Thursday, May 11, 2006

In Defense of Big "Boring" Midwestern Shuls

As a committed havurah jew i often consider how the other half live (or other 96.4% or whatever).
Generally we look across the aesthetic divide and thank our lucky stars that our communities have a vibrancy, egalitarianism, and intensity that we cherish. Every so often though I get excited about some aspect of mainstream, old skool, big synagogues. Reading A Ben Ross post on gave me one of those moments. He said:

More than once, even within Jewish Funds for Justice, I have been questioned about this so-called model of congregation-based organizing. Sure it can happen in pockets of Boston, maybe even in San Francisco and little glimmers in NY and LA, but what about the rest of America?

Well fire up the ovens and load the justice knishes, because we are going to have a lot of justice hungry congregants ready to chow down on this. On Monday night I witnessed 1500 hundred congregants from 40+ faith institutions, members of BREAD, a congregation-based community organizing organization, raise their voices, spirits, and red flags - releasing a holy call for justice.

One of the cool things about congregations is that if they are structured well they have lots and lots of social capital. The big shuls can have hundreds of congregants, even thousands. Sure they aren't all involved on any given day, but there are a lot of people who get involved in specific niches. If you have 1500 people in a shul and that shul commits to progressive values, they sure can make a difference in a town like columbus, a town like omaha, or a town like Augusta. I would love to see our leaders be leaders in local progressive movements. Our havurot to great work and are very involved in holy and progressive (hopefully redundant) work. But we have never built the engines and frameworks that the synagogues have and when they commit to justice the resources and systems can make a big difference awful quick.
Take Darfur, my brothers and sisters in the Reconstructionist movement realized there was a major need to bear witness. Pretty soon the main office developed resources for local congregations and they went out to over a hundred congregations and pretty soon a lot of people who didn't know janjaweed from gingerbread (like me) had called the president. At their best that's what congregations can do. I think its a useful thing to step back and appreciate how they are organized every so often. Sometimes I wish we were organized to make those sorts of asks and learn that quickly in our organizations.


At 5/13/2006 , Anonymous Rooftopper Rav said...

Is this a takeoff on

Anyway, you write: At their best that's what congregations can do.

I agree with you generally speaking about mobilizing social capital, though I don't think Darfur even comes close to the best that congregations can do. While rallying or calling the President on issues like Darfur is important symbolically, I think the truly amazing potential of synagogues is their capacity to organize on the local level-- with other faith groups—to get down and dirty and really get things done . I'm a big fan of the IAF model (see

Churches, and increasingly some synagogues, have been building powerful, grassroots, non-hierarchical coalitions with the ability to make serious local change and create public leaders among the oppressed and disenfranchised. Sadly, Christian churches are way, way ahead on this one. I recently came back from a big action in Maryland organized by an IAF-affiliate that was quite inspiring. But of the 30+ member coalition, there was only one synagogue (in a geographic area with many synagogues).

My hope for the organized Jewish community is that we come to remember, on a large scale, our responsibility to work for justice in the communities where we live. And that “tikkun olam” doesn’t mean (or doesn’t just mean) staffing food pantries or running clothing drives, but rather working with our Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors for lasting, systemic change: a living wage, affordable housing, safe communities, quality public education, you name it. And that’s where I think synagogues could do some of their best work. Never let it be said that RR doesn't think shuls have value!

At 5/17/2006 , Blogger ZT said...

amen RR.
i feel strongly that it isn't as important to say which issues are better to work on, as it seems that working on preogressive issues leads to working on more progressive issues.
that said, i agree with you that the IAF model is far superior to the common fighting poverty by using the pulling-the-SUV-over-to-give-out-sandwhiches and-feel-good-about-it-until-you-do-it-again-several-months-later approach to tzedek work.
darfur was a good and important international move where the IAF model isn't operative, and the IAF model is ideal for local social justice work.
so, yeah RR, i loved your analysis and agree with almost all of it!


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