During my time in high school, a group known the Fellowship for Christian Athletes was active. I went to a public school, so their presence was controversial, at least to me. They sponsored a moment of silence at the start of each day, a veiled version of school prayer. They had Bible study sessions. They were active in other ways, too. One day, I happened to mention the Fellowship to my rabbi, and he became incensed. For him, their presence was a clear church/state violation. By the end of the day, the rabbi was on the phone with the local ADL chapter and with my father. As things began to roll, and as it became clear that I would be a player in this fight, my father said to my rabbi, “We are going to leave Neil out of this.”
I was furious. I wanted to fight. I wanted to say, “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play!” My father and I discussed it, and his punch line was simple, “I do not want you going to school in the middle of a fire. Go become a rabbi, and then you can take on this fight for some other kid.”
I heeded my father’s advice. I sat that one out. They made some phone calls, and they called a few meetings between school officials and community leaders. As a result, the Fellowship lost its footing in my high school, though they did not go away. I went off to become rabbi.
I first told that story to Rabbi Jonah Pesner. At the time, he was the founder and director of Just Congregations, and he went ahead and put me into the fight. I was one of his rabbinic interns. That story for me, was the foundational experience out of which my sense of justice was born. Rabbi Pesner helped me identify this story, and taught me how it was fuel for my work in social justice.
This last month, after 40 years under the leadership of Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi Pesner has been appointed as the new director of the Religious Action Center (the RAC) in Washington D.C.
For more than 50 years, the RAC has served as the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity. Each year, Ellie Goldman and I travel with our 9th Graders to the RAC to participate in their L’taken seminar. The RAC awards the Fain Award for excellence in congregational social action programming. Temple Shalom has won the award a couple of times. We are a congregation who holds Tikkun Olam as a core value, and we have kept a relationship alive with the RAC that has helped us to live out that value.
When you come into our synagogue building, the opportunity to do justice is always present. We can bring cans of tuna fish or tomato products, which are then donated to Family Table, serving a large population of hungry in our broad community. At Yom Kippur we fill a truck that supplies the Newton Food Pantry for months. We have countless drives for clothing, glasses, and other goods that make the lives of others a little easier. This year, we were a Fifth Night site—families were invited to bring presents to Birthday Wishes, instead of receiving gifts that night. We continue to be involved in the conversation to bring more affordable housing to Newton. And we are a part of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, fighting for a more just Boston. We are an active community in the world of social justice. This work requires many volunteers, and I thank each and every one of you who have taken part in some social action or social justice program or initiative this year. You are living out the values that we espouse.
“For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Eternal God by doing what is just and right.” Israel’s specialness is linked to its mission: to walk b’derekh Adonai, on God’s path, la-asot tzedek u’mishpat, to do what is just and right. May we, as a sacred community, travel that path from strength to strength, always one step closer toward a world more whole.