The League to Fight Neurelitism: Resource Library



This document has been converted from a PDF file.

“People think that to be just is a virtue, deserving
honor and rewards; that in doing righteousness one
confers a favor on society. No one expects to receive a
reward for the habit of breathing. Justice is as much a
necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets

Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism



“People think that to be just is a virtue, deserving
honor and rewards; that in doing righteousness one
confers a favor on society. No one expects to receive a
reward for the habit of breathing. Justice is as much a
necessity as breathing is, and a constant occupation.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets


Simon the Just taught, “The world is sustained by three things: by the Torah, by
avodah, and by g’milut chasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2

As a central Jewish tenet, the pursuit of g’milut chasadim (righteousness) cannot be
separated from the important work of torah (study) and avodah (worship). These
three pillars of Jewish life are intertwined, one wrapped around the next. Is it
possible to truly understand the teachings of the Torah without feeling compelled
to act on behalf of the powerless and the needy? Is it possible to witness the
desperate need of the vulnerable among us without seeking strength and wisdom
from beyond ourselves to respond? Is it possible to pray to God without looking
into oneself and deciding to take action and make a difference in the world? The
combination of Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim strengthens each individual
value and leads one toward a fully realized Jewish life.

If our congregations, which are the heart and soul of Reform Judaism, effectively
integrate these key precepts of our tradition, congregants will experience a holistic
vision of the essence of Jewish life. They will be drawn into the synagogue as a
place that embodies the totality of Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim.

Social justice and social action grow out of and lead into study and prayer. Evely
Laser Shlensky, former chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform
Judaism, envisions a synagogue where, “Torah lishma (study for its own sake) is not
the goal of study. Rather, the study of Torah leads from the classroom to the streets,
the shelters, the public square, and the courthouse. [It is a temple where] worship
addresses both God and the human condition. It features not just Torah readers,
but also Torah enactors—people whose everyday lives are about redemption. It is
a synagogue in which social action projects integrate the work of our hands with
the wisdom and celebration of our tradition, and where the use of social
action blessings serves as a reminder that these acts, too, are an expression of our
relationship with the Source.”

This guide is intended to help congregations through a process of reflection to
determine where their social action programs fit in the scheme of congregational
life, and how they can become models of integrated, justice-seeking congregations,
like the synagogue envisioned above.

“[W]e were charged by our congregation’s leadership to figure out a way to make our Tikkun
Olam agenda truly the work of the congregation rather than the work of our Social Action
Committee. Our goal was for congregants to understand that Gemilut Chasadim is co-equal
with Torah and Avodah as one of the three pillars of Reform Judaism. After months of
deliberation, we replaced our Social Action Committee with the Social Justice Council, with
an officer of the congregation at its helm…This re-positioning has made all the difference.

Hanne Klein, Temple Emanu-El, Dallas


Special thanks to Rabbi Peter Knobel, who chaired the task force that shaped this guide,
and all those who sat on the task force: Doug Barden, Rabbi Karen Bender,
Ma rk Bu c h b i n d e r, Rabbi St e ve Chester, Judge David Davidson, Jill Gi n s b e r g ,
Robert Heller, Honey Heller, Renee Karp, Evely Laser Shlensky, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell,
Rabbi Seth Limmer, Sharon Morton RJE, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Rosanne Selfon,
Rabbi Joel Soffin, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, Dana Tarley, Jeff Willard, Jane Wishner, and
Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman.

We are grateful to our colleagues and friends who reviewed this publication and offered
their thoughtful suggestions for its improvement, including Rabbi David Saperstein,
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Mark Pelavin, Associate
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Elliott Kleinman,
Director of Program, Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman,
Director of the Department of Worship, Music, and Religious Living, Union for
Reform Judaism.

We are especially indebted to the congregations that participated in a pilot program to
provide feedback and insight on this guide. Those congregations were: Temple Beth Am
of Miami, FL, Temple Sinai of Toronto, ON, Beth Emet The Free Synagogue of
Evanston, IL, and Congregation Rodef Sholom of San Rafael, CA.

We greatly appreciate the work of our proofreader Jane E. Herman and Helayne
Friedland of the Union’s Production Department.

We are grateful to the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Conference and Program Fund of the
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and to the Nathan Cummings Foundation
for support of this project.

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Director,
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Deena Fox, Legislative Assistant,
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Copyright © 2004 by the Union for Reform Judaism


I. Discussion Guides

Overview of K’hilat Tzedek Model......................................................7

Session I: The Roles of Individual Social Activists and

Synagogue Leadership in Social Action ..........................................8

Session II: Institutional Emphasis on Social Action..........................11

Session III: Methods of Social Action Integration ............................13

II. One Step at a Time: How to Proceed with the Process

Guide to Conducting the K’hilat Tzedek Discussion Series ..............15
A Discussion Group Blueprint for Coordinators and Facilitators ....17
Outcomes ........................................................................................20
Looking Ahead ................................................................................22

III. A Model for Applying K’hilat Tzedek: Focus on Poverty ................23

IV. Appendices

Options for Organizing the K’hilat Tzedek Process ..........................27

Summary of the Social Action Integration Process

(Temple Israel, Boston) ................................................................28

Action Plan from the Social Action Integration Process

(Temple Emanu-El, Dallas) ..........................................................32

Sample Congregational and Social Action Committee

Mission Statements ......................................................................39

V. Materials for Distribution

A. Background Readings ................................................................A-1

B. Existing Social Action Work: A Questionnaire ..........................B-1

C. Text Study Sheets ......................................................................C-1

D. K’hilat Tzedek Coordinator Evaluation......................................D-1

E. K’hilat Tzedek Participant Evaluation ........................................E-1


K’hilat Tze d e k : Creating a Community of Ju s t i c e outlines a process that will help
congregations articulate and implement the goals of their social action program.

The process begins with an evaluation of the existing program and a three-part discussion series
in which a select number of congregants will participate. The three key areas for discussion and
reflection are:

• The roles of individual social activists and synagogue leadership in social action
• Institutional emphasis on social action
• Methods of social action integration
Following the three sessions, specific recommendations should be developed and an action plan
for implementation should be adopted by the congregation. This guide does not provide a
single blueprint that can be applied to every congregation; rather it is designed to inspire
conversations about the role of social action within the congregation that will result in positive
growth and renewed energy in the area of social justice. Each congregation will develop its own
unique path to becoming a K’hilat Tzedek (literally, “Justice Congregation”).

Potential outcomes of the process include the strengthening of connections between various
synagogue committees, temple affiliates (youth group, sisterhood, etc.) and the Social Action
Committee, deepening the concentration on social justice in the school curricula, broader
synagogue invo l vement in social action programming, and a re n ewed congre g a t i o n a l
commitment to social justice.

The discussion group methodology outlined here is adapted from materials prepared by the Departments of Worship,
Music and Religious Living and Synagogue Management.



Note to Facilitator: There are two options for text study at this session. Please feel free to choose one,
or to introduce the two foci of the meeting using the two texts. Attempt to limit the text study to 15
minutes, so that there is time to focus on the discussion questions.

Text Study 1:
Talmud Sotah 14a

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said:
What means the text: You shall
walk after Adonai your God? Is
it possible for a human being to
walk after the Shechinah; for
has it not been said: For Adonai
your God is a devouring fire?
But [the meaning is] to walk
after the attributes of the Holy
One, blessed is God. As God
clothes the naked, for it is written:
And Adonai, God made for
Adam and for his wife coats of
skin, and clothed them; so do
you also clothe the naked. The
Holy One, who is blessed, visited the sick, for it is written: And Adonai appeared unto Abraham
by the oaks of Mamre; so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed is God, comforted
mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed
Isaac his son; so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed is God, buried the dead,
for it is written: And God buried Moses in the valley; so do you also bury the dead.
Questions for Text Study 1

What does it mean to walk after Adonai?

Why must people engage in tikkun olam (repairing the world)?

Do we feel that we are doing God’s work when we engage in social justice?

How do we elevate social justice work to something that is d e e m e d

to be holy?


Text Study 2:
Talmud Baba Batra 9a

R. Eleazar said: One who causes
others to do good is greater than
the doer, as it says, And the work
of righteousness [t ze d a k a h]
shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quiet and confidence for ever.
Questions for Text Study 2

How can we and our congregation’s leaders “cause others to do good?”

How can our synagogue as an organization “cause others to do good?”

Is it enough for us to personally act as examples? Is it enough for our

leaders to act as examples?

Central Discussion

Note to Facilitator: Discuss as many questions from the list below as time allows. Think in advance
about which questions are most relevant for your synagogue community and ensure that you have time
to discuss those questions.

Read Aloud: Our theme for this, our first session, is the roles of individual activists and
synagogue leadership in social justice at our synagogue. We will be thinking reflectively about
how individuals and leaders within our temple community are currently engaged as activists and
considering what each of these groups has to offer our temple program. Let us begin our
conversation by discussing how individual members of our community currently “walk
after Adonai.”

Focus on Individuals

Who are the members of our congregation? What social action work are they engaged in
through their work and private lives? How can we acknowledge those activities? How can we
tap their existing expertise and interest in the congregation?
What are the needs of our congregants and the broader community? What are key areas of
stress and concern for them (childcare, healthcare, environmental justice, etc.)? How can we
use social action programming to address those concerns?
How can the congregation help individuals bring social action into their individual/family
lives and experiences?
How does our congregation empower congregants to “live” their values? What opportunities
does it provide? How does it encourage social action?
How can social action be framed for our members as a religious experience rather than
solely as an expression of their civic duties?

Focus on Leadership

1 .
How can our synagogue’s board support and acknowledge the social action work of
How can the clergy and other professional staff integrate social action themes into their
sermons, pastoral work, classes, and programs?
How can the professional staff assist the Social Action Committee in contextualizing social
action against the backdrop of Jewish texts and values?
How can the professional staff be most effectively involved is the work of the Social Action
If congregational leaders (lay and professional) are engaged in social justice work in their individual
capacities (e.g., sitting on boards of interfaith or communal organizations) how can we
tap into that experience as a tool to interest and/or expose other members of the
congregation to that activity?
Summary Question

What are our goals and priorities in terms of better engaging individuals and
leaders within our temple community as activists?

10 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


Note to Facilitator: Attempt to limit the text study to 15 minutes, so that there is time to focus on
the discussion questions.

Text Study:
Jeremiah 22:13-16

Woe to the one who builds a
house by unrighteousness, and
chambers by injustice; who uses a
n e i g h b o r’s service without wages,
and does not give the workers their
wages; Who said, I will build a
wide house and large chambers;
and cut out windows; and it is covered with rafters of cedar, and painted with vermilion. Shall
you reign, because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do judgment
and justice, and then it was well with him? Our father judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well with him; Was not this to know Me? says Adonai.

Questions for Text Study

What values are expressed in the text and how do they correlate with our
synagogue values?

How do we draw a line between acceptable comfort and excess? How do we
distinguish between reasonable business practices and unfair treatment of

How can a synagogue fail according to Jeremiah?

How can a synagogue be a positive example of Jeremiah’s message?

Central Discussion

Note to Facilitator: Discuss as many questions from the list below as time allows. Think in advance
about which questions are most relevant for your synagogue community and ensure that you have time
to discuss those questions.

Read Aloud: Our theme for this session is the importance of our synagogue’s structural
emphasis on social justice. We will be thinking reflectively about how it is possible to highlight
the significance of tzedek through congregational policies. Let us now begin our conversation
about the foundation of our communal “house.”

1 . If the congregation has a mission statement, is social action or the pursuit of justice a stated
part of the mission? If so, does the activity of the congregation reflect the stated mission?
What are the gaps between our stated mission and the reality of our activities? (Be sure to
have copies of the mission statement on hand if your congregation already has one written.)
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 11

2 .
If the Social Action Committee has a mission statement, is the mission fulfilled? What are
the gaps between our stated mission and the reality of our activities? (Be sure to have copies
of the mission statement on hand if your committee already has one written.)
3 .
If the congregation has a Mitzvah Day, what is the context for the Mitzvah Day? What is the
follow up? How is the importance of social action taught/emphasized in the schools, youth
groups, camps, sisterhood, brotherhood, etc. both before and after Mitzvah Day? Does our
focus on Mitzvah Day take away energy from other social action activities throughout the
year? Is an appropriate percentage of the congregation involved? How can we expand Mitzvah
Day to engage people throughout the year?
4 .
Does our congregation’s social action work address manifestations of problems alone, or the
root causes of those problems as well? How can our congregation effectively facilitate
advocacy on various social justice issues facing our community, nation, and world? What are
the issues that we should/could address? By what process should the congregation decide on
which issues to lobby?
5 .
How can the synagogue itself model social justice in its operation (salaries of union and
non-union labor, investment, energy efficiency, work place behaviors, outreach to the
disabled and elderly, concern for congregants and personnel with special needs)?
6 .
How does caring community relate to social action? In what ways can we integrate service to
our members with service to the community at large and advocacy?
7 .
Some congregations refer to their Social Action Committee using different terms, such as
Tikkun Ol a m Committee, Tze d e k Council, Social Justice Council, or Social Ac t i o n
Coordinating Committee. Do these different names better reflect our group’s mission and/or
role in the congregation? Is there significance in the terminology used and if so, should we
consider renaming our committee?
8 .
Is the Social Action Committee organized in a way that maximizes involvement and
participation by congregants of all ages and interests? If not, what are the barriers to
participation? How might we restructure the committee to engage more people in the work
of social justice?
Summary Question

What are our goals and priorities in terms of creating a synagogue structure
that reflects a commitment to social justice and maximizes participation?

12 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


Note to Facilitator: Attempt to limit the text study to 15 minutes, so that there is time to focus on
the discussion questions.

Text Study: A Parable Regarding the Spiritual Imperative of Social Justice as told by Rabbi
Janet Marder, CCAR President, 2004

The story is told of a certain pious Jew who would come to synagogue day-in
and day-out, always hoping for the spiritual experience he had heard so much
about. “What would it be like,” he wondered, “to hear the voice of God?” And
then finally one Yom Kippur it happened. All at once he felt the Divine Presence
enfold him. The room was bathed in radiant light. He felt an overwhelming
sense of peace and joy; he felt complete. And then a voice came to him and said;
“What is it you desire, my friend? If you could have anything in the world, any
wish satisfied, what would it be?” Without even pausing to think, the pious Jew
answered: “It’s this that I want! This feeling of spiritual bliss. If this could last
forever, I’d never ask for anything else again.” And the powerful Voice boomed
back: “Have you never seen a hungry child?”

Questions for Text Study

What does God’s response mean? Are some prayers better, or more

appropriate, than others?

The work of social justice is often seen as separate from the spiritual

dimensions of Judaism. How can we reinforce the connections between

spirituality and social action?

Do you feel spirituality and a connection to God’s presence when engaged in
social action?

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 13

Central Discussion

Note to Facilitator: Discuss as many questions from the list below as time allows. Think in advance
about which questions are most relevant for your synagogue community and ensure that you have time
to discuss those questions.

Read Aloud: Our theme for this session is the value of integrating our synagogue’s pursuit of
social justice into the fabric of our learning and worship experiences. We will be thinking
reflectively about how it is possible to emphasize the connections between these pillars of
Judaism. Today, let us consider the relationship among social justice, ritual, and education.

How can social justice work be tied into key ritual moments (Shabbat worship, holiday
observance, lifecycle celebration)?
How can social action be integrated into our worship experience? Is our liturgy a path to
social justice work for our congregants? Is worship a part of our social action activities? If not,
how can we integrate it into our social action program?
What role can music play in activating people to social justice? Does our music spiritually
uplift and motivate action?
How can we begin a dialogue about the connection between social action and spirituality?
How can a personal sense of spirituality motivate action on behalf of others? How can we use
the language of spirituality to motivate social action?
How is social action integrated into lifelong Jewish education? What are the points of
connection between existing Jewish curricula and social justice themes? Do we have a social
justice curriculum? If so, at what grade levels? How is social justice integrated into the
curricula of the other grades? Are there specific areas in which the link between social action
programming and education (adult and youth) can be improved?
How can learning be integrated into our social action projects and how can social action
projects be integrated into other learning? When youth groups, synagogue affiliates, and/or
synagogue committees take on a social action project, do they ground the project in Jewish
values and study the underlying social justice issue?
What language makes social action a Jewish imperative? Do the words of the prophets inspire
action? Do the words of current Jewish social activists inspire?
Summary Question

How do we move from a Social Action Committee model to become a
“social action congregation” with social justice education, a c t i o n , a n d
advocacy tied into all aspects of congregational life?

14 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


Below is a step-by-step guide to conducting the K’hilat Tzedek discussion series. Please keep in
mind that these discussion sessions are only the beginning of a longer process of evaluation and
transformation for your congregation.

Determine whether your congregation is ready to engage in this process: Begin by reading
the contents of the guide and considering whether your congregation is ready to engage in a
process of reflection and change in the arena of social action.
Although this process does make time demands, it does not require significant funding.
It is designed to work for large and small congregations. Do you have the re s o u rc e s ,
m o t i vation, leadership, and commitment necessary to follow through on this path to
becoming a K’hilat Tzedek?

Gauge support and choose leaders: If yo u “My congregation’s social action program was always
exceptional, but since we participated in the K’hilat
determine that your congregation is ready to

Tzedek pilot process, more people have become

proceed, then you should obtain the support of the

involved and our program is more “ h o l i s t i c ” —

congregational leadership (rabbi, cantor, educator,

incorporating education, ritual, hands-on activities

board, etc.) and determine who will coordinate the

and advocacy in all our programs.

process and who will facilitate the discussions. In

Sharon Polansky, Temple Sinai, Toronto

persuading the synagogue leadership that the
process is a worthwhile investment of time and
resources, it may be helpful to share the list of possible outcomes of the process and the
descriptions of action plans that have emerged from similar processes in other congregations.
[This process is not recommended for congregations in the midst of a rabbinic transition or
other significant change, such as a move to a new building.]

In most congregations, the Social Action Committee is responsible for social justice matters.
The coordinator of this process might be a member of the Social Action Committee, the
rabbi, cantor, educator, program director, a board member, or a congregant with a particular
interest in social action. At least one member of the Social Action Committee should be part
of the discussions and the whole committee should be supportive of the process.

The role of the discussion facilitator is critical to the success of the process (the roles of
coordinator and facilitator may be shared by one person). The facilitator is responsible for
insuring that all participants are heard and for monitoring the group process. Ideally, this
person should be trained in facilitating meetings, including knowing how to manage time,
being sensitive to and encouraging participants who may be hesitant to speak, being capable
of controlling group “monopolizers,” and possessing the ability to create a nonjudgmental,
open, and accepting group environment. Many people have these skills. You might
look for someone with a background in social work, psyc h o l o g y, or organizational

Prepare for the meetings and identify participants: Once you have support and leadership
in place, the coordinator or someone knowledgeable about the temple’s program should
complete the questionnaire about the congregation’s existing social action work (found in the
pocket of this guide). At the same time, the coordinator should work with the rabbi and
other synagogue staff and leaders to formulate a list of approximately twelve diverse participants
and ask them to commit to the process. Among them should be representatives of the
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 15

professional leaders (rabbis, cantors, educators, program directors, administrators),
lay leaders (board members, committee chairs), and general membership
representing different affiliates and demographic groups. Make a special
e f f o rt to include a re p re s e n t a t i ve of the youth and young adults within
the synagogue.

Establish dates and times for the meetings in consultation with all the relevant
congregational professionals so participants can save the dates for all three
sessions. Don’t forget to check the master congregational calendar! Also see
Appendix 1 for additional options for organizing these discussions.

After participants have committed to the process and the questionnaire has
been completed, circulate the completed form so the participants can become
familiar with the current social action practices of the congregation. In

addition, the packet of pre-meeting readings should be distributed to all participants so that
they can learn about the goals of the process and begin to ruminate on the subject.

Review the Discussion Guide Blueprint: The facilitator and coordinator should carefully
read the discussion group blueprint provided in the next section. Together they can decide
where, when, and how the sessions will be run. The facilitator also should review the
specific questions provided for each of the three sessions. Since there may not be time to
discuss all of the suggested questions, consider which questions are most relevant for
discussion in your congregation.
Summarize and prioritize: At the close of each of the three meetings, the facilitator should
summarize the main points that were made during the discussion and write up notes.
Circulate those notes via e-mail in advance of the next meeting as a review for discussion
group members.
Engage others in the process: Maintaining a single group over multiple sessions will provide
depth to the conversation. However, utilizing a small group may prevent engaging the
larger community in the process. Therefore, it is recommended that between the formal
discussions, members of the congregation’s K’hilat Tzedek task force carry out informal
conversations with other members to expose them to the work of the task force and elicit
additional ideas. This also will help build excitement about the process within the
congregation. Short bulletin articles about the process can also be used to share information
with the entire congregation. Participants can share feedback that they receive during their
one-on-one conversations with the discussion group during the following session.
Evaluate: At the last session, the participants, facilitator, and coordinator should complete
the evaluation forms included in this guide.
Forge a plan for change: After all three discussions have been completed, the coordinator
should work with willing members of the group and synagogue leaders to create a plan of
action (see examples in Appendix 2 and 3). Those writing the plan should highlight the areas
that are priorities for growth and describe how the congregation will effect that change.
Present the suggestions to the relevant synagogue leaders (i.e., clergy, Social Action
Committee members, or board of trustee members). If changes in policy or committee
s t ru c t u re are going to be made as a result of the group discussions, send this
information to every household, publish the findings in the synagogue bulletin and/or post
them on the congregation’s website.
Follow-up: The coordinator should send a personal note of thanks along with a summary of
the group’s recommendations to those who attended the discussion sessions. Encourage those
who participated to remain engaged in the implementation of the plan that results from
the discussions.
16 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


Outlined below are a number of options for structuring your discussions. You can make
choices based on several factors, such as the amount of time available, the expertise of the
facilitator, and the needs and interests of the group. First, read the information carefully, noting
the items that might be relevant to your congregation. Then, go back and construct the program,
utilizing the suggestions that will best serve your needs and those of the congregation.

Pre-meeting Preparation

Timing and Setting

These discussions are designed for group gatherings of not more than
twelve people, held in someone’s home or in the synagogue, allowing
participants to express their feelings about social action comfortably
and share them openly with others. Hosts or group facilitators
should personally invite congregants to participate. If the meetings
are to take place in the synagogue, schedule them at a time when
congregants are normally there. In planning each session’s length,
allow approximately two hours. You may wish to schedule the last
session as a somewhat longer meeting, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, to allow for discussion of
the suggested outcomes of the process.

Consider the arrangement of your meeting space. A good room setup for such a meeting
consists of chairs arranged around a boardroom table or simply chairs arranged in a circle. Have
paper, pens, flip charts, markers, tape, name tags, etc. available.

Sharing food is a great way to break down barriers among meeting participants and to create a
sense of community. Depending on the time of day, consider providing a meal before the
meeting or beverages and light snacks during the gathering. If the synagogue is providing food,
allow the participants time to eat and schmooze before beginning the meeting. Recite the motzi
together before eating.

Assign Roles

Identify a discussion leader for the text study that introduces each session. This can be the same
person or a different person for each session, or the facilitator may choose to lead it. Make sure
that you notify the study leader in advance and provide him or her with the texts so that he or
she can prepare. You may also wish to appoint a note taker for the general discussion so that the
facilitator is not distracted.

Gather Information

Gather background information about the existing social action programs within your
congregation and circulate it among the discussion group. Helpful information may include:

A list of past and existing social action programs (don’t forget to include social action
programs run by the religious school, youth group, sisterhood and other affiliates);

Copies of the congregation’s mission statement with references to social action highlighted,
if such a document exists;

Structural information regarding the various synagogue committees;

Information about the mandates of the various committees; and

The completed questionnaire for existing social action work.
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 17

Clarify Expectations

It is very important to determine in advance and clarify how the views and opinions voiced in
the sessions will be used and who ultimately will make decisions about implementation of
recommendations. Will the ideas expressed by the group be considered advisory in nature? Will
they be binding? Who will make the final decisions? The clergy? The board? The Social Action
Committee? The synagogue membership? Explaining the process by which decisions eventually
will be made reduces the possibility of misunderstanding, disappointment, or anger later on.

“In order to make social action a synagogue priority, it is critical to engage all of the different constituencies who participate in

synagogue life. The social action focus group provided a valuable contribution by bringing together representatives of all these

different constituencies to exchange ideas about social action. In addition, the focus group itself was a great way to build

community energy around social action.
Deborah Hamilton, Beth Emet, Evanston, IL

Meeting Outline

Introduction and Opening Ritual or Prayer (5 minutes)

Beginning each meeting with a brief ritual or prayer sets a tone of seriousness of purpose and
signifies the sanctity of the process. It indicates that this gathering is not like other, conventional
gatherings, such as parties or work meetings, and it frames the ensuing discussion within a
Jewish context so that participants are instilled with the awareness that this meeting serves a
sacred purpose. Ideas for an opening ritual include:

• Reciting the social action blessing found on the small cards included in the guide;
• Playing or singing a song (Dreamers, Lo Alecha, Not By Might, Justice, Justice, etc.); or
• Reading a poem or a piece of prose that is linked thematically to the purpose of the meeting.
Have the facilitator explain the following: “When we look at the social action life of our
congregation, we see much that is successful and fulfilling. But we also see challenges, in that we
see so many injustices in our community, in our country, and in the world. We believe that our
congregants want to be involved in social action that will uplift and engage them, motivate them
to be better people, connect them to a community of rodfei tzedek (justice seekers), enable them
to better the world, and help them find their place in this world. In order for us to help make
this happen as a community, we must examine both what we perceive is happening in our
congregation and how we imagine a true “social action congregation.” These conversations are
the first step to identifying goals and suggestions to accomplish this.”

Check In (10-15 minutes)

When the participants gather, some of them may not know one another. In order to facilitate a
sense of community, begin the first meeting by having the participants introduce themselves
(you may choose to do this at subsequent meetings as well). “Break the ice” by asking everyone
to respond briefly to a question. The questions can be lighthearted or serious; it is important to
consider how well the participants know one another. Ask one question or combine two of them,
depending on the size and needs of your group and the allotted time. Questions can include
the following:

• How long have you been a member of the congregation? Why did you join?
• In what ways have you been involved in the synagogue up to now?
• What is your favorite Jewish book?
• What is something surprising that we might learn about you?
• What is one aspect of your experience in this congregation that you find fulfilling?
• What do you hope to accomplish in this meeting?
• What are your fears or concerns regarding this meeting?
• About what social justice issues are you personally passionate?
18 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

Introduction of Group Leaders (2 minutes)

Explain to the participants that a number of people will assist in leading the discussion and
describe each of the roles. The text leader directs the text study which introduces the heart of the
meeting. The facilitator insures that everyone is heard and keeps the group on track. The note
taker records ideas on a flip chart and transcribes them after the meeting for future reference.

Text Study (15 minutes)

The text leader guides this study portion of the meeting, for which a text has been provided. The
texts are supplemented with questions for discussion and should be used to help contextualize
the centrality of social action within the system of Jewish ethics.

Discussion Ground Rules (5 minutes)

The facilitator may want to review these suggested discussion guidelines with the group.

• All ideas are valid.
• There should be no judging of ideas as “good” or “bad.”
• “Piggybacking” off someone else’s idea is fine.
• Hear people out; wait for them to finish before jumping in.
• The more ideas, the better.
The Discussion (50-60 minutes)

The group discussion process provides an opportunity to move beyond simple “yes” or “no,”
“like” or “dislike” answers. The facilitator should present a series of questions about social action
and then actively encourage the participants to think more deeply about the implications of their
views, to critically examine their positions, and to challenge commonly held assumptions. All of
this needs to be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect, courtesy, and civility. In the session
outlines there are suggested questions for discussion relating to:

• The roles of individual social activists and synagogue leadership in social action;
• Institutional emphasis on social action; and
• Methods of social action integration.
Reflection and Conclusion (10-15 minutes)

Summarize briefly the topics that were addressed and the range of views that were expressed
during the discussion. Clarify and prioritize the suggestions and recommendations that were
made and record them. Afterwards you may wish to invite the participants to offer a few last
words or final thoughts.

Establish the next steps to be taken in this process. When and where is the next meeting of the
group? At the third session, determine who will write a report or proposal and bring it to the
appropriate synagogue bodies for approval. If the members of the group are willing, the entire
group can hold additional meetings to consolidate and document the plan of action that
emerged from the discussions. Make sure that the participants know how their views will be
assimilated and what they can expect to take place in the coming weeks and months.

At the end of the final session, complete the Coordinator and Participant Evaluations (found in
manual pockets) and mail them to the Commission on Social Action so that the Commission is
aware that you engaged in the process and can use your feedback to assist other congregations.

Lastly, help the participants transition from this experience back to their everyday lives with a
concluding ritual, such as singing a niggun or reciting the social action blessing.

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 19


As you begin the process of institutional transformation by rethinking social justice in your
congregation and implementing the suggestions that arise out of your group discussions, keep in
mind that each congregation will identify different needs and goals. The steps you take to fill
gaps in your social justice program will depend on your existing program and priorities as a
community. It can be helpful to carefully outline the changes that the congregation has decided
to implement and to create a timetable for execution.

What tangible changes might a group propose? Congregations whose social action programs
generally tackle a wide variety of issues simultaneously may choose to select a single social action
theme for the year and work intensely on that issue, engaging the affiliates, the religious school,
youth and adult education on the same theme. A congregation with strong social service
programming, but few advocacy opportunities, might select an issue on which to lobby as a
community. Synagogues that have focused on short-term programs may decide to attempt a
large-scale, long-term project like a public school partnership or a weekly commitment to an area
soup kitchen.

Structural change can also be a result of this process. Congregations or
Social Action Committees may choose to write mission statements to
clarify their social justice mandate, goals and the scope of their actions.
The Social Action Committee may choose to rename itself to better
reflect its goals or to reconstitute itself to include a more diverse
representation of congregants.

Detailed congregational action plans that may be helpful as examples
are included as appendices to the guide. They were developed by
two synagogues—Temple Israel in Boston and Temple Emanu-El
in Dallas—after conducting this type of process. Re g a rdless of
what changes result from your process, the congregation will emerge
with a more distinct sense of the role that social action plays within the synagogue.

Potential Results

Rethinking and renaming: Many congregations have chosen to rethink the name of the social
action body within the synagogue. Rather than calling a specific group of congregants the “Social
Action Committee,” they have chosen to name a representative body the Tzedek Council, Social
Justice Council, or Tikkun Olam Coordinating Committee. Such a name emphasizes that social
justice is not the purview of a few activists alone; instead, the group is seen as the central
organizing body for wide-ranging acts of tikkun olam. Using terms such as tzedek and tikkun
olam in the name reinforces the sacred and uniquely Jewish nature of this work.

Structural change within a congregation around social justice can also result from this process.
The important point is that the social action program of the congregation become institutionally
engaging rather than the private domain of those who self-select by joining a committee.
Each affiliate or congregational department should consider and act upon the social justice
component of its work. As all congregational affiliates begin to take part in the social action mission
of the congregation, a single isolated Social Action Committee may no longer make sense.
Some synagogues have chosen to appoint a social action chair within each affiliate, so that
the board, the brotherhood, the sisterhood, the education committee, the worship and ritual
affairs committee, etc. all are engaged in social justice work that intersects with their goals. An
alternative to this model is to appoint a liaison from each of the aforementioned groups to a

20 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

Tze d e k Council and to coordinate the congre g a t i o n’s social justice work through that
representative body. Each affiliate may administer its own programs, but the individual affiliates
will coordinate with one another and promote awareness of all of the social action opportunities
within the synagogue.

Adoption of a long-term project such as a partnership with an area public school (see or a specific Progressive community abroad ( t h ro u g h ,
for example, the Hi n e n i Program, w w w. u r j . o r g / h i n e i n i /) can deepen the social action
work of a congregation that already engages in a Mitzvah Day or other short-term projects.

Creation of social action chavurot (small groups that form around shared tzedek interests and
engage in social action work together) can help members of a large congregation meet one
another and interact in meaningful contexts. This arrangement allows the congregation to
address a variety of social justice issues with small groups of people taking ownership of their
own projects and programs.

Creation of a social action corner in the synagogue bulletin can publicize the work of those
who already are engaged in tzedek and can encourage others to join. In congregations where an
isolated group of people has been taking on most of the synagogue’s social justice work, it may
be that others are not even aware of what is being accomplished.

Creation of a physical center for social action in the synagogue building can serve as a
constant reminder about the obligation that all Jews have for tikkun olam. In some congregations
there are built-in collection containers in the temple lobby that make it clear that people are
not only hungry around the High Holidays. Other congregations have a social action nook
where they publicize upcoming programs, display photos of recent accomplishments, and
hold collections.

Implementation of a process for taking positions on public policy allows congregations
to address root causes through advo c a c y. Some congregations struggle with questions
about when it is appropriate to make statements on public policy in the name of the
synagogue and find it very helpful to write a congregational policy to guide them in
these difficult decisions (see Speak Truth to Powe r, available online at w w w. u r j . o r g /

Embedding social action into lifelong Jewish learning ensures that children, teenagers and
adults all will be exposed to social justice issues and taught their importance in Jewish life. In
religious school, youth group, and adult education the ideas of tzedek can be related to sources
in Jewish texts.

Use of the social action b’racha at congregational social action programs and meetings, and in
religious school, reinforces the idea that acts of social justice are mitzvot and that social action is
a sacred endeavor (to order blessing cards, visit

Holiday programs that consistently highlight social justice themes and projects can involve a
large pool of members who attend synagogue on major holidays, as well as families participating
in home holiday celebrations. They also engage congregants at moments which may traditionally
not be associated with social justice and help them see the nexus between ritual and
tikkun olam. (For examples of this type of programming see Pesach: A Season for Justice a n d
Sukkot: A Season of Gathering and Gi v i n g at

Lifecycle events can be tied to social action programs and opportunities. Many congregations
already require Bar/Bat Mitzvah students to engage in some sort of social action project, but this
type of activity also can be meaningful at the time of a baby naming, brit milah, confirmation,

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 21

or wedding. Each of these sacred, lifecycle moments provides a significant opportunity for
teaching about social justice and taking action to pursue it. Congregations can play a role by
encouraging such opportunities.

Congregational focus on an advocacy issue can expand upon the hands-on programming of
the temple to address root causes and provide a social justice program with more meaning and
impact, thus deepening the synagogue’s involvement in the issues it already tackles.

Integration of Jewish learning and ritual into all social action initiatives reminds those
engaged in social action work that we do this not only because it feels good to help others, but
also because we are commanded “lirdof tzedek,” to pursue justice. Social action programs should
include a learning component alongside a worship or ritual component such as the recitation of
the social action blessing, and the work of the hands.

Regular acknowledgment of individuals engaged in justice work through pulpit honors,
bulletin articles, awards, etc. will allow those individuals to serve as role models for others in the
congregation and may inspire more social justice work.

Many of these and other aspects of social action programming
are discussed in detail in Lirdof Tzedek: A Guide to Synagogue Social Action,
available through URJ Press at


The Reform Movement has a long and proud history of social activism. Our pursuit of justice,
inspired by the teachings of the Torah and supported by our prayers, has enriched congregational
life and inspired generations of activists. By infusing social justice more fully into all aspects of
congregational life, we will strengthen the foundation envisioned by the prophets. As we
reinforce the links between the three pillars of Jewish life [Torah, Avodah (worship) and
g’milut chasadim (acts of righteousness)] we will create and invigorate an intellectual, spiritual,

and ethical community.

We hope this manual will assist congregations in more fully
integrating their social justice programs into the ritual, educational
and programmatic facets of temple life. Feel free to contact the
Commission on Social Action (212.650.4160 or
with questions about the materials provided in this guide or to ask
for help in implementing the process outlined herein. After you
complete the process, please let the Commission know what recommendations
your discussions inspired and how you plan to
carry them out. We applaud your commitment to social action and
look forward to hearing about your success. Good luck and may
your journey be a blessing.


It is a challenge to transform the lofty ideal described in K’hilat Tzedek into a reality within your
congregation. How does one approach this goal and how can the overall process be broken
down into manageable steps? One way to begin implementing social action integration in a
congregation is to choose a theme and weave work around that theme throughout the fabric of
congregational life for a period of a year or more.

The chosen issue must be considered in terms of 1) the work that the temple’s individual
members and leaders can accomplish to alleviate the injustice, 2) the changes that can be made
to the institution’s practices to address the problem, and 3) the
expansions of worship, education, and affiliate programming that
can result from focusing attention on the issue. In order to illustrate
this approach to building a tzedek congregation, the Commission on
Social Action has compiled a comprehensive list of poverty-related
programs that relate to all areas of synagogue life (though of course
you may add your own ideas).

This focus on poverty-related issues is consistent with a larger Poverty
Initiative ( which was formally
highlighted at the 2003 Biennial when the Union passed a resolution
entitled Confronting and Combating Poverty in the United States. The resolution states:

The Union for Reform Judaism has long advocated for children, the poor, the
elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the “stranger among us.” Today, sadly, we
must once again reaffirm our commitment to the eradication of poverty. We are
deeply troubled by poverty throughout our communities in North America
and, indeed, around the world; however, we are particularly concerned about
emerging U.S. policy that affects those most vulnerable. The slumping economy,
the costs of war and homeland security, and a lack of attention on the
national stage make these trying times for low-income families… In 2001,

32.9 million people in the United States lived below the federal poverty line,
while the estimated cost of maintaining a safe and decent standard of living,
including food, housing, health care, transportation, child care, and taxes, was
almost twice the federal poverty threshold. Almost 30% of working families
with one to three children under age twelve did not earn enough to afford these
basic necessities. A record 41.2 million people in the United States did not have
health insurance in 2001, and health care premiums are increasing dramatically
at about 11% a year… As economic stagnation continues, along with the
consequent likelihood of greater unemployment, the number of people at risk
is likely to grow…
THEREFORE, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

Reaffirm our commitment to helping North America’s poor and work
toward the eradication of poverty in North America;
Reaffirm our opposition to tax cuts and spending priorities that do not
allow our national, state, and local governments to address adequately
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 23

important national priorities, including the eradication of poverty, or to
maintain existing social programs that benefit poor people; …

Call on congregations to assess how best to meet the economic needs of
their local communities and their congregants who may be in need and to
engage in advocacy and action at the local, state, and national levels,
designed to address the causes of poverty and spur change;
Encourage congregations to create and fund or seek funding for projects
that promote economic self-sufficiency; …

A list of congregational programs around the theme of poverty follows. Each
of these program ideas can be adapted and this list is in no way meant to be
exhaustive, but rather to assist you in envisioning your own K’hilat Tzedek
through the lens of poverty relief and prevention. Of course, you may modify
this suggestion and use any theme to begin the process of integration.

Synagogue Infrastructure

Synagogue Management Policies: Review the synagogue policies to make sure that staff
members are being paid living wages and that all members—regardless of their financial
situation—are able to participate in synagogue programs.

Socially Responsible Investing: Encourage the congregation to participate in the Chai
Investment Program (CHIP) by investing a percentage of the synagogue funds in a community
d e velopment fund. Guidelines for socially responsible investing can be found at:

Physical Tikkun Olam Space in the Congregation: To highlight the economic justice work
that is done by members of the congregation and remind members to participate in ongoing
poverty relief efforts, create a permanent collection space into your lobby for food, clothing, etc.


Sermons: Kick off the year with a high holiday sermon related to poverty. For examples of Jewish
texts that might be used, see online resources at

Holidays: Use the holidays to highlight the theme of poverty. You can begin this effort by
participating in MAZON’s high holiday appeal, the Corners of Your Fields, (
Then continue the focus on pove rty during Chanukah by publicizing the
Ner Shel Tzedakah (Candle of Righteousness) program, an interdenominational initiative to
encourage families and organizations to set aside one night of Chanukah to give time, money, or
gifts to those who are less fortunate. More information about the program can be found at Draw on the theme again in preparation for Passover by
packaging and delivering maot chitim (gifts for the poor) to Jews living in poverty to ensure that
they can celebrate the holiday fully. (See Pesach: A Season for Justice, available online at When Sukkot arrives use it as an opportunity to consider

24 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

affordable housing policy. (See Sukkot: A Season of Gathering and Giving, available online at

Lifecycle Events: At all lifecycle events, make it a congregational norm that families donate
three percent of the cost of the event to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. You may also
choose to focus the Ba r / Bat Mi t z vah projects for the ye a r
on pove rty issues (
Brides may donate wedding dresses to charitable organizations
either in America or in Israel, so that those who
cannot afford wedding gowns may use them.

Social Action Shabbat: Use a Shabbat service that focuses on the
social justice moments in the liturgy to honor social activists and
community organizations. Highlight the work that is being done
by members both within and outside of the synagogue’s social
action structures and combine that ceremony with a scholar-inresidence
lecture focused on a poverty related issue.

Congregational Programming

Religious School: Develop a family program simulating the experience of shopping on a
minimum wage budget to educate children and parents about the struggles of people living
in poverty. Before Chanukah you can also hold a “Mitzvah Mall” where local charitable
organizations come and represent themselves to the students. Students can make donations to
the organizations in exchange for gift cards to present to family and friends in lieu of Chanukah
gifts. Full curricula on poverty have been developed by the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and
the Jewish Fund for Justice. (Contact information for these is available on the CSA’s Poverty
Initiative site at

Adult Education: Study the text resources available at as the
foundation for poverty relief programming that you undertake. Text study may take the form of
a class team-taught by a social worker and a rabbi or scholar and focused on Jewish values and
local realities.

Youth Group Project: Establish a partnership with a soup kitchen to provide opportunities for
the the youth group to prepare and/or serve food once a month. As an alternative, you might
partner with a local public school to offer free tutoring and reading buddies to students living in
impoverished neighborhoods.

Action Projects:

Focus your Mitzvah Day on poverty.

Establish a thrift shop to serve the needy in your community by soliciting clothing,
furniture, and appliance donations from members of the congregation. The thrift shop
employees can be local workers who receive training in running a business. Proceeds from the
shop can be donated to a local shelter or soup kitchen (see the description of Temple Shalom’s
(Naples, FL) thrift shop in the 2003 Fain Awards booklet at

Create and sustain a transitional housing facility (read about Micah House, run by
Temple Micah, Washington D.C. and order the manual Housing the Ho m e l e s s a t

Create an adult mitzvah corps in your region based on the model of the Union’s Adult
Mi t z vah Corps. (See “Ha rd Hats, Ha rd Issues: Building Affordable Ho m e s” at
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 25

Run a mentorship/job training program.

Create a job bank to assist unemployed members of the synagogue and broader community
Women of Reform Judaism and Men’s Club: Encourage these affiliates to engage in poverty
related projects during the course of the program year. These projects can be conducted in
conjunction with one of the annual programs run by the sisterhood or brotherhood or as
separate events.


Advocacy Issue and Campaign: Visit your state and federal representatives and senators. Invite
a panel of speakers to discuss topics such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF),
living wage, the National Housing Trust Fund, etc. Encourage your congregation to endorse the
National Housing Trust Fund (, a fund dedicated to building and preserving

1.5 million units of affordable housing in the next decade. For sample letters and information
about current legislation go to the RAC’s Legislative Action Center at
26 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

I V. A P P E N D I C E S

K’hilat Tzedek describes one method of organizing the discussion process. Given that there are
many different size synagogues in the Union and congregations are staffed differently, this
method may not be useful universally. The following brief descriptions are alternative models
that your congregation may find useful for implementing the K’hilat Tzedek process.

Congregations that have a particularly strong congregant commitment to this process may
find it helpful to hold multiple meetings on each topic. This structure will allow time to
focus on the issues in depth and to consider possible innovations more thoroughly. It also is
possible to plan three meetings initially and add additional meetings if the group is willing
to commit to attending them.

In advance of the first meeting you may choose to hold an informal session during which
discussion participants are introduced to one another. This will allow the participants to
focus more quickly on the topic at hand during the first formal discussion. This may also be
a good opportunity to review the completed questionnaire describing existing social action
programming and activities in the life of the congregation.

Congregations with staff or members who can dedicate substantial time to this process may
follow the community-organizing model and hold large numbers of one-on-one meetings
with congregants, in addition to holding the small group discussions. See the Temple Israel
summary in Appendix 2 for further information on this option.

If you are attempting to build enthusiasm and support for K’hilat Tzedek, you may choose
to go through the process with the members of the Social Action Committee as an
intermediary step. After you have generated interest and excitement you can engage a more
diverse group of congregants in a second round of discussions and consider implementing a
congregation-wide action plan.

In order to ensure that the social action committee feels engaged in this process and also
involve a broad spectrum of congregants, you may wish to hold two simultaneous
discussion series—one for the Social Action Committee itself, and one with diverse synagogue
members and Social Action Committee representation.
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 27


Temple Israel, Boston
Ohel Tzedek (Tent Of Justice)

Ohel Tzedek is an ongoing campaign to organize Temple Israel members into social action hevres
linked by common social justice concerns.

1. Background (Mission and Goals)
2. The Plan: Community Organizing (The Process and Story of Ohel Tzedek)
3. Growth and Change
4. Conclusion (New Challenges and Budget Needs)
1. Background
Temple Israel of Boston is a Reform congregation with a proud history of social justice. The
Temple has played a prominent role in the life of the city of Boston, the civil rights movement,
the struggle for Soviet Jewry, outreach to gay and lesbian Jews, the resettlement of refugees, and
a range of other issues.

In the Fall of 2000, a group of clergy and lay leaders met to discuss a vision for the next
incarnation of Temple Israel’s commitment to social justice. The goal was to galvanize the
temple community in social justice work that moved beyond volunteering. The Social Action
Steering Committee (SASC) was formed to develop a strategic plan for social action at Temple
Israel. The mission and goals were:


“On three things the world stands: on Torah (learning), Avodah (worship) and G’milut Chasadim
(acts of loving kindness).” Our mission is to elevate social justice engagement within Temple
Israel so that synagogue life truly reflects our belief that G’milut Chasadim, and particularly the
pursuit of justice, is an imperative of the Temple Israel community and its members.

Three-Year Goals

Goal 1 (Integration): By Temple Israel’s 150th anniversary, infuse all key facets of synagogue
life (including life-cycle events, youth education programs, adult learning, worship and the
capital campaign) with social justice learning and action.

Goal 2 (Engagement): Leading up to Temple Israel’s 150th Anniversary, conduct a “Campaign
for Spiritual Capital” which inspires synagogue members to explore their role in and
commitment to social justice as part of their Jewish identity and their participation in the
Temple Israel community.

Goal 3 (Holistic Model): Ensure that social justice programming at Temple Israel fosters
community and leadership within the synagogue, builds partnerships within the broader
community, cultivates Jewish learning about social justice, and offers an array of quality opportunities
that meet the synagogue’s social justice goals. Social action should include not
only giving (time and money) opportunities, but also relationship building in the broader
community, and advocacy for social change.

28 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

Goal 4 (Infrastructure): Ensure that Temple Israel has the infrastructure and resources (staff,
lay leadership structure, budget) needed to meet its social justice goals.

2. The Plan: Community Organizing (Pitching Our Tent of Justice)
The critical question was how to achieve the ambitious goals. After consultation with both the
Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO, our local IAF affiliate) and working with
the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the SASC proposed hiring a community
organizer to conduct an organizing campaign focusing on shared concerns of social justice. The
board of trustees approved a $10,000 staff position for an organizer. The first organizer, was
hired in the summer of 2001.

After developing a leadership team and with them, a plan, on January 25, 2002 the Temple
launched an unprecedented, eight-week community-building campaign focused on social
justice. Temple members participated in more than eight hundred individual and group
relational meetings as a prelude to action. More than 120 members participated in 12 house
meetings in and around Greater Boston. Others attended one-to-one sessions throughout the
Temple: at the adult B’nai Mitzvah class, Monday Night School, Heneinu (caring community),
the Winter Kallah, the Women’s Kallah, and many more. The goal of these meetings was to
identify and develop the social justice “stories” of our membership.

Social justice stories are the foundations of the issues about which people are passionate. By
learning and sharing our individual stories through Ohel Tzedek, we discover shared social
justice concerns and values. These shared visions reflect the Temple’s core social justice values.
Having used Ohel Tzedek to discover these values, the Temple became able to act meaningfully,
drawing on the collective concerns of its membership as well as the strong relationships
developed during the initiative. Most importantly, action based on these shared values is far more
powerful than the most devoted efforts of a single person.

The campaign culminated during the Temple Pesach Seder in the spring of 2002, as the Social
Hall welcomed 220-plus Temple members, a host of seder plates, and a 12-foot-high
Ohel Tzedek (Tent of Justice). Dozens of hand-drawn panels adorned the “Tent,” representing
just some of the individual social justice stories that emerged during the Temple’s Ohel Tzedek

In addition to celebrating these accomplishments, the Second Night Seder used a lovingly crafted
Haggadah to bring together the past, present and future of social justice at Temple Israel.

With the telling of our People’s liberation from Egypt, we also recounted the stories that emerged
during the first stages of Ohel Tzedek. These included:

A f f o rdable Ho u s i n g—This ye a r, we suffer from the lack of affordable housing. We gather
together so that next year and years after that we will increase affordable housing in the Boston

Connecting Our Resources with the Community—This year, many members of our
community have resources and expertise to share within the Temple and beyond, but have not
had a forum to do so. We gather together so that next year and years after that we will connect
and share our resources with the community.

Education—This year, we are concerned for the public education of our own children, and
of children in the inner city. We gather together so that next year and years after that we can
support and advocate to improve their education.

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 29

Equal Rights for the Gay and Lesbian Community—This year, gay and lesbian members in
our spiritual community are threatened by political action intended to limit their rights as
citizens. We gather together so that next year and years after that we can advocate for their
equal rights.

Health Care—This year, medical professionals and concerned members in our community have
not yet developed relationships among themselves to support each other in their concerns about
health care. We gather together so that next year and years after that we will be able to support
each other, and advocate for changes in the health care system.

Israel—This year, we feel paralyzed by the violence in the Middle East. We gather together so
that next year and years after that we can educate and advocate for a just and peaceful resolution
to this conflict.

Seniors—This year, seniors in the Temple feel disconnected, and families struggle to care for
their parents and grandparents. We gather together so that next year and years after that we can
care for and advocate with the seniors in our community.

Members whose stories intersected with these and other stories that emerged in our community
were called upon to join an action “hevre” (friendship group). Each action hevre committed to
three actions by Shavuot, and were celebrated at the annual meeting. The action emerged from
these groups based on the shared passions of their members.

3. Growth and Change (Widening the Tent of Justice)
Since the success of the initial campaign, the first organizer moved to Israel and another person
was hired to continue to nurture Ohel Tzedek. The focus of the leadership has been to engage
more members in the hevres, and guide them toward effective action.

The current action status of the hevres:
Magen Mishpacha: Equality for Gay and Lesbian Families—celebrate successful defeat of
“ Super-DOMA” anti-gay legislation; educate TI community; build partnerships with

community allies; develop educational panel presentation to travel to and educate
wider community.
A f f o rdable Ho u s i n g—continue to partner with GBIO in advocating city and state

government; major spring action to protect state affordable housing trust and support Nehemiah

Affordable Housing campaign (see below).
Connecting Resources—continue networking nights for people in career transition; create
resource network and mentoring program for the jobless.

Se n i o r s—continue arranging rides for seniors; begin house meetings in assisted living

Interfaith Outreach—continue dialogues/study sessions with local mosque, and Episcopalian
and AME churches; explore actions to protect civil liberties of Muslim-Americans.

Note: It is hard to count how many participants there are in each hevre. While some members
attend planning meetings and trainings, many more come out for larger-scale actions. Hundreds
of people have participated in one way or another.

30 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

The B’nai Mitzvah Family Track

Working with the Family Educator, leaders of Ohel Tzedek were able to integrate Ohel Tzedek
into the Religious School and B’nai Mitzvah experience. Beginning in fifth grade, families
participate in a mini “one-to-one” campaign, to discover their shared social justice stories.
During the sixth grade year, families create action hevres and act on their shared concerns in
preparation for the B’nai Mitzvah experience. The actions to date include:

Working with students and parents from a middle school in Dorchester and a neighboring
church to build a community playground.

Working on the “One Family” (anti-homelessness) campaign.

Working with senior citizens (actions include rides to Temple, Shabbat dinners with kids and
seniors, home visitations).

Advocating for animal rights.
In 2003, a new group of fifth grade families have begun their relationship building. Stories of
shared concern are emerging around economic justice, environmental concerns, the war in Iraq,
and a desire to reach out to Muslims and African-Americans. In the coming months, hevres will
organize toward action.

Testing our Power: The Major Spring Action

Having succeeded in bringing together temple members in small communities to act on shared
concerns, Ohel Tzedek was ready to organize the wider community into a unified action and test
its strength by convening more than two hundred people for an Affordable Housing Trust
action. This event brought to Temple Israel state senators and representatives, local mayors and
city councilors from the communities in which Temple members live. These elected officials
heard testimonials from our members on behalf of the urgent need for more affordable housing
in Greater Boston, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. State officials were asked to
publicly affirm their support for the Affordable Housing Trust, which funds much needed construction,
and is in danger of becoming a victim of budget cuts.

4. Conclusion (Moving the Tent Forward)
Ohel Tzedek is continually growing and changing as more and more members of the Temple
Israel family come into the tent. New stories emerge, creating new relationships, and leading to
new action. The community organizing model has enabled us to engage many members of the
Temple family by empowering them to act on what they truly care about. In the process, we have
deepened the sense of community within the Temple, as we discover new relationships and
shared concerns. The model has also enabled us to integrate social justice into the worship and
study life of the congregation. Finally, the actions move beyond giving and volunteering, toward
actual social change.

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 31


Temple Emanu-El, Dallas
Report of the Task Force on Social Action
February 9, 2003


Judaism, including our Reform Movement, rests on three central tenets or pillars, all of which
share equal importance and make demands on us as we live our faith. Tikkun Olam, repair of
the world, is co-equal with Torah (study) and Avodah (worship) as one of the three pillars that
are central to our faith. In Pirkei Avot 1:2, Simon the Righteous states, “the world stands on
three things—-the Torah, the service (Avodah), and g’milut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness
and compassion.

Similarly, we at Temple Emanu-El understand the centrality of Tikkun Olam in our congregational
life. We speak of it in our Mission statement when we refer to being “ever mindful of our
heritage of social responsibility…” In our Core Values statement, we note, “We emphasize the
ethical ideals of social justice at the core of the Jewish tradition. This covenantal obligation
frames our actions in terms of our relationship to God and to Jewish tradition. It is Temple
Emanu-El’s obligation to engage in the ongoing task of world repair. We value being an integral
part of and contributor to the total Dallas community.”

Throughout the years, we have acted on this tenet in many ways. Our rabbis’ sermons often
remind us of particular needs and injustices in our community and speak to our personal
responsibility for remedying them. As a congregation, we have developed and implemented
projects (Rhoads Terrace Pre-School, East Dallas Health Coalition, Jacob’s Ladder) to benefit
specific populations in the community. We give funds to alleviate certain urgent needs. We
work in coalition with other groups and congregations throughout the area for maximum
effectiveness. Through our Social Action Committee, Sisterhood, Brotherhood, Religious
School, Bar/Bat Mitzvah program, and Youth Activities Committee, we provide volunteers to
agencies and also take on other projects that are brought to us. We bring issues of concern to the
attention of the congregation.

Our Social Action Committee has provided the leadership for many of Temple’s outstanding
programs. Similarly, many of our members are deeply involved in good works in the community,
sometimes through Temple, often through other organizations and agencies. Now, our goal
is to take congregants beyond participation in programs and projects, to having our members
make the connection between the good work that they do and the centrality of Social Action as
one of the three underlying pillars of our faith.

It is in that spirit, of building on our history of social activism, that Rabbi David Stern and
Buddy Raden, Temple President, formed the current Social Action Task Force. They charged the
Task Force to develop recommendations that would build on the impressive work of our Social
Action Committee and other Temple groups to help the congregation enrich their faith through
a deeper understanding and practice of gemilut chasadim. The goal of our work is to make
Tikkun Olam pervasive throughout the congregation and equal to Torah and Avodah in
the hearts and minds of our congregation. By involving the entire congregation, our Social
Action initiatives give us the opportunity to create a strong sense of common purpose and
shared activity.

32 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


There are four sets of recommendations categorized under Organization and Communication,
Rabbinic Leadership and Involvement, Education and Advocacy. Each section will have a
statement about the background and context for each section and, when appropriate, suggested
action plans. The recommendations follow.

Background and Context

As a congregation, we can be proud of the many innovative and effective social action initiatives
we have undertaken. Many of these have been direct service projects that have made a real
difference in people’s lives. However, there is insufficient coordination or communication of the
activities that our various departments and committees initiate. As several task force members
put it, we must have “cross-selling” of Mitzvah projects throughout Temple so that we can
maximize our effectiveness and increase participation. Any new approach to the practice of
Tikkun Olam should be viewed, not just as a generator of social action initiatives, but also as the
coordinating body for all of Temple’s social action activities. With this approach, congregants of
all ages, from pre-school through older adults, will be working on different aspects of the same
projects simultaneously. This will give a true sense of Temple involvement in social action
while making more effective use of our own resources, both staff and financial. Enhanced
coordination of our social action activity will give congregants a sense of working together and
building a Jewish community that will have a larger impact on the world around us.


Replace and reorganize Temple’s current Social Action Committee as a separate Council
titled the Tikkun Olam Council (TOC) under the direct leadership of an officer of the
Restructure and expand the work of the current Social Action Committee, by function, into
several committees of the TOC.
A potential list of initial committees is as follows:

Public Affairs and Advocacy which could coordinate and be the center for all Temple
activity whether internally generated or externally requested. (See advocacy section below for
advocacy guidelines.)

Education which could include events such as the Nasher Forum, Schlinger Symposium and
Issues Forum with the Sisterhood.

Community Mitzvah Projects which could include congregation-wide events that focus
action outside of Temple such as the Maple Lawn Reading Project or Jacob’s Ladder.

Temple Mitzvah Projects which could include such activities as gathering canned goods at
the High Holy Days and Leah’s Kitchen Thanksgiving Dinner.

Research and Development which would collect information on community needs, develop
potential responses and serve as the grant-making group to disperse Tikkun Olam funds.

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 33

Israel which would include Israel-related education and programming, in accordance with
our advocacy guidelines. (See advocacy section below for advocacy guidelines.)

C o m m u n i c a t i o n not an actual committee, but one or two people who will have
responsibility and control over the Tikkun Olam content of those methods of information-
sharing with the congregation such as the web site, email and the temple bulletin.

It is important to view this list as an evolving configuration, subject to change, as internal
and/or external needs evolve. It is understood that Temple By-laws empower the president of
the congregation to create and/or eliminate committees. The Task Force suggests that
the current Social Action Committee be significantly involved in formulating the new
committees that will be formed under the TOC.

Limit major Tikkun Olam projects in a given year in order to be able to effectively mobilize
resources and to make a difference. A given major project may span several years. This does
not preclude other smaller projects, but the congregation should be careful not to take on too
many and so diffuse our effectiveness.
Background and Context

The Task Force was unanimous in our conviction that rabbinic leadership and involvement is
key to making Tikkun Olam pervasive throughout the congregation.

We know that our rabbis agree. The top leadership of the congregation, our senior rabbi and our
president formed the Task Force. Our associate rabbi has been with us every step of the way in
our study process.

Nevertheless, because we felt that rabbinic leadership and involvement is key to the success of
Tikkun Olam at Temple, we wanted to repeat its important role and expand on what that
rabbinic leadership and involvement might look like. The ECE (Experiment in Congregational
Education) process that the Temple undertook a few years ago was our model. During the ECE
process, becoming a Congregation of Learners was a part of all Temple conversations and
deliberations, in large part because our rabbis never let us forget that goal.


Assign one rabbi to have the Tikkun Olam Council as a primary focus of his or her responsibilities.
Expect all rabbis to be carriers of the Tikkun Olam message within our congregation. We
envision that this message will come through as a regular part of sermons, Window [bulletin]
articles, staff meetings, committee deliberations, and conversations.
Convey the lesson through consistent rabbinic leadership and involvement that Tikkun
Olam, practiced through the Temple, is a priority and a core part of our faith. Pervasive
rabbinic leadership, beyond sermons on specific social action issues, is what distinguishes
Temple’s good works from that of other Jewish organizations and agencies.
Practice constant cross-referencing between pieces on Tikkun Olam, Avodah, and Torah as
well as the monthly rabbinic message.
Consult with each other to help formulate the Tikkun Olam Council’s annual agenda.
34 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

Background and Context

Education about Tikkun Olam should take place regularly throughout the congregation addressing
the why and how of it. Our children need to grow up knowing that Tikkun Olam is a
pillar of Reform Judaism and a core value of Temple. Our adult congregants need to know as
well that Tikkun Olam is a pillar of Reform Judaism and a core value of Temple.

Some of this happens already. The Social Action and Adult Education committees periodically
organize programs, forums, and scholars-in-residence around social action topics. The religious
school and pre-school teach about social action in some of the curriculum. The schools also
encourage our children to give tzedakah. Our Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates and Confirmation
Class students must fulfill a mitzvah project for successful completion of their course work.

We recognize how important the linkage between social justice issues and their grounding in
Reform Judaism is, and that it should be integrated into our concept of being a community of
lifelong learners. However, our discussions focused on our religious school students because of
the importance of instilling Tikkun Olam in our children. As various Tikkun Olam themes in
religious school were discussed, the words “sometimes” and “periodically” surfaced often.


Review annually the religious school curriculum to ensure that continuous religious
education about Tikkun Olam and/or Acts of Loving Kindness takes place from pre-school
through the 12th grade.
2 .
Re v i ew annually the adult education program to ensure that its curriculum offers the
opportunity to study the centrality of Tikkun Olam in Reform Judaism.
Link study and action in all activities.
Teach the requirement of Tikkun Olam and create an enduring sense of its importance.
Suggested Action Plan to Implement Education Recommendations

Form a group comprised of Religious School Committee and members of the Tikkun Olam
Council to develop and implement a plan for specific activities. These activities should be
linked to each instructional unit and would emphasis the integration of study, worship, and
action for each grade and multiple grades. It is important that children in religious school
learn about the many needs in the world and how to get involved meeting those needs.
Involve the religious school in the setting of the congregation’s annual Tikkun Olam agenda.
Increase funding as soon as possible to subsidize activities such as Confirmation Class social
action trip to Washington D.C.
Set aside time to study issues that are part of Temple’s Tikkun Olam agenda. Study could
include field trips, films, group discussions and lectures.
Appoint one or more individuals from the Tikkun Olam Council to be responsible for coordinating
with and working with the religious school and the adult education program.
Create better links between parents and teachers in order to help create more practice and
discussion of Tikkun Olam at home.
Survey parents and faculty about barriers and opportunities for the integration of Tikkun
Olam into the lives of our young people. Use focus groups where practical. Based on
findings, develop action plan.
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 35

Develop Temple web site to include conversation site devoted to Tikkun Olam for children
and parents of religious school to share.
Hold parent/teacher meetings where Tikkun Olam expectations are explained.
Build on the cooperative efforts currently in place such as Mitzvah Matters, family mitzvah
programs, and pre-school activities.
Background and Context

Because of the congregation’s size and make-up, advocacy was the most complicated issue we
discussed. Speaking out on issues of Tikkun Olam is an obligation we cannot shirk. At the same
time, we must respect the diversity of political opinions and approaches in our congregation.

We agreed on several underlying principles that would govern our recommendations.

Temple rabbis have always had, and continue to have, complete freedom of the pulpit.
Although our discussion focused on rabbinic leadership from the pulpit, we understand
that Temple rabbis have the same right as any congregant to speak out as individuals in
other arenas.

There are certain moral imperatives that we, as Reform Jews, agree are bedrock principles of
our sense of social justice. An example would be feeding the hungry.

Reform Ju d a i s m’s belief in social action is not synonymous with a particular political agenda.

Speak out as a congregation on contemporary moral imperatives with the full support of the
Board and rabbinic staff.
Avoid channeling the congregation into one political point of view.
Assess specific legislative issues that are important to us to determine whether there is consensus
within the congregation. If there is no consensus, we will restrict official congregational
activity to education and referral. The intent will be to give congregants solid information
on all sides of the issue enabling them to make individual decisions on their stance.
4 .
Commit sufficient staff and financial re s o u rces to make public affairs and advo c a c y
work better.
Em p ower senior rabbi, Chair of Public Affairs/Ad vocacy Committee and Exe c u t i ve
Committee to decide upon a course of quick action when an issue is urgent enough
that it demands an immediate response based on our moral imperative to speak out as
a congre g a t i o n .
Suggested Action Plan

Advocacy in the name of Temple should be viewed as a multi-level process.
The Tikkun Olam Council will lead a process to develop a list of the contemporary moral
imperatives (perhaps written as issues) as a starting point for creating an advocacy agenda.
The Tikkun Olam Council also will decide which issues are of prime importance to us in the
upcoming year. Our rabbis will take the leadership for this process in consultation with the
Tikkun Olam Council. It should be completed within six months of acceptance of this report
and reviewed annually.
36 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

The congregation becomes informed of our moral imperatives through significant internal
communications such as the Window, web site, and on-going education. The Tikkun Olam
Council’s communication person(s), in consultation with all appropriate committee chairs
and auxiliary group leaders, will spearhead this process.
Our congregation will speak out externally on the moral imperatives through op ed pieces,
our web site, public forums and meetings, and other appropriate public demonstrations of
moral communication. Leadership will come from the recommended Pu b l i c
Affairs/Advocacy Committee of the Tikkun Olam Council. This process can start as soon as
the moral imperative list has been developed and agreed to by the Tikkun Olam Council.
The recommended Public Affairs/Advocacy Committee will develop and publish a list of
appropriate legislative outlets and other political opportunities for congregants interested in
pursuing social justice through political action. This will be done according to legislative and
other issue-driven calendars.
When the Temple takes an official position on an issue, i.e., something under the heading of
moral imperative, the issue is brought to the attention of the congregation, by our rabbis, the
Tikkun Olam Council, other Temple groups, and/or individual congregants. Our rabbis
would guide us in defining the issue in terms of our faith. The congregation is provided
information. Temple moves on it in an appropriate manner.
At other times, congregants may agree on the principle behind a social justice issue but hold
legitimate differences of opinion on how to solve it. In that case, the Tikkun Olam Council,
with Temple leadership, can highlight the issue, provide balanced background information
on it, suggest various ways to work on it, and distribute a referral list of organizations
dealing with the issue. Temple activity, in keeping with our guidelines, may, or may
not, ensue.
Once an issue is defined and agreed upon as one that fulfills our moral imperative to speak
out, an action plan is developed and approved to externally and internally communicate.
The approved action plan is supported by staff time, volunteer time and money, if necessary.
10. When no agreement can be reached on whether or not to advocate for an issue, the Tikkun
Olam Council should determine what common ground exists and the degree of differences
that congregants have on the matter and report it to the Board.
an issue does not move forward from the Board, follow up action from the
Board, implemented through the Tikkun Olam Council, should include timely internal
communications, congregational forums on the issue and referral lists of how and where else
to get involved. No congregational position is taken publicly.
12. The congregation should limit itself to a few issues at any one time in which to get actively
involved in order maximize our effectiveness.
13. As part of its work, the Tikkun Olam Council, as previously mentioned, will develop an
internal communication plan to allow congregants to participate in the development of the
social action agenda. It could include quarterly congregational town hall meetings each of
which will center on one of our identified moral imperatives, enhanced use of the web site
that allows for the creation of congregational exchanges, email messages, and space in
the Window.
UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 37

14.Create a space in Temple that becomes identified as a “town square” where congregants can
gather to discuss social action issues on a regular basis.
15.The Tikkun Olam Council should develop a mechanism to have ongoing congregational dialogue
on issues.
16.The Tikkun Olam Council could suggest dialogue guidelines for the congregation to keep in
mind as it considers advocacy. They might be something like the following:

We consider our identified moral imperatives to be timeless.

Perspectives on the implementation of our moral imperatives make room for different
viewpoints on how we act on them.

There need to be multiple entry points for congregants to bring social justice issues before
us. That includes ways of saying to congregants “Let’s see how the congregation can support
you on this important position” even when the Public Affairs/Advocacy Committee
and the Tikkun Olam Council decide not to get involved in that particular issue.

While many of these recommendations do not cost money, some will. By accepting meaningful
changes in how Temple does Tikkun Olam, Temple also should rethink our allocation
of re s o u rces, both human and financial, so that the intent of the changes have the best
opportunity to get implemented fully.

38 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M


Congregation B’nai B’rith, Santa Barbara, California

Congregation B’nai B’rith is a center for Reform Jewish communal life in Santa Barbara. We are
committed to creating a deeply caring Jewish religious community which meets the educational,
spiritual and social needs of people in all stages of life. Our goal is to encourage people to
interact with Judaism and its values through Jewish study, worship, celebration, social action and
social activities.

As a congregation, we wish to extend ourselves to all who want to learn about and participate in
Jewish life. We work to foster the spirit of Klal Yisrael, the responsibility that Jews bear toward
each other and Israel. It is important that we come to understand ourselves and our traditions
in relation to other peoples of the world. In turn, we hope to enhance community awareness
about Jews and Judaism.

We are committed to the perpetuation of Judaism by educating members to make conscious
choices about their Jewish lives and empowering them to act on those decisions.

Temple B’nai Torah, Bellevue, WA

Tikkun Olam: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you God” (Micah 6:8). Out of
rachmones (love/compassion), we embrace the responsibilities of our Jewish tradition and the
opportunities to work for the betterment of our congregation, our community and our world.
We commit ourselves to become ever more informed, as Jews and as citizens. Thus do we
gain the understanding and wisdom to act decisively and effectively in promoting greater
social justice.

Temple Beth Am, Los Altos, CA

Mission: The Beth Am Social Action Committee seeks to involve the Congregation in serving
and empowering those who are disadvantaged or in need. We wish to educate and motivate
Congregation members, and provide avenues for adults, youth and children to do Social Action.
We, as Jews, are commanded to pursue justice, and to participate in Tikkun Olam “Repairing
the World.”

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • 39

included in
Speak Truth to Power: A Guide for Congregations
Taking Public Policy Positions, 2003
(available online at:

Lirdof Tzedek: A Guide to Synagogue Social Action, 2001
(avaialble through URJ Press at

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • A - 1


Al Vorspan, Director Emeritus, and Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Director,
Joint Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Social action in Reform Judaism has undergone a series of sea changes during the past half century. Before
1953, when the Joint Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA) of the Union of American
Hebrew Congregation (now the Union for Reform Judaism) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis
(CCAR) was established, there was virtually no synagogue that was home to a committee on social action.
Today virtually every synagogue in the Reform Movement has a committee to deal with applying social justice
in the community.

And yet these structures are changing, and there is a perception that the role of social action within Reform
congregations is once again in flux. To begin to understand the changing paradigm, we need to examine where
we’ve been, where we are, and where we seem to be going.


In the early days, social action was a rather discrete, compartmentalized aspect of synagogue programming. The
same compartmentalized structure existed at 838 Fifth Avenue–the Union’s headquarters. Each department
was a separate empire; only rarely did all departments join in cooperative programs. This was replicated in the
congregations. If the local congregation had one or two true believers, nudniks for social justice, they would
head up the committee, usually small, provided of course that the rabbi put his (in those days, it was always
“his”) personal stamp of endorsement on the program. Then social action was just one of the many separate,
and often competing, compartments of the temple program.

Today, a commitment to social justice is often seen as a signature, or core value, of the synagogue, as of the
Reform Movement, and programs to effectuate this value permeate every aspect of synagogue life—education,
ritual, youth, outreach, and temple management. Indeed, now there are some Reform synagogues that disdain
creating a standing committee because they see social justice and the obligation to perform mitzvot in the
community as intrinsic to the very life of the synagogue, rather than as a separate program. Integrating social
action throughout every aspect of the congregation’s educational, ritual, programmatic and institutional
structures is a goal for many congregations.

Institutional Challenges

Despite this good news, there are nonetheless institutional challenges facing congregations that impact the
social justice agenda. The demands upon congregations and their professional and lay leadership have
grown significantly, with an increasingly broad array of vital programming that includes outreach, caring
committees, and special interest and affinity groups. Revitalizing worship has become a priority, with
congregations often running multiple services to meet varying tastes. At the same time, enhancing and
expanding the educational structures to include cradle-to-grave, lifelong Jewish learning requires more
resources and places additional strain on already overworked staff. As our congregations turn inward to meet
the growing needs and expectations of their members, social action is often perceived to be a luxury, which
can be maintained as the domain of the passionate few. Thus, despite the elevation of social action to such a
prominent role in our congregations, the reality for most remains as it was at the inception of our Movement’s
social action agenda.


Now, as in the past, the role of the rabbi and cantor is the key to social justice in the temple. Most eagerly
embrace the prophetic vision of Reform Judaism and lend their personal clout to the social justice work of the
congregation, offering timely and challenging sermons, programs and classes, and encouraging participation in
hands-on activities. And yet our clergy struggle to cope with diminishing staffs and budgets, juggling their
primary responsibilities for lifecycle and worship and adult education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah training and
hospital visits and youth work and preaching and… they have no choice but to perform triage on the many
demands placed upon them. Many congregational leaders are willing to defer to the social action groupies to
carry on their work, simply because they can. This creates the impression that social action is of secondary
importance, even though these very rabbis and cantors consider tikkun olam to be a major priority of the
Reform Movement.

Just as our congregations are changing, so are our congregants. No longer first or second generation, they are
more likely to be business owners and professionals than labor organizers fighting for a living wage.
Often, living in suburban, gated communities, they no longer witness the grinding daily reality of those less
privileged. The baby boomers are retiring and moving to Florida and Arizona while their children and
grandchildren, raised on Reagan and trickle-down economics or Clinton and a failed Middle East peace
process, are no longer inspired by tales of the civil rights movement or the remarkable birth and rejuvenation
of the state of Israel. These changes in our communities, our congregations and our members have impacted
how we respond to pressing issues of the day.

Evolving Issues

In earlier years, the priority issues were clear. During the early decades of the 20th Century, the epic battles for
labor rights and economic justice envisioned by New Deal devotees became core principles within the CCAR’s
1937 Columbus Platform, which outlined the Movement’s grand mission. The following decades saw the
post-WWII resettlement of refugees and birth of the State of Israel. Achievement of civil rights for all
Americans was the central issue that dominated the agenda in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as the Vietnam War in
the latter years. Flowing from the civil rights agenda was the struggle for equal justice for women and later, for
gays and lesbians. During the 70’s and 80’s, the defense of Israel and struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry were
primary functions of every congregation’s social action committee. Powerful constants, then as now, were
church-state separation and the struggle for economic justice.

Today’s issues are more subtle, and finding, or creating, consensus within our ranks requires finesse and
sensitivity to the growing diversity of the pew. There is a profusion of issues, most of them locked into
partisan controversy, and none transcendent in commanding public opinion. Even on issues as pressing as the
continuing conflict in Iraq, which challenges the conscience of many of our congregants, the leadership of our
Movement has been hard-pressed to identify the points of consensus among our members.

International Affairs

In the past, the morality of war tended to excite controversy and passion within the Movement. The Reform
Movement was united on WWII, and profoundly engaged. We supported the Korean War, yet were deeply
divided in the early stages of the Vietnam War. By the time the delegates at the Biennial General Assembly
condemned it in 1965, the Union’s members overwhelmingly opposed the war.

That this was not a pacifist sentiment was illustrated by the support that the Union gave to the first Gulf War
and the high praise heaped upon President George Bush, Sr. for marshalling a worldwide coalition in this
effort. Later, we supported President Clinton’s belated decision to use force to stop genocide in Bosnia and
Kosovo. Many of us became “liberal hawks.”

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • A - 3

And yet, of the many issues surrounding the war in Iraq and its aftermath, almost all are shadowed by
ambivalence and ambiguities. While the Movement in 1965 was stirred by an historic and dramatic debate on
Vietnam, our Biennial in Minneapolis passed in 2003 with almost complete silence on the ongoing war in Iraq.
Was this timidity or honest difference of opinion? And if the latter, where was the discussion or debate to help
our members form their own opinions?

In the same vein, the human tragedy underway in Sudan has been characterized as the greatest human rights
challenge today in the international arena, and yet there remains little outcry, save a few valiant voices from
our Religious Action Center (RAC) and our friends at the American Jewish World Service. Why Bosnia but
not Rwanda? Why Kosovo but not Sudan? Is it because we lack the historic connection to Africa that we have
with Eastern Europe, or, God forbid, racism? Or is it simply because we are tired, and can’t get energized
around yet another instance of genocide? Have we reached burn-out on the international stage?

Inter-Religious Dialogue

In the 50s and 60s, inter-religious dialogue was a special concern of Reform synagogues, which usually meant
engaging liberal Protestant churches in conversation and joint action. In the 70s and 80s, Catholic-Jewish
relations burst upon the agenda in every local community as a result of the historic momentum of Vatican II.
This Catholic-Jewish reconciliation was accelerated just as liberal Protestant leaders were seen as increasingly
pro-Palestinian and critical of Israeli policies. After the Oslo Accords, suddenly Jewish-Muslim relations were
seen as permissible, if not in vogue, and in numerous communities outreach efforts resulted in coalitions,
dialogue groups and joint ventures. Sadly, many of these new relations have collapsed in the wake of the
second intifada, ongoing acts of terrorism and the persistent debate over the settlements and the security
barrier now being built in Israel.

Today, with the rise of Islamic militancy and the war against terrorism, and especially the escalation of
anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, Jewish congregations must once again become the bridge of
understanding and dialogue among different faith communities. Yet, some within the Jewish community
would have us psychologically isolate ourselves, rallying around the flag of Jewish solidarity, stereotyping
“others” and turning bridges into moats. And this opting-out comes just at the moment in history when
Muslim-Christian-Jewish relations need repairing and strengthening the most. It is a bleak reality that if the
Reform temple takes a pass on the challenge of interfaith work, there will be no significant voice within our
community—an increasingly insecure, inward-looking, and frightened Jewish community—to urge us to play
our historic role in America. While we are gratified to see many congregations take up Rabbi Yoffie’s call to
adopt the “Open Doors, Open Minds” interfaith dialogue project launched at the 2003 Biennial, there remains
much work to be done in this arena.

Racial Justice

Once upon a time racial justice was our number one priority. Not today. We tend to view race relations
through the romantic prism of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great yesteryear. We cannot recreate the black-Jewish
coalition that was once at the heart of the struggle for social justice. Even core issues such as affirmative action
no longer resonate for our community. We are no longer victims of quotas, yet our children are competing for
a diminishing number of open slots at the prestigious universities that have been the subject of so much recent
judicial activity.

Indeed, today’s diverse public agenda requires a much broader coalition, with many new players. It is not
enough for Jews and African Americans to work together—we need to connect with Latinos, Asians, Muslims,
Christians, the GLBT community and hosts of other growing minorities in plural America. Yet, reaching out
to new neighbors is not a high priority for us and we are uncomfortable with newly emergent minority groups,


especially if they are not like us economically. We seem to prefer the ease of old relationships and familiar
habits. There are necessary community-building skills that need to be relearned by many of our congregations.


Once, years ago, Israel was the shining achievement in our communal treasure house. We continue to take
great pride in Israel’s achievements and we sing her praises, particularly in troubled times like these. However,
today Israel is the potential landmine in our communal relations. In the old days, the highlight of a burgeoning
relationship with any group was the climactic and unforgettable trip to Israel. Today, that is a painful
prospect, to be undertaken with delicacy, with a great potential for backlash. Does that mean we can write off
Israel in our communal dialogues? Of course not. A shared commitment to a two-state solution can still
generate a healthy discussion of the route to peace in the Middle East and the leadership role of the U.S. in
that endeavor. However, such a conversation must not be an exercise in triumphalism, but rather an honest,
robust, self-critical exchange about issues in dispute.

Within our own ranks, we can no longer take for granted that our members know, and love, the State of Israel.
Most of our congregational leaders are too young to remember the dramatic birth of Israel and her early years
of struggle. The post-’67 years, when most Jewish teenagers’ rite of passage included a summer or year in Israel,
are no more. The Israel known to today’s youngest Jews is the Israel of the intifada, settlements and fences.
Nonetheless, we must instill in our members the same passionate love of Zion that inspired our ancestors and
generations of American Jews.

And yet, the Zionist dream did not end with the formation of the political state. There remain challenges to
be addressed and mistakes that need correcting. Those who believe Israel can do no wrong, or who seek to
silence the voices of self-criticism, do not speak to, or for, the majority. Such moral certitude without critical
self-awareness will not help Israel or the Jewish people realize our divine destiny. We need to discover how to
become lovers of Zion who are not afraid to defend, as well as criticize, the political state of Israel.

The Role of Advocacy

In the not-so-distant past, many social action committees in local temples spoke out on community issues and
on national issues spotlighted by the Religious Action Center in Washington, such as reproductive rights,
welfare reform, poverty, gun control and environmental topics. In the good old days, the congregation often
served as a bridge to improved inter-religious relations through coalitions and as a prophetic voice to the
broader community. Today there is a clear shift toward involving members in hands-on programs of social
service, such as mitzvah days, ministering to the hungry and housing the homeless in local communities—
to the exclusion of advocacy work. The gradual shift away from advocacy on public issues has had the
unfortunate result of strengthening the impulse in boards of directors to stay away from controversial
public issues.

Their reluctance is understandable. Our congregations’ boards face a plethora of challenges: deficits, understaffing
and waning membership (or the reverse—rapid growth that cannot be properly accommodated).
Despite these circumstances, they must meet the demand for increasing programmatic, ritual and
educational needs of their members. Add to these dilemmas the reality of our increasing diversity, our
changing demographic and economic profiles and the perceived political shift taking place in the pew. When
there are so many pressing needs faced by congregational boards, it is easier to avoid potential controversy that
might divide rather than unify.

The problem, of course, is that Reform Judaism stands for certain things. We have never been afraid to take
difficult positions or challenge ourselves to speak out for what is right and just, even if it made some among


us squirm. That is our prophetic mandate. And if it is difficult at times to identify where our consensus lies,
that is a reason to study, reflect and discuss—it is not an excuse for inaction.

If our social justice agenda addresses only symptoms, not root causes, the Deuteronomic refrain “there will
never cease to be needy ones among you” will be our curse. Serving meals in soup kitchens and housing the
homeless for a week are important beginnings, and we should commend those who toil daily to address the
human needs that surround us. But these acts are not enough, and they do not fulfill our obligation to pursue
justice. Systemic change will not come about so easily. The societal changes that our faith demands we pursue
will not emerge from soup kitchens; they will be made in the halls of power. If our congregations are to be true
to the prophetic call of Reform Judaism, we must reclaim our role as advocates for our values in the
public arena, without surrendering the hands-on social action work that is so crucial to enriching both our
communities and our individual lives.


Some people look back with nostalgia to the 60’s and 70’s, the heyday of civil rights and anti-war activities,
and suggest that that era was the template of social action forever. One of us was a product of that era and the
other was a player in that era. Yet, both of us agree that huge new social justice challenges have come to
the fore and must be addressed by the Reform Movement. Some of these are brand new while others are
reincarnations of struggles we thought we had won long ago.

New Priorities

A generation ago we thought that anti-Semitism had become more a nuisance than a real threat to Jewish
security. Today, Jew-hatred, often disguised as anti-Zionism, permeates Europe, is brandished by Islamic
terrorists and resonates in many parts of the world. So we will continue to pursue a universal agenda of social
justice, but we will also have to help defend our people, our community, and Israel itself, within the U.N. and
everywhere our voices can be raised.

The old black-Jewish alliance which helped to stage social justice in the 60’s is giving way to much broader and
more fluid coalitions of decency that include Hispanics, Asians, Christians, Muslims, women, and GLBT
activists. These new coalitions adapt and change with each issue, requiring flexibility, creativity and an
openness to new concerns raised by new partners. It will be our role now, as in the past, to put a Jewish face
in the picture on many universal issues—from the environment and AIDS to nuclear disarmament and
welfare reform.

In the decades ahead, inter-religious work will become imperative, and our Reform Jewish presence will be
vital. In the face of Islamic terrorism, which will shadow our lives as far as the eye can see, we must reach out
to those brave Muslims in America who reject violence and bigotry. Unless modern and rational Islam
repudiates and combats Bin Ladinism and supports pluralism, our future is dark indeed. Reform Judaism
pioneered inter-religious activities. It was a nice luxury program in the past, easy to cut when the budget
was tight. Now and tomorrow it will be crucial to our security. In every community our synagogues have
untapped power to affect relationships, to create friendships, to improve the climate and the communication
among neighbors.

Many of our core issues, which once found expression in federal programs and initiatives, have now devolved
to the states. Safety-net programs are increasingly limited by block grants to the states and environmental
concerns are becoming regionalized. At the same time, innovative programs to address social welfare and


educational challenges are being tested at the state level. We need to help our congregants to become advocates
in their state capitals if we are to continue to play a meaningful role in setting governmental policy in the midst
of these changing dynamics.

Training and Staffing

To be effective in such an atmosphere will require more than sermons and resolutions. We will have to
develop effective training programs for congregational professionals and lay leaders to meet the evolving
demands of social justice.

An increasing number of congregations employ program directors, and their ranks have grown enough to
warrant a new professional association affiliated with the Reform Movement. This new association, Program
Directors of Reform Judaism, can provide social action skills training to its members who, along with clergy
and educators, are the most likely staff members of congregations to be engaged in this work. Likewise, the
RAC and the CSA must expand their highly successful programs for rabbis and rabbinical students, educators
and youth workers, to provide appropriate skills training.

Similarly, social action lay leaders must be trained, their skills honed, and they must be linked effectively
with other social action leaders in the community and in the region. The members of the Commission
on Social Action should be properly trained themselves, so that they, in turn, can provide assistance in their
local communities. Regional and biennial conventions of the Union and its affiliates can be utilized more
effectively for such training programs.

Youth leaders already receive training at Union camps and the expansion of NFTY’s Mitzvah Corps program
and KESHER’s Alternative Spring Break program are important additions to the range of offerings. But more
can be done to inspire our Movement’s young people. Already, the RAC has trained a cadre of young college
students and graduates—through its Machon Kaplan and Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Fellowship
programs—who are able to share their skills with others. These exceptional young adults are the future
of Reform Judaism and we should continue to cultivate and utilize their skills and talents within our
congregations long after they have completed their fellowships.

Yet, to be effective, social action training cannot begin in high school or college. From our earliest
learners through our seniors, our lifelong learning opportunities must include the lessons that inspire Jews
to action. We are enthusiastic about the emerging partnership between the CSA and the Commission on
Lifelong Jewish Learning through its tikkun olam track, and we look forward to witnessing the results of that
cooperative venture.

Just as the Union’s regional offices have employed professional staff to facilitate outreach, education and youth
programming within the congregations, so too, the work of social action should be professionalized if we are
to be most effective. Our regional offices would be better able to assist congregations in establishing quality
social action programs and developing the requisite skills if such professional expertise existed within our
regional structure.

Institutional Structures

The demographic trends that have been the subject of so much discussion within the Jewish community
following the National Jewish Population Study will have interesting implications for our social justice work.
The growing percentage of our population comprised of seniors undoubtedly will affect our agenda, leading
us to devote more energy to matters of health care and accessibility, insurance reform, governmental


benefit programs and medical research. We also will have a significant corps of vibrant, experienced retired
individuals who are seeking meaningful ways to utilize their flexible time. As they replenish our volunteer
pools, they will have an impact on our priorities as they determine which issues and which activities they
prefer to pursue.

At the other end of the adult spectrum, many members, or potential members, of Reform congregations do
not marry, do not have children or delay having children until much later in life. They are often transient and
in search of ways to connect with other progressive Jewish young adults. Yet the traditional portals into
congregational life, such as sisterhoods, brotherhoods, couples clubs, and havurot, as well as the classic
affiliation that begins when children join the religious school or youth group, are less likely to be their point
of entrée. Social action may provide the ideal avenue to bring this population into congregation life, while it
provides the socializing opportunities and spiritual connections many seek. These young adults, like their
retired elders, are a tremendous untapped pool of potential activists.

Combining these two demographic groups—seniors who have wisdom and experience and young adults with
enthusiasm and energy—may provide the critical spark that reignites our congregations’ passion for justice. At
least one congregation we know of is considering a mentorship program that will pair individuals from these
two demographic groups for joint learning and programming.

At the congregational level, we need to reexamine our existing institutional structures for implementing the
social action agenda to determine if the model remains appropriate for our 21st Century synagogues. Many
synagogues are reinventing their social action structures to work more systemically within the congregation,
rather than as a separate committee. They have crafted mission statements, policies and strategic plans that
incorporate advocacy as a central component of their social justice work. In fact, more and more congregations
are renaming their “social action committee” to reflect this broader mandate, opting instead for such names as
“Social Justice Steering Committee,” “Tzedek Council,” and “Tikkun Olam Coordinating Committee.” The
Commission on Social Action’s K’hilat Tzedek: Building a Congregation of Justice project was designed to
assist congregations engaged in such internal evaluations.


As synagogue life unfolds in the 21st Century, we will see many changes in institutional structures and
methods to promote the social action agenda, which has been so central to Reform Jewish life in North
America. Existing issues may evolve, and new challenges will emerge, yet we must remain committed to
addressing the critical concerns of our communities, our nation and our global village.

Too often our struggle for social justice has been derailed because we have had to expend our energies
defending the gains of yesterday—in ecology, civil rights, safety net programs and women’s rights. But in the
future we must achieve what we have never achieved: the improvement of our criminal justice system and the
elimination of the death penalty, the right to health care for all, affordable housing for those who are now
frozen out of the market, economic justice for the least among us, full equality regardless of race, gender or
sexual orientation, a foreign policy that seeks to reform and strengthen rather than marginalize the U.N., a
foreign aid program that is generous and proactive in a dangerous world and a policy aimed at eliminating
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from the earth.

What will be unique about the Reform Movement’s role in the search for social justice? Our commitment to
Judaism, to k’lal Yisrael and to the State of Israel defines our mission. That mandate requires a viable Jewish
community and a strong and vigorous synagogue. To be most effective, however, we will need to be proactive
in engaging our members and in seeking out the best tools to accomplish our progressive agenda. Good
intentions will not suffice. Smart and savvy will be the demands of social justice tomorrow, and shifting
coalitions will be the stage. The nudniks for social justice can no longer do it alone—it takes a congregation.



Rabbi Janet Marder, CCAR President, 2004
Excerpts from Remarks at a 1997 Regional Biennial

The story is told of a certain pious Jew who would come to synagogue day in, day out—always hoping for the
spiritual experience he had heard so much about. “What would it be like,” he wondered, “to hear the voice of
God?” And then finally one Yom Kippur it happened. All at once he felt the Divine Presence enfold him. The
room was bathed in radiant light. He felt an overwhelming sense of peace and joy; he felt complete. And then
a Voice came to him and said: “What is it you desire, my son? If you could have anything in this world, any
wish satisfied, what would it be?” Without even pausing to think, the pious Jew answered: “It’s this that I want!
This feeling of spiritual bliss. If this could last forever, I’d never ask for anything else again.” And the
powerful Voice boomed back: “Have you never seen a hungry child?”

I understand this story as a kind of social justice critique of the mystical quest—or, to put it more whimsically,
as the Social Action Commission’s rebuke to the Commission on Religious Living: How can you people talk
about spiritual fulfillment and inner peace when there are hungry children in the world? How can you spend
time in study and prayer and meditation when we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting to work?
The story assumes an opposition between religious seekers, portrayed here as self-absorbed and complacent,
preoccupied with nebulous, otherworldly pursuits, and seekers after social justice—those who are sensitive to
the pain of others, grounded in the real world and passionately engaged with its problems.

The real power of the story, of course, comes from its message that there should be no such split between
religious seekers and seekers after social justice—that if you truly wish to sense God’s presence you should come
to the aid of a hungry child.

It is a message that I suspect many of us believe with all our hearts. A couple of mornings ago I went to a workshop
called: “To Comfort the Sick: Synagogue Projects for People with AIDS and Their Loved Ones.” And as
I was sitting there in the meeting room, listening to the speaker describe his project—a camp he had created
for Jews with AIDS—suddenly the room was filled with music. For a moment we were all puzzled. Then we
realized that the session next door was a cantorial workshop: “Basic Melodies of Synagogue Life.” Our
presenter good-humoredly went on with his description of the camp, all the while accompanied by voices
soulfully chanting the Sh’ma, the Alenu and other parts of the liturgy.

Afterwards it struck me: an accident of hotel acoustics had brought about a moment of profound teaching. For
despite the partition set up between sessions, an essential truth had spilled over: caring for the sick, creating a
refuge for people with AIDS, is an act of avodah, of worship, as powerful as anything that takes place in
the synagogue.

We can sense it so often in our own work when we are trying to mend the world’s brokenness; we sense that
there is a transcendent purpose in the food we share or the tree we plant. We may not have the vocabulary to
describe it, but we know that there is something sacred in these simple, mundane tasks. We know that in
serving other people we are performing avodah, service to God.

At such moments we come to understand the ancient Jewish concept of bearing witness. Deeply rooted in our
tradition, the idea of bearing witness is derived from a verse in Isaiah (43:12): “Atem edai —You are My
witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God.” It is a profoundly radical notion; it says that God acts through
people, that God actually comes into the world only by our actions. “God has no other hands than ours,” wrote

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • A - 9

one of my colleagues [R. Kirschner]. And he meant that only through our love and care for one another can
we make God’s loving, healing, and comforting power real and tangible.

We come to understand that social justice work is religious living when we begin to think of ourselves as
witnesses, as instruments of God, a means of bringing God into the world.

At such moments, it all seems so simple. We know what the Lord requires of us: to do justice and love mercy;
to break the chains of wickedness and let the oppressed go free; to share our bread with the hungry and cover
the naked and to love the stranger in our midst. The prophets have told us what God wants us to do; why not
just roll up our sleeves and get to work?

Ah—now it is the Commission on Religious Living’s turn to talk. And the Commission on Religious Living,
if I may presume to speak in its name for a moment, wants us to couple our social justice work with work of
a different kind: inner work, work of the spirit—study and prayer and sacred ritual. This afternoon I want
to focus on one of these elements of religious life—study—and to explore with you how it can enrich the
quality of our social action.

As you know, the theme of this Biennial is “Lifelong Learning,” and we all have heard a great deal about
education and Torah and devotion to texts. What we never hear in all this talk about Jewish literacy, as Danny
Siegel has often pointed out, is the need for education in ziskeit, in sweetness and decency and in being
a mentsch.

This kind of Torah-learning goes beyond indoctrination with a few prophetic slogans. It goes beyond the
assimilation of facts, beyond cognitive growth to transformation of the soul. “Torah is like fire,” our sages
said. “Just as fire leaves its mark on a body it touches, so people touched by Torah are marked forever”
(Sifre Dt. 343).

People whose souls are penetrated by Torah, marked forever with the stamp of Jewish decency, are people
who have incorporated social action into the deepest levels of their being. For them, social action is not a
committee responsibility or a hobby or a political fad. They do not ride the crest of youthful idealism and burn
out in the trenches of middle age. Instead, they pursue justice and kindness all the days of their life—quietly,
consistently, in the way they treat their husbands and wives, their parents and their children, in their social and
business life, their community involvements and their political commitments.

Social action alone, without education in mentschlichkeit, without an in-depth assimilation of Torah learning
and Torah values, creates fractured human beings. We all know them: passionate advocates for one social
cause or another whose personal, sexual or family life is a shambles, people whose public activism and private
morality are tragically at odds. The Commission on Religious Living is right: we cannot sustain social justice
work without paying attention to our inner life as well, and learning to cultivate gentleness, decency and honor
at the very core of our personality. Religious living entails not only tikkun olam, repair of the world, but tikkun
ha-middot, repair of the spirit.

Biennials, like synagogues, are highly compartmentalized affairs. This session, jointly sponsored by Social
Action and Religious Living, is about breaking down barriers and partitions. It’s about recognizing that nittygritty
social justice work is infused with spiritual value and must not be separated from spiritual pursuits. It’s
about joining Jewish learning with Jewish activism to create whole persons, persons of integrity in the public
and private spheres alike, people who bear witness to the Holy One when they rise up and when they lie down,
within their homes and out on the street.

So how do we take this model of partnership between social justice and religious living back into our highly
compartmentalized synagogues? I want to propose that we make promoting mentschlichkeit our central goal,
and that our temple social action, ritual, adult education and religious school committees join forces to create
a curriculum for the transformation of souls.

Let me be concrete. We create mentschen through a combination of formal and informal education. Cognitive
and experiential learning—learning that takes place inside and outside of the classroom: at home, in the sanc

A-10 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

tuary, on the street or up at camp. So let educators, social activists, and religious seekers in the synagogue
together plan courses and holiday celebrations, conclaves and retreats that blend study with social justice work.

Some temples have launched wonderful experiments of this kind with their youth. Temple Israel of Hollywood
offers a 9th grade social action curriculum in which students alternate text study of Jewish values with work
projects that express those values. Temple Beth El of San Pedro, CA offers a similar “High School of Social
Justice” to their 11th and 12th graders. SCFTY, the Reform youth movement in my region, sponsors a summer
Mitzvah Corps in which students combine study and action as they address the problem of homelessness.
And many congregations have integrated “Mitzvah Projects” into cognitive preparations for Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

But grown-ups need to grow in mentschlichkeit as much as kids do, for we face equally dangerous stresses and
temptations. And I do not see these kinds of projects being developed for adults. I don’t see adult courses that
blend intensive Jewish study of personal, family, social and business ethics with mitzvah-work. I don’t
see enough of the kind of coordinated planning I spoke about, in which several committees jointly create
opportunities for study, prayer and action: an intergenerational retreat where people of all ages learn about and
then practice tzedaka; or a Sukkot celebration that features study, worship and mitzvah-work on the theme of
homelessness; or Purim festivities that educate the congregation about matanot la’evyonim, gifts to the poor;
or a Shavuot observance that combines study of the Book of Ruth with a congregational gleaning project to
harvest food for the hungry.

Don’t misunderstand me. Our congregations are doing wonderful social action work—many projects organized
around specific holidays. But it’s time for those who labor in separate vineyards—social justice, ritual and
Jewish learning—to integrate their efforts in a massive joint enterprise: the cultivation of mentschen, families
who talk about God as much as they talk about getting into college, and who know that the real Religious
Action Center is not in Washington, D.C. but around their own kitchen table.

And always, always we must remember that our ultimate goal is not just to collect clothing or canned goods,
but to inculcate lifelong kindness. And so the most important teaching we can do in the synagogue is to model
fair, decent, respectful behavior towards our staff, our co-workers and our fellow-congregants.

In the past four days we’ve all heard countless interpretations of Parshat Lech Lecha. I’m about ready to look
ahead to this week’s Torah portion, Vayera—a portion whose central image seems meant for this session.
“Vayera elav Adonai,” the portion begins. “God appeared to Abraham by the oak trees of Mamre; he was
sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.”

What a strange, confusing passage! Who actually appeared to Abraham? Was it God, or was it three men?
Martin Buber, in an essay called “Abraham the Seer,” says that it is Abraham’s special ability to see, to see God,
that set him apart. And the great Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig solves the puzzle for me when he writes,
“Abraham is the religious man par excellence because he sees God in the human situation.” In other words,
God did appear to Abraham. And so did three men. Abraham was able to see both, at the same time; he sees
God, he sees a sacred obligation, in the faces of three hungry, tired travelers. And so he performs a simple act,
a sacred act: he offers them food and water. Writes Heschel: “We perceive the Infinite in doing the finite.”

We are here in this room today because we want Jews to be what out tradition says they are supposed to be:
rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, compassionate children of compassionate parents—people who perceive the
Infinite One in simple acts of kindness; people who hear God’s voice in the cry of a hungry child; people who
learn in the synagogue to roll up their sleeves and do God’s work.

We are here in this room today because we want to be mentschen who live and work in mentschlich congregations
where God is worshipped not only in the sanctuary, but in shelters and hospitals where we try to mend
the world’s brokenness. We are here, I hope, because we want our souls and our lives to be transformed by
Torah. Religious seeking, seeking social justice, is not easy. But our sages teach: “L’fum tza’ara agra. According
to the labor is the reward” (Avot 5:23).

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • A-11


Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism
Excerpts from Remarks at the 2003 Rededication of the RAC

…In 1959, the Union passed a resolution to establish an advocacy center in Washington, together with the
Central Conference of American Rabbis. Its purpose would be to influence Congress on the great moral issues
about which our Movement had spoken, and to educate our membership about these issues as well. However,
once the implications of the resolution became clear, a number of major Reform congregations urged that the
decision be reconsidered. At the 1961 Biennial, therefore, the issue was brought forward again, and the debate
that ensued was stormy and intense.

The opponents of the Center offered a number of arguments. They said that it would be arrogant for any
institution to presume to speak for us all—we Reform Jews are famously unable to agree on the time of
day. The rabbis don’t agree with the laypeople, the Midwesterners don’t agree with the Easterners, the
traditionalists don’t agree with the classical Reformers. But the key argument was this: while both sides
acknowledged that ethics are central to Reform Judaism, the opponents insisted that ethics means personal
ethics and individual conscience, and not collective political action.

When the debate was over and the smoke had cleared, supporters of the Center had beaten back the
opponents by a vote of almost four to one. The Reform Movement by that vote set its course and made a
statement about fundamental values from which it has not deviated in 42 years. And our statement was
simply this: Yes, personal ethics are important. G’milut chasadim—acts of kindness—are important. Setting up
soup kitchens, food pantries, and clothing drives is important. It is good and right that we reach into the river
of despair and rescue people who are drowning. But, there comes a time when you need to move upstream and
see who’s throwing them in.

Amos said: “Let justice roll down like the waters.” Justice, he said, and not charity, and for good reason.
Because while charity alleviates the effects of poverty, justice seeks to eliminate its cause.

That Biennial vote in 1961 was an acknowledgement that our synagogues, naturally enough, tend to be long
on charity and short on justice, and that therefore we were establishing a Center in Washington to promote
justice on our behalf.

…Consider how far we have come since 1961. In that year, most Americans were still not accorded full
citizenship in their own country. Blacks lived under a system of virtual apartheid, subject to terrifying violence
whenever whites chose to subject them to it. Women were relegated to a handful of professions and a
subordinate role in all things. Gays and lesbians were forced into a bitter, shadow existence in which they, too,
could be abused at will. But in the intervening years everything has changed. Freedom has been secured for
these Americans—not completely, by any means, and not without ugly scenes, unseemly conflict, and
real struggle. But in large part, their freedom has been won; it has been won by educating, advocating, and
lobbying our politicians, and by mobilizing the essential idealism and optimism of the American people.

We do not, of course, claim all the credit, but the RAC has done its share, and more. The historic civil rights
bills of the 1960’s were written in our conference room. Jewish opposition to the Vietnam War began with us.
Gay and lesbian rights were championed by us. Vouchers and school prayer were opposed by us, and the wall
of church-state separation was maintained, in no small measure, by our efforts.

The leaders of the RAC never surrendered to despair or cynicism, or to the privatizing forces of the day. When
others were reduced to inconsequential hand wringing, they gave our synagogues a plan, a purpose, and a

A-12 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M

course of action. When the moral outrage of others was too feeble, they inspired us and kept us on the moral
offensive. When too many churches and synagogues were down to management and therapy, they reminded
us to challenge the entrenched and to work for a better day.

Is our task now complete? Not even close.

Yes, we’ve won some victories, but political virtue is fragile. In many ways, American politics right now are
fundamentally broken, corrupted by abuse, moral indifference, and politicians who spend their days dialing
for dollars.

And our task is vastly complicated by the wars in which we are engaged—the war against terrorism and the
war against Saddam Hussein. While we stand united in the struggle against terror, Americans, and members
of our Movement, have not been of one mind on the war in Iraq. While that war is not my topic tonight, I
know that with the battle underway, we are grateful to the men and women of our armed services who have
answered the call of their country and who risk their lives on our behalf. And we share a desire for a swift
conclusion to the fighting, for minimal casualties to our troops and to civilians, and for a rebuilding of Iraq
that will leave her citizens secure and free.

But my major concern at the moment is that whatever our opinion on these wars, this Movement believes that
they cannot take the place of all our other wars: against poverty, hatred, and exploitation.

My concern is that during times of war, hatred becomes respectable, even though it has to masquerade under
the guise patriotism, and that the Jewish values of justice, respect, and equality may be lost in the shuffle.

My concern is that with the guns of war blazing, we will forget Guantanamo; we will forget that it is wrong to
confine people indefinitely without even telling them the charges against them; we will forget the balance that
is required between security and liberty, and that if we win the war and lose the Constitution, we will have
lost everything.

My concern is that for this generation, a coat hanger is just a coat hanger, and if we do not pay close attention,
Congress will start by banning late-term abortions, will then give the fetus rights that surpass those of women,
and will end up chipping away and finally destroying a woman’s right to choose.

My concern is that at a time of savage inequality in our public schools, and of growing inequality between rich
and poor, we need more affirmative action and not less if we are to build a just community; but if we allow
ourselves to focus only on the war, universities will soon be able to admit legacies, musicians, and athletes who
can’t read, but will be banned from admitting a qualified, racially diverse student body.

My concern, in short, is that during wartime, with the media in its one-story mode, with time for nothing but
Iraq, our understandable concern for the war and the welfare of our soldiers will cause us to lose sight of our
highest priorities and most basic values.

If we raise these issues during wartime will we be accused of disloyalty? Perhaps. But our disloyalty will be not
in our dissent but in our subservience. Yes, there’s a fight going on against terrorists around the globe and a
despotic regime in Iraq. But just as certainly there’s a fight going on here at home, to decide just what kind of
a country this will be…

This Administration is the first in the history of our country to ask the sons and daughters of working men
and women to risk their lives in war while asking the wealthy to pay less in taxes.

When democratic countries go to war, they usually pursue domestic policies that promote national unity and
social solidarity. They recognize a special obligation to those who bear the direct burden of war, and those
who benefit least from the affluence of democracy. But this administration wants a $700 billion tax cut,
three-quarters of which in the first year goes to the richest five percent.

UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M • A-13

And who will pay the price of these tax cuts? The working poor and the near poor. Forty-one states have already
cut Medicaid, and many, many more cuts are yet to come.

Those at the top of the income ladder are already receiving a bigger slice of the income pie than at any time
in the past 60 years.

Is this a time to suggest, without a touch of irony, that we redistribute wealth upwards?

Is this a time to craft tax breaks for billionaires while claiming that the sky will fall if we raise the minimum
wage to anything approaching a living wage?

Whenever I read Torah, what I find there is that the poor are never a problem to the rich. It is always the rich
who are a problem to the poor. But the way we are cutting taxes for the wealthy and social programs for the
poor, you would think it was the other way around.

The tax cut has been approved by the House but reduced by the Senate, and its ultimate dimensions are
uncertain. So this is what the RAC will be working on. Now, we know that this kind of talk will ruffle some
feathers. But what good are words of Torah that don’t get under anyone’s skin? What good are words of Torah
that don’t touch the real problems of society? What good are pious phrases that don’t bother anyone?

And the RAC’s message for 42 years has been: if feathers are ruffled, so be it. Because now is the time for a
full-bodied Judaism of ritual profundity and moral rigor—a Judaism that doesn’t cower and wait, but boldly

Passover will soon be upon us. We will gather in our homes and read the story of Pharaoh, and Moses, and the
exodus from Egypt—a story that shows, if it shows anything, that religion is not on the side of the established

And who is Pharaoh? He is a passive king in a land without revolution or promise or hope, in a world that
never changes from generation to generation.

And who is Moses? He is the man who introduces prophetic passion to human history. He sees an Egyptian
beating a Hebrew—something that has happened a thousand times before. But somehow he sees what no one
else has seen—misery in the human heart and misery in the heart of God. And while others responded with
bitterness and fatalism, he responds with passion and with anger, and with a readiness to care, to suffer,
and above all, to act. It is the passion of Moses that changes our world and that provides us with spiritual

The passion of Moses is today more important than ever. Without it we are left dispirited and inert, victims
of moral lassitude. Without it, we have already gotten used to nuclear weapons and genocidal wars, and soon
we will get used to starving children and the plague of AIDS. We need prophetic passion to save us.

And that is what the RAC does. It injects us with this passion whenever we are suddenly cynical or
overwhelmed by reality. And it reminds us that despite squalor for the poor and gated communities for the
rich, the great mass of Americans have not yet given up on “We, the People.”…

A-14 • UN I O N F O R RE F O R M JU DA I S M



What social action needs exist within the synagogue community (childcare, healthcare, food assistance,
etc.)? ____________________________________________________________________________
In what social action work are congregants involved outside of the synagogue?
Congregational Leadership

Does the board support and acknowledge the temple’s social action work? If so, how?
Do board members, clergy, educators and other synagogue professionals participate in social action
programming? If so, in what ways?
Do members of the clergy preach on social justice issues? Do clergy and professional staff help frame social
justice work in terms of Jewish values and texts? When and how does this take place?

Institutional Emphasis on Social Justice

Does the congregation have a mission statement and if so, does it reference social action?
Does the Social Action Committee have a mission statement? If so, what is it?
Does the Social Action Committee include representatives of different synagogue affiliates and/or
demographic groups? How does the committee work with other committees or affiliates within the
What percentage of the congregation participates in some aspect of social action activity through the
synagogue? Are there any demographic groups that are noticeably absent? _______________________
10. Does the congregation hold a Mitzvah Day? What social justice issues have been addressed through
Mitzvah Day programs?______________________________________________________________
11. Does the congregation engage in long-term social justice projects? If so, what projects exist?

12. Does the congregation enable advocacy on behalf of social justice causes? If so, what is the process for
deciding when and how to speak in the congregation’s name? _________________________________
13. Are synagogue salaries and benefits for staff, including support and custodial staff, livable and fair?
14. Do the synagogue’s energy use, recycling policy, purchasing policy and renovation and construction
choices show concern for the environment?_______________________________________________
15. Are the synagogue building and programs accessible to people with physical disabilities and other special
needs? ___________________________________________________________________________
16. Are the synagogue financial practices (investments, fundraising, dues structure, etc.) consistent with our
values? ___________________________________________________________________________
17. What percentage of our institution’s budget and staff time is dedicated to social action work?

Methods of Integration

18. Is social justice work integrated into holiday and lifecycle celebrations? If so, how?_________________
19. Are the themes of social justice integrated into worship? If so, how? ____________________________
20. Are social justice curricula being implemented in the youth group, religious school, confirmation, and
adult education programs of our synagogue? ______________________________________________
21. Is social action thought of as a spiritual and religious endeavor among our temple’s congregants?
22. Are the social action activities of the affiliates and committees coordinated with one another?



Text Study 1: Talmud Sotah 14a

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What
means the text: You shall walk after
Adonai your God? Is it possible for a
human being to walk after the
Shechinah; for has it not been said: For
Adonai your God is a devouring fire?
But [the meaning is] to walk after the
attributes of the Holy One, blessed is
God. As God clothes the naked, for it
is written: And Adonai, God made for
Adam and for his wife coats of skin,
and clothed them; so do you also clothe
the naked. The Holy One, blessed is
God, visited the sick, for it is written:
And Adonai appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre; so do you also visit the sick. The Holy
One, blessed is God, comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of
Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son; so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One, blessed
is God, buried the dead, for it is written: And God buried Moses in the valley; so do you also bury
the dead.

Text Study 2: Talmud Baba Batra 9a

R. Eleazar said: One who causes others
to do good is greater than the doer, as
it says, And the work of righteousness [tzedakah] shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quiet
and confidence for ever.


Text Study: Jeremiah 22:13-16

Woe to the one who builds a house by
unrighteousness, and chambers by injustice;
who uses a neighbor’s service without wages,
and does not give the workers their wages;
Who said, I will build a wide house and
large chambers; and cut out windows; and it
is covered with rafters of cedar, and painted
with vermilion. Shall you reign, because you
compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was
well with him? Your father judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him; Was
not this to know Me? says Adonai.



Text Study: A Parable Regarding the Spiritual Imperative of Social Justice as told by
Rabbi Janet Marder, CCAR President, 2004

The story is told of a certain pious Jew who would come to synagogue day-in and day-out, always
hoping for the spiritual experience he had heard so much about. “What would it be like,” he
wondered, “to hear the voice of God?” And then finally one Yom Kippur it happened. All at once he
felt the Divine Presence enfold him. The room was bathed in radiant light. He felt an overwhelming
sense of peace and joy; he felt complete. And then a voice came to him and said; “What is it you
desire, my friend? If you could have anything in the world, any wish satisfied, what would it be?”
Without even pausing to think, the pious Jew answered: “It’s this that I want! This feeling of
spiritual bliss. If this could last forever, I’d never ask for anything else again.” And the powerful Voice
boomed back: “Have you never seen a hungry child?”



Thank you for participating in the K’hilat Tzedek process. We hope that you found it helpful. Please take a few
moments to give us your feedback on the process.

Coordinator Name ____________________________ Title:__________________________________
Coordinator Phone:____________________________ E-mail: ________________________________
Coordinator Address: ___________________________________________________________________

Congregation Name: ___________________________________________________________________
Number of Families: ___________________________________________________________________
Congregation Address: __________________________________________________________________

What led you and your congregation to participate in this process? ________________________________

The Guide

How did you find out about the guide? _____________________________________________________

What elements of the guide did you find most useful?__________________________________________

Was there any additional information/resource that you wish had been included in the guide? ___________

The Process

Do you have any suggestions of ways to improve this process? If so, what? __________________________

Did you adapt the structure of the process suggested in the guide (e.g. more or fewer sessions, additional
elements, etc.)? If so, how did you organize the process?



Did you find this process helpful? If so, in what ways?__________________________________________

Did any concrete suggestions emerge from the discussions? If so, what suggestions? (Please feel free to attach
documents or policies that emerged from your process.) ________________________________________

Do you think that this process will affect how social justice and the Social Action Committee are perceived
within your congregation? If so, how and why? If not, why not? _________________________________

What can the Commission on Social Action and the Religious Action Center do to assist you in building a
K’hilat Tzedek? ________________________________________________________________________

Other comments and suggestions: _________________________________________________________

Please return this completed form along with copies of all of the participant forms to:

Commission on Social Action
Attention: K’hilat Tzedek

633 Third Ave, Seventh Floor
New York, NY 10017
Phone: (212) 650-4160
Fax: (212) 650-4229



Thank you for participating in the K’hilat Tzedek process. We hope that you found it helpful. Please take a few
moments to give us your feedback on the process.

Name: ______________________________________________________________________________
Phone:______________________________________ E-mail: ________________________________
Address: _____________________________________________________________________________
Affiliation within the synagogue (Board, School, New Member, etc.): ______________________________

Did you find this process helpful? If so, in what ways?__________________________________________

Did you enjoy the discussions? If so, why? If not, why not?______________________________________

Do you think that this process will affect how social justice and the Social Action Committee are perceived
within your congregation? If so, how and why? If not, why not? _________________________________

Do you think that you will change the way you approach social action personally? If so, how? ___________

Do you think others would benefit from similar discussions? If so, who?____________________________

Was there any additional information/resource that you wish had been included in the process?__________

Would you like to receive e-mail updates on current issues of concern (RAC News)? •
Yes •
Would you like to receive the Commission on Social Action newsletter (Tzedek V’Shalom)? •
Yes •

Would you like to receive updates on available programmatic materials (social-action list-serve)? •
Yes •

If you responded yes to any of the above questions, please be sure that your e-mail address is listed above and is
clearly legible.




Your membership in a Union congregation
has made the Reform Movement the largest
and most vibrant branch of Judaism.

Supported by the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker
Conference and Program Fund of the
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
633 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6778

P: 212.650.4160 F: 212.650.4229
Printed on recycled paper

Copyright © 2004 by the Union for Reform Judaism