At many Bay Area synagogues, the real action is social action J. – The Jewish News of Northern California

Posted By on August 22, 2022

The golden-domed sanctuary at Congregation Sherith Israel is known for its glorious stained-glass windows. Its most famous one depicts Moses receiving the Ten Commandments in Yosemite Valley a modern promised land.

In another, a Biblical woman hands out food to the needy, with the words Feed the hungry Clothe the naked Shelter the homeless above her head. The message is one that resonates with Nancy Sheftel-Gomes, who considers it a call to social action for her synagogue community.

Its a commandment thats repeated in Torah over and over again. Its really a basis of humanity, she said. I think thats why it means a lot to people to participate because they know that theyre making a difference in somebodys life.

Sheftel-Gomes is a longtime member at the Reform S.F. synagogue, where she helps to run the HaMotzi program, a food-assistance initiative started in 1993. Every Sunday, she and her volunteers meet to prepare more than 100 meals for Compass Family Services, the San Francisco Womens Shelter and various community members in need. Once a month, Sheftel-Gomes also heads the Chicken Soupers meal program. Founded in 1988 to support those with AIDS, it now feeds the community at large.

We have an obligation to do this, she said. Thats our covenant with God.

Sherith Israel is not uncommon in its commitment to social action. Nearly all synagogues have similar projects in one form or another, whether its starting a community garden or building a homeless shelter from the ground up. For many Jews, social action is a mitzvah and an important part of their religious practice. Across the Bay Area, different communities have committed to a range of social justice issues to better themselves, their fellow humans and the world.

One of the projects at Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist synagogue in San Francisco, is called Sanctuary Or Shalom. A congregation-wide initiative to support immigrants in California, its reach is broad: accompanying people to their immigration hearings, protesting outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) centers and calling elected officials to advocate for legislative change.

Social action is part of the fabric at Or Shalom. In fact, social action is one of just five tabs on the homepage. Clicking on it leads to the Safety Net Action Committee (dedicated to advocating for universal health care), the Environmental Action Committee, and the Interfaith Action Committee (which works with Faith in Action Bay Area on issues of voter engagement, gun control and housing reform). Another project was a 2016 listening campaign that asked congregants to suggest social issues they wanted the synagogue to address before the election, and myriad topics were raised.

Leslie Roffman, a longtime member and the chair of the Sanctuary Or Shalom project, said this kind of work is part of how her community practices Judaism. Social justice is at our core, she said.

Similarly, at Bnai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma, the social action team doesnt have just one project it has many.

Congregants are part of a rotation that helps run the Interfaith Food Pantry at Elim Lutheran Church in Petaluma. Members of the Social Action Committee have taken up a green mitzvah to reduce the synagogues carbon footprint, removing cleaning supplies, paper towels and anything else at the synagogue that can be replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives. And at Hanukkah, the independent synagogue works with Jewish Family and Childrens Services in Santa Rosa to provide gifts for children in low-income families.

This month, volunteers held a drive to collect school supplies for the children of farm workers, collecting notebooks, art materials and water bottles to be distributed to children across the state. Last year, they donated more than 300 filled backpacks.

Abbey Levine, co-chair of the Social Action Committee and executive vice president of the Bnai Israel board, said her fellow congregants are always ready and eager to become involved in a new project. Social justice work is a fundamental part of Judaism and being Jewish, she said.

I think that as Jews and as survivors of so many things ourselves, to repair the world is really critical.

In Berkeley, members of Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel have been volunteering at a local mens shelter for more than 15 years. Before the pandemic, they would cook and serve food to the shelters guests once a month. For now, with the kitchen closed for safety concerns, the program is on hiatus, although the shul still supports the shelter with donations and other supplies.

The popular program has helped connect Beth Israel to the larger community, said Maharat Victoria Sutton, who retired from the shul Aug. 1 after eight years as director of education and community engagement. She was among the many volunteers, and she brought her young daughter along to help out.

Chesed is a foundation of Judaism, she said. Often translated as lovingkindness, chesed means giving oneself fully, with love and compassion.

Meanwhile, the Tikkun Olam leadership team at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley has spent two years focused on the Care First Community Coalition, an organization dedicated to reducing the arrests and incarceration of people with mental health issues. Congregants at the Reform synagogue have lobbied the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to earmark funds to improve services for mentally ill people, and in 2021 the board approved a Care First, Jails Last policy resolution and set aside $8 million for services. Theyve been involved at every stage, helping to draft budget recommendations, facilitate connections between Care First and other local organizations, and publicize the coalitions mission.

The challenge is how do we bring this [mission] forward in a way that makes [Alameda County residents] care and helps them feel connected, said Becki Cohn-Vars, co-chair of the Tikkun Olam leadership team. The Care First Community Coalition is lobbying the county to again set aside funds for these services for another year.

Rabbi Rebekah Stern, Beth Els senior rabbi, said for her, like others, social justice work is integral to her Judaism. You cant read the Books of the Prophets without understanding that outcry against injustice is core to who we are as Jews, she said.

At Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, a commitment to social action is at the core of its mission statement. In 2017, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, congregants formed the Belonging and Allyship Project, an initiative to address white supremacy and racial justice internally within Kehilla, at all levels of our organization and community, according to the website.

Ruthie Levin, a Kehilla congregant for more than 16 years, oversees the Belonging and Allyship Project as the synagogues people of color organizer. A Black Jew, Levin had experienced her fair share of prejudice, both within the Kehilla community and out.

What we want to work on is ways of improving how folks of color experience Kehilla moving forward, Levin said.

Kehilla now hosts a number of affinity groups to foster discussions on shifting focus away from whiteness and white supremacy in the community. A diversity, equity and inclusion team has been formed to offer training and advice to synagogue leaders. Levin wants to see everyone involved.

Its one thing to show up at synagogue and listen to a sermon and hear [tikkun olam] talked about in passing, she said. But to really embody it, in all that you do thats my goal.

At Peninsula Temple Beth El, Covid threw a wrench into its plans for an ambitious green initiative, launched shortly before the pandemic started. Following a listening campaign at the San Mateo Reform synagogue, where climate change emerged as members greatest concern, leaders of its Rodfei Tzedek (pursuing justice) team began focusing on steps they could take to reduce the synagogues carbon footprint.

PTBE members have started a community garden at the shul, donating what is grown there to Samaritan House; attended rallies for climate justice; and plan to install solar panels to help power the synagogue with clean energy. Yet the campaign has been different from what leadership imagined, said Marla Becker, one of the team members. Their vision for environmental justice work was based in group action, in the community with others. But the pandemic-led shift has not diminished their commitment to the cause, Becker said.

Theres a quote from the Talmud that we refer to often: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the worlds grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it, she said. We really believe that.

At Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, social action has always been a priority, said Rabbi Nathaniel Ezray, who has been at the Conservative synagogue for 28 years. The communitys most recent work has been with United Hatzalah, a volunteer-based, free-of-charge emergency medical service throughout Israel.

Beth Jacob supports United Hatzalah through fundraising and spreading awareness about the organization. Bill Futornick, the synagogues ritual director, also leads trips for congregants to visit United Hatzalahs headquarters in Jerusalem and see its work in action. Ezray called the experience of visiting the sites in Israel that Beth Jacob supports transformative.

Social action is fundamental to the practice of Judaism, he said, and has been from the beginning.

I think that when we have a religion that talks about basic human dignity, about connecting our core story of having been slaves with the obligation to help others who are enslaved, when we have a series of values that say you may not stand idly by, when we define ourselves by loving our fellow human those things all create an imperative to act when somebody is suffering, Ezray said.


At many Bay Area synagogues, the real action is social action J. - The Jewish News of Northern California

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