The Social Justice Vision at Stephen S. Wise Temple

Our congregation will see Social Justice as a calling that derives from our sense of God and the imperative of Jewish Tradition. The Stephen S. Wise Temple community will use our influence, power and compassion to be a force for positive, meaningful and effective change in the quality of life on behalf of all the citizens of Los Angeles and the world.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Christmas Eve Update

Strange to hear my post framed that way but I've discovered that as my contact with pastors, priests and parishioners of other faiths continues and grows I gain a deeper sense of my own Jewish spirituality. Last night (Christmas Eve), my family and I headed down to the Dolores Street Mission at Father Scott Santarosa's invitation. They have a Christmas Eve dinner for their 60 homeless men and Scott thought we might appreciate the experience. He was right. One woman and her family take responsibility for the whole dinner. Patti runs a home day care and is a resident of the community and for twelve years she has been calling upon her neighbors to help her cook and serve the food for this Christmas dinner. It was a traditional Latino spread with moles, Mexican punch (non-alcoholic), and all kinds of other dishes. The guests were mostly Latino and deeply appreciative of the food. Padre Scott opened with a prayer and asked me to offer an English/Spanish version of the Motzi before the meal. We served the men and sat at the tables with them to eat. They sang, rapped, told a few jokes -- all in Spanish so we understood little. The vast majority of the men were itinerant workers, few had the appearance of homeless people, many if not all were undocumented immigrants.

We were surprised to run into Mike Gagerman and his wife Cynthia Sanchez and their infant daughter. Cynthia runs the Social Service center at the church called Proyecto Pastoral. She brought her family to share Christmas Eve with the homeless of Dolores Mission as well as some of the staff who work at the center. Mike, a screenwriter, grew up at the Temple, his father is a past president. There were many places they could be besides this basement cafeteria, but clearly Cynthia's commitment to her work runs deep and Mike is at her side.

Watching the hostess Patti and her family give of their Christmas Eve to feed the homeless, listening to Father Scott's prayer (translated by another priest for us), watching the men show their profound appreciation for the meal and the coats that were handed out touched us all deeply. My daughter, Ellie, said: "I'm really glad we came. This was a special night."

As we left, we noticed that Father Scott had "disappeared". Looking for him, we found him sitting in the stairway with a homeless man who appeared to be troubled and more down on his luck than the others. Sitting there in the unlit, cold stairway, Scott was clearly counseling a wounded soul. Father Scott grew up in Sacramento in a comfortable middle class family. The pictures in his office show married siblings who are of a different world than the one where he has chosen to devote his life. Seeing him give of himself so generously with love and caring to these men who are at the fringes of society is inspiring. It doesn't take long to see the love he feels for them and to be taken in by his warmth and quiet charisma. As we got in the car, my wife said: "He's on our list for next Passover!" Watching Scott open his heart to so many, it will be our honor to open our home to welcome him to our seder. And, I believe that he'll elevate our seder by his presence just as he did for our souls this past Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Our Visit to Dolores Mission Church

Jews return to Boyle Heights! On Monday (December 1), Jennifer Bernstein Smith and I went to the Dolores Mission church. This church will become our major partner if our Jewish Community Foundation grant is approved for our Stephen S. Wise, Boyle Heights partnership. It was pretty amazing to find ourselves in an island of peace in the midst of a violent neighborhood. The church serves as a homeless shelter during the night, runs a wonderfully equiped school, pre-school and community empowerment center. Father Scott Santarosa is a bright, committed young Jesuit priest who leads the church. He clearly has the respect and admiration of the community. We learned that there is no way to engage this large Latino community without recognizing their strong Catholic identity. While there, Jennifer Smith (who is 6 months pregnant) received a blessing from a Honduran woman who rises every day at 2:00 a.m. to cook breakfast for the men at the homeless shelter. Though bleary-eyed at our 6:30 p.m. meeting, her "mission" is to transform her community for the better. She seeks to end gang violence, strengthen education and reinforce family ties. The congregational organizing of the church helps her achieve her goals.

One of the key activities used by the church to revitalize hope is the wall of stars. After each one-on-one is completed the dreams of the participants are written on the stars placed near the altar of the church. Just as we do at our house meetings, this action records the dreams of the participants for a different LA and gives them a direction for their work. Imagine what we can do for LA if we partner with these hard working, determined folks to change the face of Boyle Heights?

We hope that we'll be able to have one of our Leadership Meetings with the Church Community in Boyle Heights soon. Though language presents a barrier I believe that you will be deeply inspired by the experience!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

House Meeting Notes from 11/11/08

Last week, we held our 3rd house meeting at Melissa Benton’s home, hosted by Melissa and Jennifer Brown. I ran the meeting along with our, Sharon Almany and Joe Hari, a community organizer from LA Voice (a great stand-in for Jared Rivera). I have yet to attend a house meeting where I don’t walk away truly inspired. You walk away feeling empowered as a citizen of the Los Angeles and feel a deeper connection to members of our Temple community with whom you have shared the past two hours. As I sit through these meetings, it’s amazing to realize the power and resources we have as a congregation – sitting at the tips of our fingers. Our community members are already involved in so many different charitable organizations throughout the community – it’s astounding! Now it’s just about learning how to make proper use of our connections and strengths to make our community a better place.

Our meeting was made up of an older 20’s, younger 30’s crowd, so it was exciting to hear what concerns everyone had in comparison with our first two meetings (which were primarily made up of congregants ages 45+). As a member of this particular age group, I can tell you that because we have most of our wants and needs taken care, our Jewish identity demands that we must devote some part of our lives towards helping those who are in need. Because of this, it was tougher get these young participants to focus on issues of self-interest and of a local nature. Their attention was turned to the global issues of the current crises facing our country. As facilitators, we helped them understand that because of the national crisis, the needs of our city would be greater and that is precisely the place where our Social Justice work at Stephen S. Wise can make a difference. Once we convinced them that we can impact local concerns they focused on the common issues we’ve found in all other meetings: education, healthcare, traffic. Many of them focused particularly on air quality, recognizing that as young residents of L.A. the long term affects of air quality would affect them profoundly. The public school system was another area of concern for them as they worried about where they would send their own kids – yet unborn. As they came to understand the way that the CBCO (Congregational Based Community Organizing) process achieves action at a local level, participants learned that we can – and will – make a difference as long as we work through the process together.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

LA Jewish Foundation Grant Application

Last week Jennifer Bernstein, Ron Stern and Jared Rivera (LA Voice) attended the LA Jewish Foundation Cutting Edge Grants Workshop. We went to explore the possibilities to apply for grant money to fund our work. As we listened to the presentation the wheels started spinning and we came up with the following idea still in development.

Could we create a partnership between Stephen S. Wise Temple membership and Latino residents in Boyle Heights where LA Voice has a strong presence?

A decade or two ago a program called Project Renewal linked communities in the U.S. with neighborhoods in Israel in serious need of rehabilitation. By engaging residents of the neighborhood with American Jews significant programs were developed that transformed both communities. Could we repeat that here in Los Angeles?

Now, Boyle Heights is one of the most gang infested, distressed neighborhoods in L.A. Once it was the hub of Jewish life. We spoke to a member of the Los Angeles Jewish Historical Society who was also at the grant workshop. They are the owners of the historic Breed Street Shul (see the link to the right). The synagogue and community center was built in the 1920s for the original Jewish population center in L.A. Currently it is in a serious state of disrepair. Their vision of renewal is to establish the schul as a community center for the Latino community and offer essential services to the area both originating in LA Jewish Federation agencies as well as other social support programs. At the same time, the rejuvenated synagouge could be come a living museum of the history of Boyle Heights recording both Jewish and Latino experiences in the neighborhood.

What if. . . .
*we brought our skilled and motivated membership to serve Boyle Heights?
*our college counselors, our therapists, our health professionals volunteered their time in the community?
*what if our real estate investors and builders helped to restore the Shul?
*we were able to secure funding for our first few years (LA Jewish Foundation grant)?
*we could obtain sources of funding for subsequent years?
*we created a model of urban renewal never before attempted in Los Angeles -- could Stephen S. Wise Temple establish itself as a synagogue on the cutting edge of the Jewish future?
*we could motivate our young people to volunteer their time giving purpose, hope and direction to the families in Boyle Heights?
*our grant application was approved and we received the first $250,000 towards establishing our project?

This is our vision. I am looking for your thoughts and reaction to this idea. Please feel free to write your responses below.