembly’s social justice commission, says the event represents a shift in Conservative Judaism toward putting more emphasis on social action and social justice. “A few years ago this wouldn’t have been possible,” Kornsgold said of the meeting, which attracted over 40 rabbis.
Community organizing techniques are the ultimate in “relational Judaism” and indeed JOIN was mentioned in Dr. Ron Wolfson’s influential book of the same name. As Farkas explains, the approach involves engaging congregants in conversations, hearing their stories, and identifying issues they’re passionate about. Efforts are then organized around those issues and lay leaders are empowered to take ownership of the causes.
Organizing around social justice is a powerful way to uncover leadership potential in synagogue members and to deepen relationships among them, says Farkas. What’s more, it offers fresh, alternative ways for people to embrace Jewish texts and tradition.
“Viewing social action on par with Torah study or prayer isn’t a radical approach,” he says, “but rather brings the Torah’s lessons to life and engages congregants in a way that is more relevant and applicable to their lives outside of the synagogue walls.”
Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina, agrees. “The beauty of Conservative Judaism,” he says, “is that we’re holding with both hands the commitment to chesed and tikkun olam, and we’re not going to give up one iota of commitment to Torah learning and davening minchah. That’s going to help us have greater appreciation for God’s world and greater inspiration to go out and do something and make a difference in people’s lives.”
Solomon and his synagogue’s social action committee have spent the last year transforming the structure of their congregation in order to move social action to its center. Social action chair Deborah Goldstein describes a “conscious decision to move beyond bar and bat mitzvah projects” and to look at social action “not as something that we do, but rather something that we are, part of how we express our Jewishness.”
To that end, the committee came up with a new, four-pronged plan that calls for developing focused, synagogue-wide themes; taking a stand on certain issues; garnering greater financial support for social action projects; and recognizing congregants who are active in social justice, whether in or outside of the synagogue.
For the program’s inaugural year the synagogue chose food insecurity as its primary issue. Sisterhood, Men’s Club, USY, and the Hebrew school participated in several related projects, from walking for the cause to making food at local shelters to examining the food sources for the menus at synagogue events.
The call for advocacy, or “taking a stand,” has led a number of synagogue members, rallied by Rabbi Solomon, to speak out on various issues, including defending gay marriage, holding a protest at a local Wendy’s because of the company’s failure to sign the Fair Food Agreement, and releasing a statement against the local legislature’s decision to open each session with a religious, Christian prayer.Solomon calls the willingness to get involved with these causes, “holy chutzpah.”
“Tzedakah and collections are critical,” he says. But “we as Jews were maligned and discriminated against and must speak out to prevent that from happening to others.”
It can be challenging for congregations to take on a political role. Jim Duley, former co-chair of Beth Meyer’s social action committee says the wide spectrum of opinions at Beth Meyer has definitely been a hurdle but, he added, “Social action is not about liberal or conservative values. It’s about Jewish values.”
Goldstein asserts that advocating for change and directly helping people in need go hand in hand. “If people don’t have the ability to find food because of agriculture, bad trading policies, or global change, then they’re always going to be hungry,” she notes. At the same time, people are hungry and need food. “If you don’t meet the larger needs nothing changes, but if you don’t meet the immediate needs, there’s nobody to change it for.”
The members of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Pennsylvania have continued to deepen their relationship with the congregation’s former hometown of Chester. The project received a substantial, unexpected boost two years ago when an anonymous congregant gave the synagogue a $50,000 donation to be allocated to different local charities. To manage the grant the synagogue formed a committee, which accepts proposals from charities and picks a handful to fund.
Among the Chester organizations selected so far are the ABC House, which provides housing for inner city students attending a private high school, the Adult Literacy Council, and most recently, the Chester Charter School for the Arts.
Jeremy Gerber, Ohev Shalom’s rabbi, says the relationship with Chester epitomizes the way ancient Jewish texts can retain their relevance and resonate with contemporary Jews. “Conservative Judaism speaks quite a bit about finding the balance between Jewish values and secular values – for example, coming from slavery and needing to help those who are still enslaved. I think that we can reframe it and say it isn’t about slavery and Egypt anymore, it isn’t about some ancient people, but rather this is about you and me and the people three miles down the road. When you help them it makes your life better and connects you back to your Jewish community.”
Making social action a central pillar of synagogue life clearly makes a positive impact on the world. But there’s evidence it does good things for synagogues, too – deepening relationships, giving people the sense of purpose and connection that so many seek, and helping more Jews see Judaism as a living tradition.
“There have been people who were not as connected before who are now more connected,” said Baum. “There are people for whom prayer is not their thing, they don’t necessarily want to come to shul on Shabbat, but when we are in fields together they connect to that, so we’re touching more people than before.”
Still, shifting congregational attitudes toward adopting this model can be slow going. “I like to think of the work we do as planting seeds and letting them germinate a little bit,” says Gerber. “A couple of years isn’t that much time to change a culture, but if the funding is secured, the organizations still want us to be involved, and the relationships are good and just going to get stronger, we’ll get there.”
Farkas says there’s a pressing need for new models of congregational engagement. “Synagogues at their core are groups of people who believe it’s important to live life together. In generational shifts, when the second or third generation no longer feels that it has a stake in that mission, institutions calcify and begin to crumble.”
Social action is a powerful way to prevent that calcification, Farkas explains, “It lets people feel the warmth of community and the passion for applying Judaism to their lives. Seeing tangible results from what a religion says about the world is really important.”
For many, the renewed focus on social action is a way of rediscovering something Jews have always done and always believed.
“We didn’t call it social action,” said Goldstein. “We called it taking care of each other, or looking out for the community, and most of us just do it instinctively. As we move forward and think about who we are, this is part of it. This is who we’ve always been.”