Tag Archives: Social Justice

My Social Justice Story

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.

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Leading in Jewish Social Justice

By Melanie Fineman

(This past November, Melanie spoke from the bima at Friday night Shabbat services. She spoke powerfully about the connection between her Jewish life and social justice. The following are her remarks.)

Our Torah portion this week, Vayeitzei, opens with a journey: Jacob leaves his hometown of Beersheba and travels to Haran (28:10). And so it is only fitting that I am here, having come back to Newton after living in my new home in Washington DC. And just like when Jacob set off to find his place, I will continue, slowly yet surely, to find my place in this Jewish community. Though unlike Jacob, I am not fleeing anything: there is nothing that I would like to escape or avoid. Moreover, I am trying to learn as much as I possibly can to gain clarity about how I personally can partake in tikkun olam, or healing the world.

I have always had a strong Jewish Identity; I became a Bat Mitzvah and was confirmed at Temple Shalom, went to Eisner camp for one summer, traveled to Prague, Poland, and Israel for five weeks the summer after my sophomore year of high school with NFTY L’Dor V’Dor. I was an avid participant in the Temple Shalom Mother-Daughter Book Group when I was in Middle School. I also had a passion for political action and social justice. Every Sunday, my dad would hand me a dollar bill to bring to Religious School, which I would then place in the class tzedekah box. Temple Shalom’s Mitzvah Day was an annual highlight, and I was proud that my parents ran one of the projects. When wintertime came, I would walk up and down Temple Shalom’s social hall participating in the Mitzvah Mall. As I have grown older, I have discovered that my desire to help others could take root in ways other than through the community service contributions of my youth: I volunteered for political campaigns, interned at government offices, and engaged in public policy work. This political and government activism had always been fairly separate from my Jewish identity, and I was eager to see how the two intersected.

Just as Jacob begins his journey, he dreams of a ladder connecting heaven and Earth, with various angels climbing and descending on it. The angels move up and down, fluctuating from the spiritual elements of faith to something more relevant down on
Earth. How could my Jewish values and Jewish ideals connect with policy and with the government action that I valued so deeply?
When I was a freshman in college I came across the Machon Kaplan Internship Program for undergraduate students interested in Judaism and social justice. The program is based in Washington DC and run by the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism, the DC office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns. The organization advocates on over seventy different issues and serves as the social justice arm for the Union For Reform Judaism. The RAC hosts a number of programs, such as Machon Kaplan. For six weeks, students intern at various nonprofits, take classes exploring the relationship between faith and social justice, and live in dorm rooms at George Washington University with the other program participants. I was thrilled when I was accepted into the program. I was so fortunate that I could be a part of the RAC that, like a ladder, relates Judaism to work on the ground and ultimately makes it relevant to
the structures and systems facing us in today’s society. The RAC also has a fellowship program where recent college graduates participate as Eisendrath Legislative Assistants, or as LAs.

Several members of the Temple Shalom family were LAs including Julie Vanek and Liz Piper-Goldberg Hirsch. I am fortunate to get to be one of six LAs for the 2014-2015 season. This week’s Torah portion also emphasizes the outcome of hard work. Jacob is asked to work for his Uncle Laban by tending his sheep for seven years. Only after his hard work can he advance and ultimately achieve this end goal. Sometimes, we all have to persevere through difficult situations. At the RAC, I currently work on the economic justice portfolio. This includes housing, homelessness, hunger, taxes, the budget, aging and the elderly, children’s issues, labor, minimum wage, and paid sick leave. These are a lot of issues, and very important ones at that. I am responsible for researching these issues, relating the topic to our tradition, educating clergy and URJ members, lobbying and writing on the RAC blog. Let me share with you some of the
findings of my research and some of what I have learned over the past few months.

In our society, there are too many people currently 46.2 million Americans are currently in poverty and 47 million Americans, or 15% of the population, receive SNAP benefits, or food snaps. The US Department of Agriculture reports that last year over 49 million
Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food. 15.8 million children struggled with food insecurity issues in the past year and 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20. Our Jewish tradition is explicit in the command that we feed the hungry and help eradicate hunger from our society. For instance, In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.”

It has become increasingly difficult for American families to stay in their own home. A recent comprehensive state-by-state report sponsored by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research shows that the number of homeless children in the country has reached a record high, amounting in one in thirty children being homeless! This means that 2.5 million children in the United States, about half of whom are under the age of six, go to sleep without a home of their own each night, a historic high in the number of homeless children in the U.S.

All of these issues are interconnected: The major causes of American homelessness include the high national poverty rate, a lack of affordable housing across the country, the Great Recession’s continuing impacts, racial disparities, the challenges of single parenting, and how traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, precede and prolong homelessness for families. High costs of living, compounded by the lack of
affordable housing, further exacerbates the problem. Federal housing assistance, state housing assistance, and incentives for developers to build low-income housing units have met the high demand to feed America’s homeless. We can’t just solve or fix one of these problems – all of the issues regarding economic inequality in our society must be solved together. We need to address all of the root foundations that place people in poverty and that place people behind.

One way to combat these issues is by ensuring that workers are earning a living wage: the minimum wage needs to be raised in order to help workers earn enough to raise a family. Over the last forty years, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen by
close to 30%, demonstrating a need to raise the wage to account for changing cost values. The 1968 federal minimum wage would be worth over $10/hour in today’s dollars – yet our current minimum wage of $7.25/hour is far below that. Our current
minimum wage translates to a lifetime of poverty, not near enough for anyone to live by: in no states can a minimum wage worker afford a two-bedroom apartment working a 40 hour week. Raising the minimum wage would also help improve the economy, by increasing productivity, reducing turnover, saving on recruiting/training costs, reducing absenteeism, and lifting 2 million Americans out of poverty.

Though the Torah recognizes that we cannot necessarily eliminate all poverty, we are taught that we must work to alleviate its impact. In addition, the Torah also emphasizes the importance of a worker’s wages: “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer… but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).” Making sure the vulnerable and the worker are provided for is a responsibility for us as a society as well as us as individuals. Through the RAC, I was able to get involved with the Nebraska minimum wage race and helped a reform rabbi and Congregationalist minister write an interfaith op-ed encouraging voters to vote yes on initiative 425, the Nebraska ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage. It was exciting when the minimum wage was raised in four states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota – after last fall’s election day. We can make a difference.

We can also do more to increase the number of paid sick days individuals have access to. The RAC got involved in our Commonwealth’s Ballot Question 4, a call for Massachusetts workers to have earned sick time. We created an online social media tool called a Thunderclap that reached 85,000 people to raise awareness about Question 4, made a pledge to remind voters to vote on Question 4, and encouraged our clergy to write op-eds about paid sick leave. Temple Shalom’s own Rabbi Neil Hirsch wrote an op-ed that got placed in the Massachusetts Jewish Ledger. We also hosted a conference call for our clergy in Massachusetts about Question 4, and RAC staff members called rabbis at all of our Reform congregations to raise awareness about the issue. It was exciting to be part of an effort to make an impact in my own home state.

I also feel good knowing that I spend every day fighting for important government programs that are helping make individuals’ lives better. Social safety net programs are crucial to ensuring children who are experiencing poverty stay afloat. The share of federal funding directed towards children has declined and today amounts to under 8 percent of the overall budget. In 2013 federal safety net programs kept 8.2 million
children, over 11% of all children, out of poverty.

Our Jewish values encourage us to advocate for systems that can lift people out of poverty. Jewish history also provides us with an example for helping the needy. During Talmudic times, much of tzedakah was done though tax-financed, community-run programs that helped those in needed, paralleling the entitlement security that we fight for and continue to fight for today.

So I’ve spent a lot of time tonight talking about problems and issues facing our society, but I don’t want to lost sight that the RAC believes that we can act to mitigate these differences. What am I doing, as someone working on behalf of this denomination of Judaism, which was founded on the grounds of making your Judaism relevant to your life, on making decisions regarding how to practice faith and how to live a Jewish life through knowledge. I feel so fortunate to be working for an organization that embraces the journey of striving to make the world a better place and to advocate for policies that benefit all, not just reform Jews, or the Jewish community at large.

Visit the RAC’s web site at www.rac.org – on the web site, you will find action alerts that encourage you to contact your elected officials on issues that matter to you.

The other LAs and I write several blog posts a week about the issues in our portfolio and what our reform Jewish values say about them. Soon students from Temple Shalom will fly down to Washington DC to participate in one of the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, opportunities for high schoolers to learn about issues as well as what the reform movement has to say about policies and ultimately concluding in lobby visits, where the students will visit their own elected officials and advocate as ambassadors for Temple Shalom, for the Reform Movement, and ultimately for themselves. My fellow Legislative Assistants and I are doing a lot of work to prepare interactive programs, lobby materials, talking points, and memos to support these conferences – and to provide information to guide these high school students on their own Jewish journeys in pursuit of social justice.

How can we follow in the footsteps of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Rebecca, of Sarah, of Leah, and work to heal the world?

Our Jewish tradition encourages us to not be complacent in the face of these economic injustices, but to continue to advocate for programs to lift up those in need. Tzedakah is not simply a matter of charity, but of responsibility, righteousness, and justice. We are
told in Proverbs 31:9, to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”

Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: justice, justice, you shall pursue. And these are words that I will continue to carry with me, for the rest of my life and as I continue my journey. Jacob was not sure what his journey would bring, when he left Beersheva to travel to Haran. And nor do I know what will come next. Yet I will remain inspired by the ladder connecting what is holy to what is going on right here on the ground, with the angels floating up and down in between it. And I know that I will do everything possible to do
good work and leave a positive mark on this planet, with my Jewish values guiding me every step of the way.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy holidays.

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Slow, Cold Anger

The following is the text from my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon.

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This past August, over my summer vacation, I was in New York City visiting some friends. My first afternoon in town, I made sure to go for a run in Central Park, one of my favorite spots to be. The weather was perfect, like something out of a Woodie Allen film, with small puffy clouds and perfect temperatures. It seemed like everyone was making excuses to be outside.

Within Central Park, there is a wonderful 6-mile road that is a runner’s delight; it is a perfect route. As I got into the second mile of my run, I was heading toward the southern bend in the road. This area, which goes near Columbus Circle, along Central Park South, and turns up on the East Side near the Apple Store, brings in a lot of tourists. Mix those people with other runners, other bikers, walkers, and dogs, and you have created a veritable mine field.

To this point I had always made it out of this corner of the park unscathed. On this occasion, my winning streak ended. As I came around the corner, I was finally hitting my stride, able to pick up my pace. All of a sudden, I sensed something behind me, and my legs began to buckle underneath me. Before I could process what was going on, I was knocked to the pavement, landing hard on my shoulder. As I fell, the guy who crashed into me came tumbling down, too, along with his bicycle. The bike dug into my hip and all six feet, five inches and 220 pounds of him came down on top of that. From underneath this pile up, I heard something metal and plastic hit the ground too, and shatter.

Fairly quickly, the other guy was up, and another person had lifted the bike off me. I was able to get up, and I checked to see if I was okay. A few scrapes, and I knew there would be some bruising, but I was okay.

I spun around looking for the guy who hit me. He was on the ground picking up the pieces of what I had heard shatter–his camcorder.

The man, still crouching, picking up his broken camera, had not even stopped to ask if I was alright. His first priority was that camera. Well, I was not going to wait for him. I saw red, and I went ballistic. I yelled and I screamed. I shook off the dust, tapped into a buried, Hulk-like New Yorker that I somehow picked up along the way, and shared with him every single four-letter word I had within me. I detonated verbal nukes that I am embarrassed to say I knew.

As I gave into this flash of anger, I noticed standing next to the man, on anther bicycle was his seven-year-old son. I went from seeing red to feeling red. My anger transformed into embarrassment. I was angry this man had run over me with his bike, and rightfully so, I still believe. Anger is anger; we feel it when, we feel it. And, I now realize, having been hot under the collar then, I did not react in the most appropriate fashion. For that, I am profoundly sorry. But, missteps are wonderful teachers.

In that moment, standing there a little scraped up in Central Park, but mostly okay, my anger abated. As I stood there, trying to figure out what to do next, I imagined Moses standing beside the rock with water flowing, holding onto his staff, having just disobeyed God, yet still having met the Israelite’s thirst.

Moses and the Israelites had been wandering through the Wilderness for a generation.

The community was aging, and Moses led them from Egypt to this place, but not yet to the Promised Land, that place that flows with milk and honey. God guided the way by smoke and by fire, and as the generation who knew Egypt came to a close, a second generation of Israelite was coming of age in the Wilderness.

The Israelites knew about loss. At this particular moment in the Israelite’s story, Miriam, Moses & Aaron’s sister, died. The community watched and grieved as Moses, the Prophet, and his brother, the Priest, sought out a gravesite and laid their sister’s body to rest. At the same time, another problem presented itself along with the grief the community felt: with Miriam’s death, the wells that were the Israelites’ source of water dried up, and thirst began to set in.

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Because of their thirst, the Israelites showed up on Moses doorstep, pleading with him to find water. Otherwise, they were the ones who would surely meet death, not just Miriam. Moses, in his grief, must have been thinking: G’valt, I have to deal with this now, too?

Moses and Aaron took themselves before God, and they lowered their faces. God speaks up with a plan: Take you staff, go over to the rock, and speak to it, and it will give you water for the Israelites.

Talk to the rock? … Can’t we get something a little bit bigger? Something more Red-Sea?  Something more… miraculous? Moses looked down at the staff in his hand, hot anger welled up from within, and he felt the weight of it. The staff did so much for him before. It helped him free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grasp. He had extended that very staff over the Red Sea to make it part. He held it up over the Israelites as they vanquished the Amalakites in war.

Suddenly, like Abraham about to slay his beloved Isaac, Moses lifted up his staff again over his head. But unlike Abraham in the Akeidah, no angel appeared to stop him. Moses brought the staff down, striking the rock with such anger and force, that the rock cleaved open. Water flowed out, and the Israelites’ thirst was quenched. But Moses failed in his relationship with God. Moses struck out in hot anger and in faithlessness against God, letting his human qualities flow out, and in doing so, he fell short.

We get angry; we’ve all been there. Anger is a hard-wired emotion. In response to some sort of wrong that we feel, anger–hot or cold, fast or slow–can well up within us.

When the lightning fast flash of rage is there, we are subject to a violent, destructive force. That is fast, hot anger.

Still, we know another type of anger, one that burns slowly. In this anger exists power and energy. When anger burns as a low flame, we keep it far from becoming an explosive moment. Still, its heat is recognizable. This type of anger–slow, cold anger–is a transformative gift. When we allow it to become an engulfment of rage, we squander its power. But, when we slow it down, we harness its power.

We find the lessons of slow anger throughout the liturgy in our High Holidays. Many times in our services over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will pray: “Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, erech apayaim v’rav chesed; Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and gracious God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” This is Avinu Malkeinu, the parental and ruling God whom we meet in these days. Not a vengeful and wrathful God, who is far from us. But a real presence who–even with all of our failings in this past year–models slow anger as balanced best in the company of kindness.

In the God of the High Holy Days lives an example for how we can approach the anger we feel. We too can be slow to anger, and we too can abound in kindness. Maybe it is a particular relationship that sets us on edge, or maybe it is a particular issue that fires us up. With erech apayim v’rav chesed as our mantra, there is a fuel within us that–this time–can transform that anger, that can transform it into something else, into something better. In slow anger, we have a medicine for brokenness, and we find a path toward wholeness. We know that “hot anger and rage are wrong. Apathy and resignation are wrong. [Yet] There is an in-between–a cold anger–this is right on.”

I say it is right on, because when we look at examples within our history, we see moments that slow, cold anger was harnessed to bring about lasting change for the better in our community. We know it from our own people’s story as we established ourselves here in the States.

In the early 1900’s, as young Jews settled in the Lower East Side, they sought out work and opportunity. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a large factory that gave easy employment, but maintained miserable working conditions. They were not alone in these practices, and a labor movement was already underway.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, many of these young Jewish immigrants went to work at the Triangle factor. Late in the afternoon, a discarded cigarette butt lit up scraps of unused fabric, and a fire broke out. Workers tried to put out the fire, but they were unsuccessful, and people tried to evacuate. Except they could not; the door to the stairway had  been locked from the outside, a tactic to deter workers from taking unapproved breaks or from leaving early from their shift. In the end, 146 individuals lost their lives in that fire, most of whom were just at the start of their adult lives.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one example of many in the early 20th Century of big fires that had led to senseless death. After each fire, there would be heated speeches and impassioned pleas to fix the communal wrongs that the fires exposed, to address the callousness that permitted such disasters. Slow anger built over time, because of these various events, and because of the awareness building that writers like Upton Sinclair and photographers like Lewis Hine did. Out of the Triangle factory fire, a resolution was drafted to demand action in Albany. Legislation was quickly created and passed, only three months after the fire. Out of this fire, survivors  and activists harnessed meaningful, slow anger, and created something called the “Fire Escape,” which has saved how many countless lives since then?

Hot and cold anger were to be found in the community who organized after that fire, and we can point to other moments in our community’s narrative in which slow, cold anger led to significant moments for our community. Having just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, we are reminded that it began because of anger over racial inequality in the workplace. This past year, supporters flooded the State Capitol Building in Texas as State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against a resolution that would limit a woman’s reproductive rights. At the start of each month Women of the Wall gather at the base of the kotel in anger that prayer there cannot be expressed a personal freedom. All of these are manifestations of communal anger over status quo. They represent watershed moments in fights for various rights and equality. In many respects these are all fires sparked of the same flint: a group’s slow, cold anger at perceived communal brokenness, which fuels a want to see something better in the world.

Friends, anger that is focused, deep, slow, and cold is a key element in actively pursuing justice and tikkun olam, in actively working to leave this world a little bit more whole than it was the day before.

On this Rosh Hashanah, as we begin to engage in the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, the appraisal of our beings, identify within ourselves a slow, cold anger upon which we would like to act? Personally, I stay up at night wondering if I will ever be able to get out from underneath my own burden of student debt. I find myself to be angry about the status of college financing. How many of us wring our hands when we learn that health care costs will go up, and wonder what that will do to our take-home pay? I had a conversation with a friend recently who grew up here in Newton, and even as he makes a comfortable living, finds himself struggling to find an apartment in the Boston area whose rent is affordable. After the shooting at Newtown and the bombings in Back Bay, were we not scared about our children’s and our own safety on any given day? Opening up the news to see what’s going on in Israel, hearing friends who live there talk about how they had to head over to the Post Office to pick up new gas masks–does that not wake something up deep within us? Do the words SYRIA and IRAN not stir us?

Real problems and challenges exist in our world. And I believe, based out of anger and also hope, I fervently believe that we–as a community– are poised to do something meaningful and impactful, to shake off the feelings that the problems are too large, and to make some change for the better, by being proactive. We can begin to feel the pistons of slow anger churn us in a direction that make us feel like we can win in the challenge to better our community, our city, our corner of the world.

On Sunday, September 22 at 11:30, our congregation will gather to kick off the new year. As part of that, our Social Action committee–the vehicle by which we engage in bettering our community–will present countless ways to do something in 5774. We talk about the various ways that we as a congregation can be dedicated to tikkun olam. I know that many of us are already deeply engaged in this sort of work either here at Temple Shalom or with other wonderful non-profit organizations. Im lo akshav eimatai? If not now, when? Now–at the start of this New Year–is the time to acknowledge, embrace, and get angry about the fact that we live in a fractured world. And then, we get to work. On September 22, we are going to offer many ways to jump on in.

Let me end with a prayer, one that we will hear over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, Erech apayim v’rav chesed. Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and kind God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Teach us the gift of slow anger. Allow us to feel it, to embrace it, to be energized by it. Guide us with good counsel toward ma-asim tovim, good, righteous, and sacred acts that bring about tikkun olam, the meaningful repair of Your fractured world. For we pray that one day, our children, and our children’s children can experience Your ideal–a world that is whole and complete, a world that filled with shalom.

AmenShanah Tova.

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