A lawn sign distributed by Greater Pasadena Jews for Justice. Photo courtesy of Peter Dreier.

Synagogue members take action after board stymies refugee banner


Driving around Pasadena, you might spot one of as many as 250 lawn signs that read, in all capital letters, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome” along with a quote from Leviticus: “We Must Not Stand Idly By.”

But the signs are as much about one local synagogue’s struggle over Jewish leadership as they are about welcoming the stranger.

The signs, advertising a group called Greater Pasadena Jews for Justice, represent a breakaway movement from the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (PJTC) after the synagogue’s board failed to approve a banner with similar language.

The push to hang a banner on a large masonry wall outside the temple came as liberal Jewish groups across the country mobilized in opposition to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order restricting refugee admissions.

As protesters descended on the nation’s airports, about 30 synagogue members gathered on a Sunday morning, Jan. 29, to puzzle out how to respond, according to Peter Dreier, who drafted a mission statement for the group. The idea, he said, was to “give a Jewish voice in Pasadena to the outrage against what’s going on in the country.”

They held a series of Sunday meetings throughout February and formed a list of suggestions, outlined in a petition signed by nearly 150 temple members. The petition asked the synagogue’s board to revive a social justice committee that had been defunct for about a decade, and to approve an education series about “immigration law and the impact of current federal policies toward immigrants and refugees.”

It also asked for a banner, funded by congregants, facing Altadena Drive, that would have read, “We were all once immigrants or refugees. ‘Do not stand idly by’ — Leviticus 19:16.”

The board gave a green light to the group’s suggestions — except for the banner. The board declined to endorse the signage at a Feb. 27 meeting on a tie vote of its 13 members, with one abstaining, according to people who were present at the meeting.

“We were shocked,” said Dreier, 68, a public policy professor at Occidental College. “They seemed to be running the temple like it was a corporation, not a democracy — like they knew what was best.”

Since the board meeting, the social justice committee has been operating at full steam, for instance sending members to the April 16 “Tax March” and securing an April 20 appearance by Pasadena Congresswoman Judy Chu. But some congregants felt that by nixing the banner, the board had stymied an expression of Jewish values.

“It’s important that we make statements as a Jewish community,” synagogue member Ed Honowitz said. “And so, yeah, I felt that it was a lost opportunity to have an impact and take a stand as our local Jewish organization.”

Board members who voted against the banner declined to comment.

“It’s not appropriate to air congregational issues with the Jewish Journal,” said board member and past president Faith Segal.

Jeff Landau, the board’s current president, also declined to comment, citing synagogue policy.

But others who were present say the board members who opposed the banner were concerned about jeopardizing the synagogue’s security, and about making a statement that didn’t necessarily reflect all of its members.

Advocates of the signage say chasing unanimity is a recipe for paralysis.

“If we have to wait until there’s unambiguous unanimity on every issue, nobody’s ever going to make a statement, no organization is ever going to take a stand,” said Rabbi Marvin Gross, who heads the synagogue’s new social justice committee.

Ruth Several, a longtime PJTC board member who introduced the motion to hang the banner, said that while she disagrees with her fellow board members who blocked her motion, the temple is putting the disagreement behind it.

“I’m quite uncomfortable with the fact that we didn’t put it up,” she said. “But I’m dealing with it. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still supportive of the board and our temple.”

After the board rejected the banner, though, some synagogue members took initiative on their own. Social justice committee members ordered lawn signs with similar language and began to distribute them just in time for Passover.

Dreier said since the lawn signs are distributed over a wide area around Pasadena, they might actually be more visible than a banner.

He still believes the board members were wrong to reject the signage.

“Some board members claimed that the ideas on the banner were too political,” he said. “But we believe that the words on the banner were simply statements of Jewish values.”