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Progressive Jews Organize | The Nation

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Progressive Jews Organize

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Jonah Pesner, then the associate rabbi at Temple Israel, describes how the concerns within the congregation connected to working-class churches in GBIO. "It was astounding how many temple members agonized over the poor conditions of the nursing homes to which they had entrusted their parents," he recalls. "As we were having these conversations, nine Haitian churches within GBIO were organizing around the incredible suffering inside the nursing homes--but as workers. They were overworked, mistreated and disrespected. And that got passed on to patients."

About the Author

Daniel May
Daniel May has been an organizer with ACORN, the IAF and the SEIU.
Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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These congregations--representing employees and patients--began a series of joint conversations. "GBIO provided a context for folks to know each other's stories across racial, religious and class boundaries," explained Pesner, recently appointed by the Reform Jewish movement as founding director of Just Congregations, which was created to bring synagogues into community organizing networks. "We discovered the shared suffering of people caring for their parents, of the neglected elderly and of low-wage immigrant workers." The congregations drafted a bill of rights for nursing home residents and workers. They met with nursing home directors and challenged them to sign it. Faced with this community pressure, many did.

The campaign culminated in a large assembly in December 2004 at Temple Salem, a Haitian congregation that met in a formerly Orthodox synagogue in Dorchester, once a Jewish neighborhood. At the meeting--which opened with prayers and songs in Creole, Hebrew and Spanish--GBIO persuaded state Attorney General Tom Reilly to tell nursing homes that he would enforce workers' rights in the nursing care industry, a move that improved working conditions and laid the groundwork for a successful SEIU union organizing campaign.

Jews also played a key role in GBIO's successful campaign to get Massachusetts to adopt a universal healthcare plan. According to John McDonough, executive director of Health Care For All, "Temple Israel's willingness to put its faith commitment on the line to promote quality healthcare for everyone was exemplary and critically important."

In Columbus, Ohio, Temple Beth Shalom joined with BREAD, an affiliate of the DART network. BREAD identified the shortage of bus routes from low-income neighborhoods to the outer suburbs--where the area's jobs are increasingly located--as a critical problem facing the poor as well as employers (including some synagogue members). Through meetings with public officials, research reports and media attention, BREAD got the transit agency to build several new hubs to speed commuting times and brought daycare and health services to the areas surrounding the new transportation centers.

"In a synagogue of 400 families, we have hundreds of people attending community meetings," says Rabbi Howard Apothaker of Temple Beth Shalom. "And we are building real relationships with people who don't look like us."

Rabbi John Linder, of B'Nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim, a Reform temple outside Chicago, views the organizing work as fundamentally different from traditional charity. "This work is not about one person helping someone else who has less," explains Linder, who before attending rabbinical school had been an organizer for Massachusetts Fair Share and the Service Employees International Union. "It's a shift from a patronizing 'Look what I can do for you' way of operating to a 'What can we do together?' way of acting."

In 2006 The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), the IAF affiliate in Houston that includes Congregation Beth Israel, made national news organizing survivors of Hurricane Katrina who had been displaced to that city. TMO's victories immediately following the storm included getting a playground built outside the Astrodome, creating a space for the elderly and mentally unstable to be cared for in the stadium and winning the extension of cellphone contracts of those displaced by the storm.

"Tikkun olam--repairing the world--requires believing that we can create deep and lasting justice," says Renee Wizig-Barrios, TMO's lead organizer. "This is a faith often difficult to summon. In the moments when I doubt my capacity and act anyway, I live out my Judaism."

Synagogues that engage in organizing discover that members develop stronger ties within the institution. "Part of the excitement of organizing is finding kindred spirits in the congregation," explained Glenn Rothner, a union lawyer and former board member at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a Conservative synagogue near Los Angeles. "The process of consciously engaging members of the congregation about social justice helps forge a stronger sense of community within the temple."

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