There’s a parable about people at risk of drowning in a river. A person falls in the water and a hero rescues them. Then another person falls in. The nearby village hires lifeguards.
Eventually, someone asks the obvious question: Why not go upstream to see why people are falling into the water in the first place?
Rabbi Judith Schindler, senior rabbi emerita of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., told this parable to members of congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in Los Angeles last month.
Schindler was visiting BCC to introduce her new book, “Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement Is Good for Synagogues, Jews and America.”
“Social action is pulling people out of the water of hard times,” she said. “Social justice work is going upstream and changing the system.”
Together with her longtime social justice collaborator, Judy Seldin-Cohen, Schindler interviewed 50 leaders at 18 temples across the country for her book, to see how they successfully engage their congregations in social justice work.
“Social action is pulling people out of the water of hard times.” — Rabbi Judith Schindler
In her book, Schindler argues, this expression of Jewish values revitalizes Judaism and can bring meaning and a sense of purpose to those who don’t find it in prayer or at services.
“When we are out there with our ‘minyan on the move’, there are Jews out there who say, ‘Wow, this is a Judaism I can buy into,’ ” Schindler said.
At the BCC event, Schindler walked attendees through the most common objections Jewish leaders in social justice face. At the top of the list is the argument that politics should stay out of the synagogue.
“We are meant to be engaged in the world,” Schindler said. In her book, she reminds readers that a sanctuary should ideally have 12 windows and not be closed off.
She also told attendees that advocating for others helps Jews, too. “By going out there and speaking against Islamophobia, speaking out against racism, against homophobia, we create bridges that protect us, as well.”
Another objection leaders face is the issue with some congregants who may not agree with the direction their leadership is taking.
“I never wanted to tear the congregation apart,” Schindler said. She suggested a listening campaign to learn what issues and problems keep congregants up at night.
For BCC member Elizabeth Savage, the answer is clear.
“I have people in my neighborhood who could disappear because of what’s happening,” she said at the event, referring to President Donald Trump’s administration’s policy toward undocumented immigrants.
Savage lives in a predominantly Latino area of Los Angeles and has seen Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conduct raids at neighborhood markets.
“We know what disappearing means in the Jewish community,” she added.
BCC was the world’s first LGBT temple. Its mission was twofold: to educate the Jewish community about gay and lesbian issues, and to educate the gay and lesbian community about religion, said Senior Rabbi Lisa Edwards.
Edwards, who is retiring in the summer of 2019, said she hopes her successor will reinvigorate the congregation’s social justice efforts in the future.
For her part, Schindler said she wants her book to be a manual for both clergy and lay leaders. She created a ladder of civic engagement that people can ascend, depending on their level of comfort. The bottom rung is building relationships with those you are trying to help, such as working in a homeless shelter or talking to outreach workers.
The next rung is education, followed by philanthropy. Schindler’s congregation created a $20 million endowment that provides rent subsidies and services to low-income families.
The next step is advocacy.
“Now that we know what we are advocating for, we’re going to advocate powerfully at cocktail parties, through social media and at city hall meetings,” Schindler said.
The penultimate rung is organizing, by finding other congregations and groups and banding together. The top rung calls on people to join a movement. “That’s how marriage equality happened,” Schindler said.
She left BCC with a tip that she said helped her when she started out: “For your first campaign, pick a topic that everyone can agree on.”
Jessica Donath is a freelance journalist who lives in Pasadena.