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.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sharing a Thank You from Mitzvah Day

I wanted to share this card I received from SPC J. Ryan from Ft. Jackson, SC. This note was thanking all of the volunteers on Mitzvah Day who crafted Hanukiot for Jewish soldiers abroad. J. Ryan says "That so many of you thought about those of us who are away from home in service to the country is the best present that I could have received. Jews make up such a small number in the military that it's a treat to have family away from family".

Our crafts were sent with other goodies to Jewish soldiers as part of Project MOT, which operates as part of Operation Gratitude. This goes to show you how much just a little bit of work here is appreciated elsewhere...

Wishing you all a happy holiday season.
-Jennifer Smith

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From the LA Times: One of a kind in Boyle Heights

Read the original article here.

When Eddie Goldstein was born, the neighborhood was the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles. As it has changed, he's stayed, evolving with it.

By Hector Becerra

December 9, 2009

The old man with the Santa Claus beard pulled a black yarmulke from the trunk of his Cadillac and limped across the street.

Hundreds of people had gathered outside an old synagogue in Boyle Heights for a program that looked back at the days when the neighborhood -- now overwhelmingly Latino and Catholic -- was the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

Leaning heavily on a cane, Eddie Goldstein, 76, wandered aimlessly, as if lost in thought. Finding a friend, he locked arms with her and walked into the long-shuttered Breed Street Shul. Eyes wide, Goldstein marveled at the faded grandeur of the building, which preservationists plan to turn into a community center.

Almost every other Jewish person there had come from miles away for the festival, which included music, food, a tour of the shul and a speech by the mayor. Goldstein had come from his home around the corner. Among his fellow Jews, he was a stranger.

As a boy, Goldstein worked at a kosher poultry shop where a rabbi wielded a razor-sharp blade to slit the throats of chickens before bleeding them upside-down. He remembers struggling to learn Hebrew and watching groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including rabbis and young rabbis in training, walk the streets of his native neighborhood in their black garb.

Then the Jewish families left. Jewish merchants on Brooklyn Avenue were slowly replaced by taquerias, quinceañera shops and botanicas. Eventually, the street itself was given a new name -- Cesar Chavez Avenue.

But Goldstein stayed. And in staying, he changed.

He married a Mexican American woman and became a father figure to her children. Every Sunday, he went to Mass with his Esther. She, in turn, kept him connected to the Jewish side of his life.

Faith had never been that important to Goldstein. It was Esther who pushed him to light yahrzeit candles in memory of loved ones, who reminded him when the High Holidays were approaching.

"She kept me more in my faith than I did," said Goldstein, one of the last Jews in Boyle Heights. "She reminded me that I'm Jewish."

Every year at Passover the family gathered at the home on Folsom Street. They would go to farmers markets to find the right ingredients -- chicken fat, fresh horseradish and jars of gefilte fish. Goldstein would make matzo and eggs and mix sour cream with grated beet juice. His children added salsa.

If Los Angeles ever had a melting pot, it was Boyle Heights in the first half of the 20th century. The neighborhood just east of downtown was home to Italians, Armenians, Russians, Japanese and Mexican Americans. It also had the largest concentration of Jews in the United States outside New York.

Like the cast of an "Our Gang" short, Goldstein's friends in the 1930s and 1940s spanned the ethnicities.

"We were a League of Nations!" recalls his longtime friend, Art Manassian, now 78, and one of the neighborhood's few remaining Armenian Americans.

As a boy, Goldstein worked at the National Theater on Brooklyn Avenue, which was called the "polly seed house" because of the abundance of sunflower seeds discarded on the floor. As a teenager, Goldstein worked in the rubbish business for Manassian's father, driving all over the city to collect paper, metal and cardboard for recycling. He went to Roosevelt High School but never graduated and later became a meatpacker.

His mother and father, who divorced when he was 6, were not devout, but his grandmother was. On Jewish holidays, Goldstein would stand outside the Breed Street Shul and watch girls go in for services, but he rarely stepped inside. He tried to study the Torah for his bar mitzvah with other boys but didn't get very far, he said.

"My other friends were reading in that Jewish style, swaying back and forth," he said. "I couldn't even get that rhythm. I said, 'You know, I can't do this.' "

After World War II, the gradual decline of the Jewish community in Boyle Heights accelerated. Many of Goldstein's friends could afford homes in North Hollywood, Pico-Robertson, the Fairfax district and other new centers of Jewish life in Los Angeles.

"The Jewish guys that I knew, a lot of them became wealthy. Guys I grew up with, some of them became millionaires on the Westside of town, or wherever millionaires live," he said. "I was a meatpacker."

By the early 1960s, Goldstein said, there weren't many Jews left in Boyle Heights. His mother and aunts died, along with his Uncle Louie, who had owned the Ebony Room, a bar on Brooklyn Avenue. His brothers moved to other neighborhoods.

He fell in love with Esther Guzman, a devout Catholic whom he had known growing up. She was 10 years older than Goldstein, had three children from a previous marriage, and had adopted three more. A week after they were married in the early 1960s, the couple adopted a baby, Steven. The youngest, he carried the Goldstein name.

Guzman's oldest son, Art Perez, 59, said the religious and ethnic differences were never an issue in the household. "Eddie turned more Mexican than Jewish," Perez said with a laugh.

Goldstein agrees: "I felt like I had Mexican blood in me," he said. "I lived with them all my life."

Among the Latinos who now filled the neighborhood, Goldstein made compadrescompadres and comadres, titles reserved for especially close friends or the godparents of one's children. He shared pork carnitas in their homes and cooked a fine menudo for them in his own. He learned how to pickle pork feet in large jars.

The stucco home that he shared with Guzman and the children was in many ways a typical Mexican American, Catholic household on L.A.'s Eastside, brimming with religious artifacts, redolent of Mexican cooking.

Yet Tina Olmos, 49, one of the children adopted by Guzman, said Goldstein acted differently from the other parishioners at Assumption Church.

"I asked him why he didn't stand up or kneel when we did, and he said, 'Cause I'm Jewish. We don't do that,' " she recalled. "People say that me and my youngest daughter resemble Ed. I guess if you live with someone long enough, you start to take on their traits."

Goldstein said he enjoyed church, though it was not a religious experience for him. He said it felt strange, as the only Jew in the pews, to hear the priest talk so much about the land of Israel and the Jews. On a couple of occasions, he was godfather for friends' children when they received first Communions or confirmations. He explained that being Jewish, he couldn't make the sign of the cross because he didn't want to be a hypocrite.

"Hey, I told them I'm Jewish," he told one priest. To one nephew, who asked him to be his godfather, he said, "You know I'm Jewish though, mijo?"

In 2004, Esther died of cancer. Goldstein preserves a shrine to her in the corner of his living room. There are candles and a statue of St. Anthony holding the baby Jesus. Rosary beads are draped around the shoulders of a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Behind the display hang framed pictures of departed loved ones.

"I keep saints for them all," Goldstein said in a scratchy voice with a lilting East L.A. accent.

There are few visible signs in the home that a Jewish man lives there, beyond a menorah in the corner of one room. Mostly, he preserves the home as a tribute to those who became his family, even though they weren't related by blood.

"That's my prieta. My Barbara," he said proudly, using the Spanish word for a dark-skinned girl as he pointed to a picture of a granddaughter in a hallway.

Since Esther's death, Goldstein gets out less, and some of his neighbors worry about him. Carolina Olmos, 86, said he looked lonelier than ever.

"There's a Mexican saying: 'Llora pobre y no solo,' " Olmos said. Better to cry because you are poor than because you are alone.

Goldstein says he feels pretty low sometimes. When his wife was alive, the home was filled with children and grandchildren almost every weekend.

Channeling his inner Jewish mother, he recently unhooked his phone, thinking that maybe the children would show up "to see if I was lying on the floor or something."

A few weeks later, his son, Art Perez, moved back in with Goldstein after being laid off from his job. One night, Perez heard a burst of noise from the street and ran into the living room, screaming, "Pops, Pops, they're shooting!"

Sitting on the couch watching TV, Goldstein calmly turned around. "Oh, I'm sorry mijo," he said. "I forgot to tell you they've been shooting firecrackers." They laughed.

"I guess when you leave the barrio, you forget the sounds," Goldstein said later.

One of his friends, Lucy Delgado, had urged him to go to the street festival in late May at the old synagogue. Goldstein didn't want to go. The next day, they walked into the Breed Street Shul arm in arm for what had been billed as a "Fiesta Shalom," a celebration of peace.

All around him were Jews who had left half a century ago or their children and grandchildren. After so many years, Goldstein felt he identified more with the "Fiesta" than the "Shalom."

"It felt strange seeing so many Jewish people, to be honest," he said. "I'm kind of like the last Indian here."

Before she died, he and Esther had talked about where they would be buried. Esther told him that she wanted them laid to rest in the same place.

He had her buried in the Home of Peace Jewish cemetery in Boyle Heights, which is also his intended resting place.

He sees no contradiction or awkwardness in placing his wife, a Catholic with whom he went to Mass every Sunday, in a Jewish burial ground. He embraces the dissimilar pieces of his life without embarrassment. It's the same outlook that allowed him to feel at home as a Jew in Boyle Heights, even after he became one of the very last ones.

"The important thing for me was to be buried in Boyle Heights," he said. "These are my people."

Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Photos of Two of Our Project Spots at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights

Photos are of the patio area. We'll be planting a Garden in the areas that are now compacted gravel. Thanks to the help of Glenn Stern and Mike Reisbord we'll be filling raised planter boxes with fresh soil and vegetable plants that the homeless men who are cared for by the Guadaloupe Homeless Shelter will tend and till.

Photos here are of the Proyecto Pastoral Impacto room where children receive after school enrichment and tutoring. We are painting the room and brightening its dirty, chipped walls.

Register for Mitzvah Day and help with our project. Click here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Rabbi Stern's High Holy Day Sermon

Once, there was a great, wise rabbi of Nemirov often left the members of his village perplexed. He would disappear for long periods of time early on Friday mornings and no one knew where he went – including his wife. It was as if he disappeared into thin air.
For weeks the Jews of the town wondered where he might be. Though they searched far and wide for him, there was no trace. Soon rumors began to surface that this righteous man could only be in one place: heaven. Perhaps each Friday, in preparation for Shabbat and as his own form of purification the rabbi ascended to heaven and did nothing less than sit in God’s presence and absorb Divine wisdom. Perhaps, even, the Jews of the town thought, our rebbe is beseeching God on our behalf and averting any calamities which might befall us. What else, could this righteous man be doing if not acts on behalf of his precious flock?
Once a Litvak (in our terms an educated agnostic and antagonist) came to town and heard the villager’s tales about their rebbe. He mocked them and scoffed at their naivety. Sure that such disappearances could only the result of someone being up to no-good, he vowed to get to the bottom of this mystery.
So, one Thursday evening, while the rebbe was out attending to the affairs of the town the Litvak stationed himself outside the rebbe’s back door and waited. The rebbe came home, enjoyed his dinner, studied Torah and the Litvak watched as the candles in the house were extinguished and the rebbe went to bed. Outside in the cold the Litvak shivered and cursed the damp air, but he was determined to prove the villagers wrong so he kept himself awake until the wee hours of the morning.
Then, just before dawn the rebbe’s door opened and the rebbe stepped into the street. Except, rather than wearing the usual clothes of a village rebbe he’s dressed in the robes and tatters of a peasant. Aha! Thought the Litvak, “he’s surely up to no good!”
Carefully the Litvak followed the rebbe through the town as the holy man walked in the shadows and stealthily made his way to a small forested area just outside of town. Aha, thought the Litvak: “surely he’s off to meet a band of thieves!” The rebbe found a well worn path and headed into the forest. After some time the Litvak saw a run down shack in a clearing. It was dark and though the night was cold there was no smoke rising from the chimney. Just before entering the rebbe took an ax from a woodshed behind the house and headed back into the forest. There he chopped bundles of wood and carried them with great difficulty into the shed.
Finally, the rebbe knocked on the door and a weak voice answered: “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Vassil,” the rebbe said in the accent of a Russian peasant. “I have wood to sell you.”
The weak voice answered, “I told you last week, I don’t have any money, I can never pay you!”
The rebbe said, again with a Russian accent, “Don’t worry, you’ll pay me when you can, I trust you.” And with that he pushed the door open and entered the house.
The Litvak stood close to one of the broken windows and gazed in. He saw an old women under tattered blankets shivering in the morning air. He watched as the rebbe started a roaring fire in the fire place and then made a soup from vegetables he had secreted in his pockets. He fills a bowl and served the old woman one spoonful at a time. As he attended to his task, the rebbe recited the morning prayers quietly under his breath – every once closing his eyes in thoughtful devotion.
As the Litvak watched the rebbe, tears streamed down this former cynic’s face and he began to recite the prayers with the rebbe. He left his post and returned to the town, sold his mansion in the city and moved to the small town to become a disciple of the rebbe.
Now, when the people of the town speak of the rebbe’s disappearance on Friday mornings and someone says: “Each Friday, the rebbe ascends to heaven.” The Litvak answers with a certainty that surprises everyone who hears him: “If not higher. . .if not higher.” (After a story by I.L. Peretz)
I don’t care how many times I hear or tell this story, it touches me every time. This is a story that speaks to something in me that is so moved by the deep level of person to person contact. Someone with ability reaches out to someone with need and what exists between them is a type of sacred space. What exists between the Rebbe and the old woman is a spiritual connection that is so deep, so compelling, so uplifting that it literally inspires me to seek those kinds of relationships in my own life.
It makes me remember the year I spent volunteering at Alyn Handicapped children’s hospital in Israel. Each Thursday I’d ride the bus to the suburbs of Jerusalem and take a severely handicapped young girl into the pool. The only limb she could move was her right foot. She’d kick that foot like crazy as I held her under her arms and pulled her through the waters. We’d laugh deep belly laughs as she’d splash the other kids. Here in the water, without gravity she had a freedom of movement she never had on land, and it was my privilege to be her support. My time with Mireleh always passed too quickly. It was the highpoint of my week and it was over before it began. As I look back on that year and I think that of all the prayers I’ve ever uttered in my lifetime, that time with little Mireleh brought me closest to God.
In fact it’s because of the power of those kinds of caring connections that I was compelled to go with four dentists from our congregation to the Forum in Inglewood a few weeks ago. No, it wasn’t a concert, not a sports event – for ten days the Forum became a medical clinic. An organization called Remote Area Medical (RAM) gathered LA doctors, dentists and other medical professionals to offer urgent care, free of charge to anyone in our region in need care. Usually RAM usually operates in well . .remote areas. . .but through the instigation of an LA Film Producer the organization was encouraged to bring its free medical clinic to the Forum for ten days.
From the very first day that I heard about this event I knew that though I couldn’t offer medical services, I had to be a part of it. How could I, a person who enjoys much of the best of what this country offers not give some of my time for these folks who were in such desperate straights?
We walked onto the floor of the arena. My jaw dropped. It was 6 a.m. on Sunday, hundreds of people were sitting in the bleachers patiently waiting their turn for care. In front of us were dozens of dentists, doctors and other medical professionals busy setting up rows of dental chairs, medical stations, vision testing sites for the “huddled” masses. I asked one of the patients how long they’d been waiting in line. “Since Thursday.” she said. How desperate must you be to wait in line for three days? “Well, you’re here now and we’re going to do the best we can to take care of you.” I lied. I knew that at best we’d patch her up with one procedure and then send her on her way.
The dentists blew me away! I watched as these four dentists and Temple members David, Kenny, Gary and Michael sat at stations “stocked” with equipment that turned the clock back 25 years when compared to their own offices. They all have beautiful, private, state of the art dental practices. Now they were on the cement floor of the forum, at foldable dental chairs, on rickety stools, preparing to get to work in mouths that had been neglected and perhaps abused for years. I was the receptionist, greeting patients, taking them to their seats in line, reassuring them that the dentists would do the best they could. But the dentists – well they were working miracles. They worked for six hours straight: filling, extracting, advising, and grinding away at mouths that had been neglected for years.
I led a middle aged African American to Kenny’s chair. On the way I asked her when the last time she had been to a dentist. She said: “I can’t remember.” “Oh my God,” I thought, “I get anxious if I have to delay my six month check-up.” Kenny took her hand, welcomed her like she was a patient in his office in Beverly Hills. Spoke to her reassuringly, told her what he was going to do based on the condition of her teeth, and comforted as she gripped the armrests fearfully.
As I emptied trash cans of their medical waste and ran errands I looked at these dentists who had given up a Sunday because they felt they HAD to be at those rudimentary dental stations. I kept asking “my guys” if they wanted a break – “nope, just bring me another one, there are lots of people waiting.”
“How do they do this?” I thought.
Shortly before we left, I watched as David helped another middle aged Latina woman into his chair. With the help of a translator she told him what was wrong and then basically surrendered herself to his skilled hands. Like the old woman in the story she was helpless and needed to rely on him to alleviate the pain that she’d suffered with for so long. He, in turn, worked carefully and compassionately to remove what was left of her decayed teeth. I almost gagged as I watched him work. And then came the moment that gives me chills to even tell you: when he was finished she got up from the chair tentatively, took his hand and said: “Dios te bendiga” --God bless you. When. . .was the last time you said: “God bless you” to your dentist?
This was a powerful experience. Infuriating, as I saw first hand the failures of our society. Painful, as I had to tell people that the doctor could only take care of one tooth today and the others would have to continue hurting. Heartbreaking, as I heard people’s stories of pain, suffering and despair. And at the same time it was inspirational–all these doctors took time from their lives and showed up! It was uplifting – the nurses who work so hard all week also came and offered their care. And it was incredible – to see what good people could do for others.
On the way home I asked Kenny and Gary about the experience. I thought they might express frustration with the rudimentary equipment, exasperation with the uncomfortable chairs or the less than conducive setting. Without hesitation they both said: “it was amazing!” “A chance to do the work I love for no reason than to offer my skills to another.” Almost apologetically I asked them if it felt spiritual. “Absolutely.” “Why? I asked.”
“Our days in our offices are long, everyone is a demanding client so there’s a level of tension that comes with that. This was just us doing the work we love to do– dentistry – even if it wasn’t high tech or complicated – and the feeling of giving our time freely to another person was powerful.” I’m telling you the story now because I’m the converted Litvak in the rebbe’s story – I watched these four dentists as they cared for these afflicted people and I saw them ascend to heaven. . .if not higher!
What is it that made the rebbe ascend beyond heaven?
What is it that made the dentists find their time at the Forum to be so uplifting and spiritual?
Why are these kinds of human to human contact so meaningful?
I find the answer in a powerful story from the Torah. It tells of the reunion of the brothers Jacob and Esau. The two brothers had been separated for decades after Jacob fled his parents’ home because he had stolen the first born rights from his brother. It was a manipulative, deceptive act that resulted in an estrangement that divided the brothers deeply. Jacob was fearful that his brother would take revenge and spent his whole life avoiding him until finally, their wanderings brought them face-to-face. Jacob anticipated a battle or at least a powerful blow from his brother. Instead, Esau embraced him, kissed him and as he looked into his eyes said: “Brother to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” The tension ended, the brothers wept and the legacy of painful separation ended.
That’s the answer! When we offer another our compassion, our skills, and our care we see the face of God.
When the rebbe looked at the old woman – he saw the face of God.
When I looked in little Mireleh’s laughing eyes – I saw the face of God.
When the dentists David looked into the woman who said: “Dios te bendiga” – “May God Bless you he saw the face of God.
I know, that when that woman looked up from her chair with trust and hope into David’s eyes, she knew she was looking into the face of God as well.
I am struggling here to define one of the most powerful feelings I know. I’m telling you stories because are no words. Seeing the face of God is to see another with caring, compassion and love. It is a type of love that is different from the love we have for our family or friends– it is a love that reaches out to others because they are human and in need. And the actions that result from that love are an expression of the deepest spirituality that I believe we can ever experience.
I’m describing a kind of spirituality that is very different from that which we might find in ritual or prayer. “Face of God” spirituality comes when our engagement with the world transcends just “me” and connects me to a purpose that is beyond me and almost completely selfless. This is the spirituality that drove Mother Theresa her entire life. Some of you are nodding your heads. You’ve had those times. You’ve had the experience of extending your heart, your hands, your soul to another person and felt the sense of fulfilment that comes through the acts and through the relationship that is like no other.
I believe that now, during these tough economic times, when people are evaluating their life choices and life paths we have a unique opportunity that rarely affects so many so dramatically. Now, when we’re trying to restore some balance to our lives after we’ve lost it. As we’re brought low by circumstances that are both beyond and perhaps within our control we can come back differently. If our goal is to get back to exactly the same place we were before this all happened then we’re missing an opportunity. Our fast of Yom Kippur is mirrored by the economic fast that has been forced upon us. Just as the hunger of the fast weakens us and prepares us to rebuild to face the year ahead so too can this economic fast provide us with perspective to rebuild our society (starting with each of us). The Jewish message of hardship, of pain, of sorrow is that we have to come back differently. Our experiences have to transform us, change our priorities, cause us to seek fulfillment and meaning in ways we might have overlooked, ignored or avoided before. How to replace what has been loss with something that builds us up differently-- so that we are more resilient, more secure in our self-worth, involved in more meaningful pursuits than might have occupied us before this time.
I’m suggesting that we can rise higher than we’ve been before - to heaven – I’m not sure. But to a place where our lives and our values will be different from what they were in the past.
And among the choices that exist for us as we restore balance to our lives is that of reaching out to others in ways we might not have in the past. The truth about the story of the rebbe is you don’t have to be a rebbe. You can be a dentist who does pro bono work. A lawyer who takes on a few cases a year without charge. A doctor who spends a week in South America providing medical services. A grandparent who reads to someone else’s grandchild. A student who tutors a child in public school.
There’s an important caveat and a harsh truth: You can’t write a check and see the face of God. You can’t serve on a board and see the face of God. You can’t write a letter of protest and see the face of God. But, when you sit down with a little boy and say, “let’s read this book together.” When you walk into a middle school in Van Nuys and tutor a kid in math. When you sit with a group of young poor mothers and help them learn parenting skills you see the face of God.
When you offer your skills to others when the only compensation is their gratitude and the knowledge that because of our efforts they might be stronger and more capable to face the challenges in their own lives you see the face of God.
I have seen the face of God so many times this year, I can’t begin to recount all of them. I’ve seen the face of God in Father Scott Santarosa pastor of Dolores Mission Church as we spoke about ways that my community and his community can work together to help the people his little church in Boyle Heights overcome their daily challenges.
I’ve seen the face of God in Maria Rodriquez on Christmas Eve as she barked out orders to me and my family when we served the homeless at the Dolores Mission. Every year, for the past ten she gets all of her neighbors together to cook a Christmas dinner for the homeless men at the shelter at the church.
I’ve seen the face of God in Pastor Carlton Rhoden as he challenged his Baptist church to open their hearts to Gay people so that they could enjoy the rights of marriage.
These are a few of the experiences that I have had this past year and I will never be the same. I don’t want to guard them jealously for myself. I want more and more of you to experience that kind of spiritual fulfillment that comes from looking into another’s face and seeing the face of God.
Start on Mitzvah Day, November 1st, when our community volunteers throughout LA doing good for others in our city. We get about 700 volunteers. That’s great. But 7,000 of you are holding tickets to these High Holy Days. 700 is only a 10% return. Maybe great for a stock investment but not great for a Jewish community. We can do better.
But don’t stop there. Stop by your local elementary school and see if they need volunteers. Serve the hungry at SOVA or at a food pantry near you.
And, as our relationship with the Dolores Mission community in Boyle Heights gets stronger we need more and more of our congregants to step forward and get involved mentoring high school students for internships in your workplaces. We need volunteers for Koreh LA – to read to elementary school students we need athletes to coach kids for the Police Activities League out of Hollenbeck station and we need people who will sit with folks who live in Boyle Heights (people who you normally see as your waiters, nanny’s, and housekeepers) and say: Today, I’m not here to give you orders. Today, I’m here to listen and dream of what we can do together to make both of our lives better.
I want each of you to have more experiences when you give of your skills, your abilities and your time to lift another person up in ways that only you can. Because each of us has something different to bring to another. And when you do, I believe, from the bottom of my heart that your life will never be the same. There will be moments when you really will ascend to heaven. . .if not higher.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just Congregations: A Year in Review

Just congregations is the National Department of the Union For Reform Judaism that Guides our work at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Here is their end of year message.

Dear Friends,

In just a few short hours, the shofar will once again intone its call: return again. Echoing through the halls of our synagogues and onto the streets of our communities, its timeless blast connects us to the past and our future all at once. It connects us to the Jews of ancient Israel, to our immigrant grandparents, and to our children’s children. It calls us to return, reflect, and renew; it calls us to wake up. We are charged not only to search our own souls, but to judge our communities: are we congregations of righteousness and mercy?

This year of all years, with the economic collapse, rampant joblessness, a plague of foreclosures, and suffering in our pews and in our neighborhoods, we are called to act. The staff and leaders of Just Congregations will continue to foster sacred communities that reach across lines of race, class and faith to build the power for redemption. Thank you for your leadership and support of Just Congregations.

As we reach the conclusion of the 5769 we wanted to share some reflections with you on our accomplishments. In the last three years since the launch of Just Congregations, congregation-based community organizing has spread rapidly within the Reform Movement. All over the country Reform Jews are working across lines of faith, race, and class to improve life in America. In the process, our member congregations are deepening their sacred communities of prayer, study, and justice.

As a result of Just Congregations efforts, the number of Reform congregations belonging to broad-based community organizing groups has doubled, growing to more than 75 synagogues. Scores more are engaged in the process of joining local groups. Reform congregations were part of founding assemblies of new community organizing groups in Washington State and Virginia, and our synagogues are at the center of emerging projects in New York and New Jersey. Just Congregations continues to work with congregations of all sizes in our target metropolitan areas—Chicago, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Dallas. Many flagship Reform synagogues are “Just Congregations,” including Central Synagogue in New York City, Congregation Beth-Am in Los Altos Hills, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Temple Israel of Boston, and Temple Sholom in Chicago.

Just Congregations has become the premier organization bringing American Jews into the vibrant organizing that already engages and animates Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and many others to deepen relationships and to find solutions to our common problems. Just Congregations is pleased that our efforts are responsible for so many significant moments of fellowship and common cause:

In Los Angeles, congregants at five Reform synagogues connected to Latino and African-American churches about common fears of losing homes. Working through their local community organizing group, One LA, they championed a strategy to reduce the number of homeowners facing foreclosure and the potential deterioration of neighborhoods. Their initiative led the Los Angeles City Council to vote unanimously to fund a $1.5 million pilot foreclosure prevention project with an aim to replicate it in multiple neighborhoods.

Troubled by overcrowded public schools in New York City, Central Synagogue used its new organizing skills in a matter of months to enter into relationship with the New York City Department of Education and play an invaluable role in determining how and where to open a new, much-needed local school in the coming year.

Jewish doctors and low-income immigrant patients in Dallas joined to expand medical care. Their efforts through Dallas Area Interfaith were instrumental in the passage of a $747 million bond to create 800 new beds at a high-quality but overcrowded public hospital which serves as a safety net for low-income Dallas residents. The hospital is the largest in Dallas County, and so busy that they have nine maternity wards; a study found that the hospital was more than 50% undersized for its volume of patients. Temple Emanu-El has gone on to play a central role in expanding local health care, including engaging the Federation in plans for a mobile low-cost health clinic hosted by congregations throughout the county.

In Chicago, members of Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Glenview, IL and the Third Baptist Church, an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago, joined with other member congregations of United Power for Action and Justice to successfully pass legislation allowing parents to use their own health insurance to cover young adults (ages 19-26). These congregations were united by shared concern for their own children: young adults in college, out of work, or struggling to find jobs with good benefits who consequently lacked health coverage. Inspired by the relationships that emerged from their work together, BJBE and Third Baptist Church have begun to learn more about each through joint worship, study, conversation - and even sharing bagels and lox!

In New York’s Westchester County eight Reform synagogues are jointly exploring the creation of a new broad-based community organizing group that will build the power necessary to create social change—the first time that Jewish congregations could be the catalyst for an organizing group.

We are proud that, city by city and case by case, such relationships and shared concerns have led to tangible, high-profile victories saving homes from foreclosure, expanded hospital facilities, increased health care coverage, created new public schools, and more.

In the past year, Just Congregations began to expand from our focus on local victories to explore a new strategy around supporting two major national campaigns. The PICO National Network recently took a successful local fight to expand children’s health care to a national level in partnership with many faith communities. PICO played a central role along with the Reform Movement’s own Religious Action Center in the current health care debate, emphasizing the need to insure all citizens. Thanks to Rabbi David Saperstein, as part of Just Congregations support for this effort, Rabbi Jonah Pesner appeared on CNN as a key religious figure in the health care debate. In addition, seventeen affiliates from the Industrial Areas Foundation in the Midwest and East Coast came together this year to address the crushing effect of debt in America in the form of credit cards, pay day lending, and other usurious practices. The campaign has engaged state attorneys general, members of Congress, and figures in the Obama administration, and aims to have a national impact on the regulation of debt, particularly protecting the poor. The potential for the Reform Movement to engage in these and other national campaigns is exciting.

Within the Reform Movement, Just Congregations continues to build the current and next generations of social justice rabbis. One of the elements that most determines a congregation’s success in community organizing is the presence of a clergy member who is committed to and trained in the skills of congregation-based community organizing and is able to anchor the congregation’s organizing efforts. Increasing the number of clergy engaged in synagogue organizing and helping them to develop their organizing skills is one of Just Congregations’ core strategies. In the past few years, approximately one hundred students have been trained in the skills of congregation-based community organizing on all three domestic campuses of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion through our work with Jeannie Appleman, Director of Seminary Leadership Programs of the Jewish Funds for Justice. Thanks to support from the Hilda and Jacob Blaustein Foundation, this year, for the first time, Just Congregations was able to offer the most promising students congregational organizing internships in synagogues in New York, New Jersey, Ohio, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, allowing them to gain both practical and theoretical experience.

In addition to our investment in future clergy, Just Congregations spent the past year developing a corps of rabbis through ongoing mentoring by Jonah Pesner and Lila Foldes; by hosting a mifgash (encounter) between nineteen American rabbis who organize and Israeli rabbis interested in learning about organizing at the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) convention in Jerusalem in February 2008; and by building on that mifgash through our first ever day-long rabbinic gathering held in Chicago in June 2009, attended by 28 rabbis from our target cities and several rabbinic students who are congregational organizing interns. The June 2009 Chicago gathering was a unique opportunity for rabbis to share best practices, ask challenging questions, and engage in Jewish learning, inspired by the teaching of Rabbis Richard Levy and David Saperstein. At the gathering, the group committed to continue working together: meeting once or twice a year; holding periodic conference calls and webinars to learn from each other’s local successes; holding small local or regional gatherings; writing articles for an upcoming issue of the CCAR journal; and over time, exploring coordinated action and campaigns with the Religious Action Center and community organizing networks.

The greatest resource of the Reform Jewish Movement is our people: the rabbis and cantors of the present and future, and the members of Reform synagogues with whom we are privileged to work. Through our work with them we are inspired by the opportunities laid out before Reform Jewry today—the opportunity to build relationships across lines of faith, race, and economic background; the opportunity to act on our values; the opportunity to make positive change for all Americans. We commit to continue to delve deeply, to build capacity, and to make congregation-based community organizing the norm in American Jewish life.

Just Congregations believes that now more than ever we need Jews to be in relationship with other religious, racial, and ethnic groups to solve the most pressing problems facing our nation and to strengthen Jewish life in America.

As the call of the shofar echoes in our hearts and thoughts we wish you a year of sweetness, joy, and the blessing of justice.


Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Founding Director

Lila Foldes, Assistant Director

Julie Chizewer Weill, Coordinator of Institutional Advancement

Beth Kozinn, Programs Administrator

Just Congregations


Friday, August 21, 2009

Something to think about this Rosh Hashanah.

The power of giving. View the video here.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Giving from their Hearts

There is a phrase in the Torah that tells about the sacred work that the Israelites did to build the holy tent of worship during the wanderings in the dessert. It is said that the people gave from the service of their hearts. It was work that came from the deepest recesses of their souls, was freely given and uplifted the giver spiritually. That ancient notion captures the efforts of the four dentists that I accompanied from our congregation, and additional doctors who joined the dozens of medical professionals offering their services pro-bono at the RAM/LA urgent medical needs event at the Forum in Inglewood.

They faced thousands of desperate people who waited in line from the earliest hours of the morning to get a number that might allow them admittance to the medical services offered at the Forum. I accompanied the dentists and watched as the extracted, filled, cleaned and attended to the endless line of people seeking treatment. No sooner would the occupant of the portable (and uncomfortable) dental chair move on, the instruments swapped for newly sterilized ones, when another patient would be ushered to the doctor's ready hands. Many doctors asked their hygienists and assistants if they would accompany them, and sure enough they eagerly woke up at 4:45 a.m. to get to the Forum in time for the 6:00 a.m. start. If there were any regrets over a Sunday peering into very neglected mouths or longings for warm sheets for a few more hours of sleep not a soul uttered them. Instead there was an overwhelming willingness to attend to as many patients as possible under less than comfortable conditions.

I asked Kenny Jacobs and Gary Solnit (temple members) if they felt that there was spirituality in the work they were doing today. Both responded with surprising rapidity, "it was the most fulfilling few hours I've had in a long time. " Gary said: "Sometimes my days go slowly in the office, today it was different, I felt like the six hours passed in the blink of an eye." When Kenny asked his employees if they would join him, two of his assistants volunteered to join him for the morning.

Michael Simmons didn't even get up from his perch on the uncomfortable chair from which he did his dental work. His assistant of 20 years came along and she willingly fetched new instruments for Michael each time he finished one filling or extraction and was ready for the next. By last time I checked, Michael had seen over 12 patients in the six hours.

David Levine did triage -- he peered into the mouths with the dental light attached to his glasses and using his skills and knowledge determined which one procedure was the highest priority for each patient -- given the large number of patients and the small number of dentists and hygienists it wasn't possible to address all the problems in those sorely neglected mouths. Compassionately and carefully he completed the forms and sent his clients off to wait in line for their procedures.

It was a powerful day for me as I emptied trash cans full of medical waste, ushered patients to their dentists and tried my best to answer the questions about procedures at RAM/LA. I watched dozens of dentists eagerly attend to their patients, each doing his or her best to provide the care that would enable each person to resume some level of normalcy to their impaired lives.

Make no mistakes, this was a sacred event. Doctors and medical professionals offering their skills, grateful patients expressing profound thanks to their caregivers. There were no arguments, no angry exchanges, no one, not a soul of the thousands who filled the arena floor lost patience with another. All knew that this was truly a service of the heart and the recipients clearly understood that there were both receiving care and giving their trust, their health and their hearts to the generous and compassionate professionals who opened their hearts to skillfully minister to those in need.

RAM/LA continues at the Forum through August 18th. Volunteers are always needed. Find out more here.

For LA Times stories and editorials about the event. Follow these links:
How L.A.'s massive free clinic event came together

At free clinic, scenes from the Third World

The sick status quo

Were you there? Write a post for our Social Justice Blog or just let us know that you gave of your time and skills so that we can recognize you here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can we buck the trend?

I read this article in the Los Angeles Times this morning and recognized that it is one more challenge facing us in our work to transform our congregation into a community devoted to Social Justice and Social Action. We are residents of a city that has a culture that does NOT promote charitable action in the way that many other cities do. How do we as a community work counter culturally to buck the trend? Our Jewish mission to do tikkun olam can, perhaps, provide inspiration and motivation to involve our selves in causes for the welbeing of all our citizens. Dear reader, how strongly does that vision beat in your heart and if so, can you inspire others?

L.A. residents are not the most charitable, study finds

7:16 AM | July 29, 2009-- LA Times

To the woes caused by bad traffic and bad air, Los Angeles can now add a new concern: uncharitable neighbors.

A new study from the Corporation for National and Community Service has found that Los Angeles ranks 45th out of 51 large American cities in the percentage of people who volunteer their time to help their neighbors or communities.

The winners, as in so many other municipal honors, were Minneapolis-St. Paul (ranked No. 1) and Portland, Ore. (No. 2). More than 35% of residents in those cities volunteer their time, compared with 21% in Los Angeles.

Still, the study did identify some bright spots for California, chief among them that from 2007 to 2008, the number of Californians who worked with their neighbors jumped from 1.6 million to 2.2 million.

-- Jessica Garrison

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Health Care Reform

As the health care reform debate continues to move toward resolution in Washington it is important for us to know what the positions of some major religious organizations are.

Click here for the Reform Movement's action initiative.

Click here for the PICO/Sojourners information document. As you'll see, this was endorsed by the United Methodist Church as well as certain Evangelical Associations.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Challenges and Opportunities on the Affordable Housing Front

From the Los Angeles Business Journal

Developers Brace For Housing Fight
By HOWARD FINE - 6/22/2009
Los Angeles Business Journal Staff

Developers and business groups are mobilizing against the latest attempt by the city of Los Angeles to force developers to include below-market apartments and condos in their projects or pay fees to the city to subsidize other affordable housing.

While the effort to require affordable housing set-asides is in the early stages, some developers contend that any mandates could force them to abandon projects and prolong the downturn in residential construction.

“This is absolutely the wrong time to proceed with this mandate,” said Carol Schatz, chief executive of the Central City Association, which represents downtown businesses and development companies. “We should be doing everything we can to incentivize development, not put burdens on developers.”

While the city has put incentives on the table in the past, developers say the incentives wouldn’t have offset the loss of income from affordable units.

Opposition from developers and some neighborhood groups killed the city’s two previous attempts this decade to craft an ordinance requiring below-market-rate housing.

Developers argued that they would drop projects in Los Angeles if such a requirement was adopted because they would lose money. Neighborhood groups feared the ordinance would force low-income housing in their communities, bringing with them an increased risk of crime and lower property values.

The key issue for most developers is to avoid citywide requirements for affordable housing.

“An incentive-based system is much more preferable to one that relies on punitive measures,” said Bill Witte, president of Related Cos. of Southern California, which has developed several mixed-income projects in the region and is the lead developer on the Grand Avenue project downtown.

Affordable housing shortage

The lack of housing for low-income residents has grown increasingly acute as more rent-controlled units have come off the market, and unemployment and underemployment have increased. This has resulted in overcrowding as people forced out of their own units have doubled up or even tripled up in other units or been forced onto the streets.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched the latest drive as part of his 2008 call for up to 20,000 affordable housing units. He wants the new ordinance to require developers to set aside some units for households earning less than the county household median income of $60,000 or pay into a fund for building units elsewhere. This would qualify more people to move into any new affordable units than past proposals, which were targeted to lower-income families.

“This city has produced more than enough housing for people at the high end of the income scale, but way too little for low-income households and virtually nothing for moderate-income households,” said Helmi Hisserich, the city’s deputy mayor for housing. “That’s why we need a mandate as one of the tools to produce more affordable housing.”

However, she said the exact percentage of set-asides and the income thresholds for the affordable units remain open to negotiation and compromise.

City planners are now crafting the ordinance, which should be in draft form this fall and could make it to the City Council for a vote in spring 2010.

This time, they have changed the name of the ordinance from “inclusionary zoning” to “mixed-income housing,” to better reflect the goal of having both lower and higher incomes in the same multifamily buildings. And city officials say they are making more of an effort to reach out to developers.

“We’re trying to move more incrementally this time, to give us a chance to build consensus,” said Jane Blumenfeld, deputy planning director. “We are also trying to be more realistic about what it costs to build housing in the city.”

But so far, developers said that there has been little indication the city is moving to address what has long been their main concern: setting aside a certain percentage of their units for lower rents or prices would make their projects unprofitable.

“There’s a big gap between the cost and return on affordable housing and the cost and return on market-rate housing,” said Renata Simril, vice president of development for Forest City Enterprises Inc., a Cleveland developer that has built several mixed-income projects in Los Angeles, including the Metropolitan Lofts near the Staples Center in downtown. “The incentives that we have seen coming from the city don’t go nearly far enough to bridge that gap.”

Need for incentives

Simril and other developers said the focus should be on providing enough financial incentives so that developers can make money on their projects.

In past proposals for affordable requirements, the city has offered developers density bonuses. Those are rights to build more units than would otherwise be allowed. The city also promised to fast-track the approval process and cut fees.

But those measures might not be enough help, according to Jim Atkins, managing director in the Los Angeles office of Merlone Geier Partners, who was previously with South Group, a partnership that developed three major market-rate for-sale loft projects in downtown Los Angeles: the Elleven, Luma and Evo. Atkins, along with Simril, served on an advisory group set up by the city to study construction costs in order to prepare for the new ordinance.

While giving developers certain advantages, density bonuses make projects more expensive up front because bigger buildings cost more money.

Meanwhile, fast-tracking would require additional city staff workers and fee reductions would cost the city revenue. Neither would be palatable for the council given the current budget crisis.

Also, it’s easy for the city to grant density bonuses in concept, but more difficult to deliver them: Neighborhood opposition, stirred by concerns over traffic and building height, would often prevail in the past.

Some developers have sought to avoid an affordable housing set-aside mandate. Downtown developer Geoff Palmer even went so far as to sue the city to prevent the imposition of an affordable unit set-aside for the Visconti Luxury Apartments project just west of downtown. Palmer prevailed and the Visconti was built without low-income units.

Simril said other more substantive incentives are needed. Those could include bond or redevelopment funds. She said the Community Redevelopment Agency sold the land for Forest City’s Metropolitan Lofts at a deep discount in order to get the project built with some affordable units.

“You can have a mandate, but you need major incentives to make the math work,” Simril said.

Hisserich, the deputy mayor, added that a number of city incentives to help developers bridge the cost gap for affordable units are on the table for discussion. Those include density bonuses, expedited permitting, discounts on land purchases for properties in redevelopment areas, and access to low-interest loans or bond monies.

Mandate ‘unfair’

Atkins of Merlone Geier said he supports the goal of building more mixed-income projects in the city. But he believes a mandate would drive up the price of new market-rate housing.

“You’re pushing the burden of subsidizing affordable housing on to a very small group of people, the buyers and renters of new market-rate units, instead of all homeowners or taxpayers,” he said. “That’s fundamentally unfair, both to these buyers and the developers of market-rate housing, which this city desperately needs more of.”

But city officials said they’ve tried other solutions, including asking voters to support a $1 billion affordable-housing bond in fall 2006. The bond narrowly missed getting the required two-thirds majority. Former Mayor James Hahn and current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have also set aside general fund dollars to build up an affordable-housing trust fund. The budget crisis has temporarily stalled contributions to the fund.

“This city faces an acute shortage of affordable housing and we desperately need to do something,” said Andrew Westall, deputy for housing, transportation and planning in the office of Councilman Herb Wesson, a backer of the affordable-housing set-aside ordinance. “The key is to do it in such a way that it does not impede the building of more housing.”

Business leaders said a citywide mandate for low-income set-asides would hinder new housing construction.

“We oppose a citywide mandate,” said Stuart Waldman, chief executive of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association. “This has to be done on a case-by-case basis and should be targeted more to areas around transit centers.”


L.A. city leaders want developers to include affordable housing units in their projects or pay into a fund that would create below-market units in other projects.


Two proposals to create an “inclusionary zoning” ordinance in the past were defeated by developers who said they’d lose money, and homeowners who feared poverty, crime and lower property values.


A new “mixed-income housing” ordinance will be introduced in draft form later this year and could go to a City Council vote next year.

Los Angeles Business Journal, Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved.
This article was purchases for re-use.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Sermon for Your Reactions: The Changing Face of America and Its Meaning for the Jews

Here is Rabbi Stern's recent sermon addressing the challenge or America's tremendous ethnic and religious diversity and what it means for the future of the Jewish community. We'd love to hear your thoughts and responses to the issues he raises. Due to the limitations of YouTube it's in two parts. Both are linked below.

Part I

Part II

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Community Organizing is Jewish!

This article is from the current edition. A good history of Community Organizing and places the work we are doing at WiseLA in a broader perspective.

June 10, 2009
Saul’s Children

By Rob Eshman

This is the week to honor a Jew whose influence extends from your neighborhood council, to the field where your grapes are picked, to city halls from Los Angeles to Newark, to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. This week, say a little Kaddish for Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1909 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky’s second marriage to Sarah Tannenbaum. He was the Johnny Appleseed of justice. Roots he planted 50, 40, 30 years ago — he died June 12, 1972 — are spreading like dandelions in dichondra.

Consider President Obama.

“Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness,” L. David Alinsky wrote to the Boston Globe following the 2008 Democratic Convention. “It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. Obama learned his lesson well.”

“When [Obama] announced his candidacy for president last month,” Ryan Lizza wrote in The New Republic in March 2007, “he said the ‘best education’ he ever had was not his undergraduate years at Occidental and Columbia, or even his time at Harvard Law School, but rather the four years he spent in the mid-’80s learning the science of community organizing in Chicago.”

Alinsky was the scientist. In two best-selling books, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals,” he laid out a step-by-step approach toward empowering the have-nots in society. There are two fundamentals: Clearly communicate the bedrock values of the movement, and organize around these values from the ground up.

“One can lack any of the qualities of an organizer — with one exception — and still be effective and successful,” Alinsky wrote in “Rules for Radicals.” “That exception is the art of communication.” The key to communication, he wrote, is speaking to people where they are, at their level, appealing to their self-interest. Communicating is half the equation, he believed. The other is rooting that message in common values.

Alinsky never lost sight of what his struggle — all successful struggles — was about: “the preciousness of human life ... freedom, equality, justice, peace, the right to dissent.”

In 1939, Alinsky first organized Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, helping the poor, slaughterhouse-adjacent residents win better wages and living conditions.

He applied the techniques he learned there to organize the residents of Rochester, N.Y., to train the activists who helped a young man named Cesar Chavez organize grape pickers in California; to galvanize Chicago’s all-black Woodlawn neighborhood; where religious leaders like Arthur Brazier fought the all-powerful Chicago machine for better living conditions.

In turn, Brazier and other 1960s community organizers influenced by Alinsky inspired and influenced a young man named Barack Obama to work as an anti-poverty activist in Chicago in the 1980s.

The right loathed Alinsky and continually tried to brand him as a pro-Stalinist communist (he wasn’t). The ‘60s left accused him of selling out because his focus was to help people make it in society, not to destroy society itself. But Alinsky’s lessons endure because they are rooted in one basic idea: “.... No ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare,’” Alinsky wrote.

I saw some of Alinsky’s genius incarnated last week when I moderated a discussion at UCLA Hillel between Rabbi Shmuely Boteach and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.

After graduating Stanford University, Booker attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he met Boteach, then a Lubavitch-affiliated rabbi and founder of the L’Chaim society, a Jewish student union. Boteach made Booker, who is African American and a devout Baptist, the head of the society, to the dismay of the Lubavitcher movement. And the friendship endured, after Booker graduated Yale Law; after Booker, raised in a privileged Palo Alto home, moved into Newark’s worst projects and began organizing residents; after Booker beat an entrenched, corrupt Newark machine to become the city’s mayor.

The key to Booker’s success — beyond a fearsome intellect and enough charisma to make Obama look like Richard Nixon — is a burning desire to confront injustice through grass-roots organization — as Alinsky developed and taught it.

Our dialogue was about bridging America’s cultural and political divide. I asked Booker how such a feat is possible, considering how just days earlier a madman on one side of that divide had assassinated Dr. George Tilley, a Kansas doctor who, despite years of death threats, had continued to protect the lives of his women patients by performing abortions.

Booker said it’s a mistake and a waste of time to focus on the extreme right or left — the key is to find common values and language that will bring together the greatest number of people in the center. Booker, by all accounts, has done that in Newark, and Obama is doing it (again) with his Organizing for America, a reconfiguration of his grass-roots Organizing for Obama election campaign, this time aimed at bringing together a consensus for change in America’s health care system.

And it all goes back to Alinsky, the roots of whose passion for social justice and radical change are not all that mysterious. Until he was 12 years old, Alinsky, the son of Orthodox Jews, was steeped in Jewish learning.

“But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi,” he told Playboy in 1971, “so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit. Now I’m a charter member of Believers Anonymous. But I’ll tell you one thing about religious identity: Whenever anyone asks me my religion, I always say — and always will say — Jewish.”

If Alinsky rebelled — a very Jewish thing to do, by the way — he didn’t abandon the prophetic directives that are as plain as day in the ancient texts: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly. His entire life was motivated by belief in the dignity of the human being, by the idea that we are all created in the image of the Divine. And his life’s work was inspired by the awareness, embedded in the daily “Shema,” of universal oneness.

“A major revolution to be won in the immediate future,” Alinsky wrote, “is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all others.”

They teach Alinsky in some college courses, but I suggest his books become required reading in our Jewish day schools — in Hebrew schools, even. You can trace the words of the prophets from ancient times through this man’s life and writing to our modern-day leaders — and you will learn every thing you need to know about the Jewish contribution to civilization.

© Copyright 2009 The Jewish Journal and
All rights reserved. is hosted by

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Acérquense a La Gente - Get Close to Your People

Reported by Diane Kabat

Throughout Jewish literature, we are called to tear down the walls that silent the voices of the poor. A Talmudic story tells of a righteous man who was on such a high level that Elijah the Prophet visited him regularly. One day, this righteous man built a gate in front of his courtyard. The cries of the needy were shutout, and Elijah the Prophet ceased visiting him. By shutting himself away from the poor, he blocked the gate between heaven and earth.

Our society as well has put up gates that prevent these cries for help from being heard, especially in our cities divided by neighborhood boundaries, language, and culture. With the advent of the Internet and the immediacy for global news, we hear more about impoverished areas in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, or Africa before we "see" that which is before us.

On Sunday afternoon, May 31, Rabbi Stern opened a conference of over 100 Los Angeles community leaders at the Hollywood 7th Day Adventist Church with this story and message from the Talmud. Nearly 20 faith-based-groups affiliated with LA Voice PICO were represented as we assembled for this bi-annual Leadership Assembly to strengthen our bond with other religions and ethnicities in our greater L.A. community.

At the retreat, with the aid of a Spanish interpreter, we talked about the issues that LA Voice is tackling (affordable housing, immigration reform, health care issues), but most importantly, we spent time getting to know one another, sharing our congregational successes along with our challenges. We were one of two synagogues present. Stephen S. Wise Temple and IKAR were there to "open the gate."

Each congregational leader reported on their work to date. It was empowering to hear and be supported in our work thus far. All congregations are having similar one-on-ones and relationship building sessions with their members. The residents of Boyle Heights, along with other communities, were impressed with our 6 areas of potential engagement (see below). But along with this positive exchange, many questions were asked.

Why does LA Voice PICO exist with such strength at this time given all of the challenges in our city? What can we do differently now? One of the leaders of LA Voice Pico, Zach Hoover, outlined our cyclical vision of community interaction each item flowing into the next around a wheel: NECESSITY - What is lacking in our communities and what do we care about? CAPACITY - What are we capable of accomplishing together? OPPORTUNITY - Is there an opportunity today that meets our needs?

We need to take this opportunity and test and talk about current issues and realities. How does Stephen S. Wise Temple as a congregation respond to this call to action, to this need and opportunity at this time? What is our story going to be and how will we get closer? Acérquense a la gente. For the sake of our spiritual health and tikkun olam, we must start to open these gates and connect our lives to those who are most vulnerable. Do these actual and symbolic walls that we have built permit our apathy and passivity?

To become more engaged in our LA vision, attend the Town Hall Meeting at Stephen S. Wise Temple on Wednesday, June 17, 7:30 p.m. We'll roll out our Social Justice Plan with personal testimonials, a text study, and breakout groups.

As Rabbi Stern, Sharon Almany and the Social Justice Leadership team continue to reiterate to our Social Justice Leadership Team, at House Meetings, and from the bima, "This is among the most meaningful experiences that I have as a rabbi -- I want you to have that potential as well."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Progress on the Affordable Housing Ordinance

LA City Council Votes Unanimously (13 - 0) to Pass a Framework for a Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance.

Energy filled the Los Angeles City Council Chambers on Wednesday, May 27th as momentum built for a Mixed-Income Housing Ordinance. After hearing a report from city staff, the council listened attentively as Housing LA leaders eloquently told the story of why we need this ordinance. Following on testimony by County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, and preceding testimony by an ACORN community leader, Hollywood Adventist Church Pastor Ryan Bell, speaking on behalf of LA Voice, gave compelling testimony of congregants who are homeless or "couch surfing" with supportive friends. Housing LA coalition members cheered after each speech.

While council members asked specific questions about issues to be dealt with moving forward, the tone was one of seeking cooperation and shared leadership on this issue and a building consensus to make these ideas concrete. Garcetti, Hahn, Rosendahl, and Reyes all gave rousing remarks -- with Hahn speaking to the reality of a city where half of all workers earn less than $25,000 a year and Rosendahl bellowing for a 25% set-aside.

The consensus to move forward firmly encourages us all. Councilmembers Perry and Garcetti both spoke directly to the importance of the organizing work being done by LA Voice congregations and Housing LA. Don't hesitate to call your council member and tell him or her "thank you" for taking this step and asking them to lead the way on creating and implementing a bold Mixed- Income Housing Ordinance that will create thousands of units for hard working Angelinos and their children.

While the next report back is scheduled for September of this year, you can be sure that LA Voice clergy, leaders, and congregations will continue to pray and move our feet for the transformation of our city's housing crisis.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What is LA Voice

Our congregation is associated with LA Voice the regional network of the PICO National Organizing Network. LA Voice works to give power for change to communities that are more often than not powerless. As one of two Jewish congregations (the other is IKAR) connected with LA Voice we have the opportunity to engage with the people of the city of Los Angeles in ways we never have before. LA Voice is leading the charge on the Affordable Housing ordinance and has been mobilizing the community to act on its behalf. Additionally, LA Voice is the conduit through which we have found our path to Boyle Heights and the work that we are doing to strengthen our community.

Follow this link and consider making a small contribution to help LA Voice do the good work it does.

See the "new" poster child for LA Voice and a particularly bad picture of yours truly below.
LA Voice Fundraiser LA Voice Fundraiser R Stern LA Voice, Social Justice, Community Organizing

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Social Justice Vision: Connecting Communities in a Vast City

The Social Justice Leadership Team had an incredibly productive meeting this past Wednesday (May 13th) which reflected the culmination of our year’s worth of conversations, one-on-ones and relationship building with Temple members and the residents of Boyle Heights. In addition we engaged a wide variety of professionals to develop strategies to move our work forward. Click on active links for information about partner organizations.

The Leadership Team determined that the overall theme guiding our work will be Connecting Communities – bringing people together across geographic, ethnic and religious expanses and we will focus on Boyle Heights.

  • Our primary focus will be on the Boyle Heights Neighborhoods and the various ways that members of Stephen Wise Temple can bring their talents to that community. Far from being a one way street our experiences in Boyle Heights will help us learn about the complexity, challenges, and opportunities that are presented to us as fellow citizens of one of the most diverse cities on the planet!
  • Together with the UCLA school of Medicine and Dentristy (and Temple member and psychiatrist Dr. Susan Donner-Klein) we will recruit SSWT therapists (and interns) to teach and facilitate the program. (Father Scott Santarosa has given us permission to begin recruiting participants from BH and to work with Dolores Mission.)
  • Los Angeles City Youth Council (LAYC) – thanks to Joey Freeman students from Roosevelt High and MCHS are working together to strengthen both schools’ involvement in the youth council. Incoming MCHS student body president Jenna Freeman (not related to Joey) will continue the efforts after Joey graduates.
  • Affordable Housing Ordinance – many of the developers and other interested parties on our Social Justice Leadership team and in the congregation are participating in attempts to facilitate and advocate for a workable Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance in Los Angeles. We are working with a variety of faith-based groups and othersthroughout our city on this project.
  • Affordable Housing Ordinance Hearing: City Hall on Tuesday, May 19th, 2:00, Rm 350, 200 N. Spring Street (ID required to enter but open meeting). If you’d like to attend email Jared Rivera:

Town Hall Meeting – The Culmination and Next Step after our Year of House Meetings and Communal Involvement. Here we will begin our work to gain the commitment of participants and our congregation to action around our Social Justice Vision.

  • Remember: It’s all about RELATIONSHIPS! We are determined to engage people in this process through interpersonal connections – not publicity campaigns.
  • June 17th – Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. All those who attended House Meetings (and more) are to be invited by the Leadership Team directly – through personal calls. At the Town Hall Meeting we’ll roll out the Social Justice Plan with personal testimonials, have a text study and hold breakouts into groups around the action items above.
House Meetings will, of course, continue throughout the year as we continue to develop relationships and energize our base around our social justice vision.

Want more information about any of the above? Email Rabbi Ron Stern, click here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Inclusionary Zoning/Affordable Housing and the Mayor

On Wednesday, April 6 I was part of a delegation to meet with Mayor Villaraigosa to press the cause for work force housing in Los Angeles. The mayor has made this a part of his goals for the city since he took office. For the first time it appears that there is support and mommentum to actually pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance for Los Angeles! Should this happen, Los Angeles will join with great cities throughout the world that have such ordinances including London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

The goal of the ordinance is to enable middle class workers to live nearer to their workplaces, thus reducing traffic, air polution and congestion as well as to make life more liveable for these essential workers. Currently thousands must travel long distances from home to work or are forced to live in substandard housing. I encountered the harsh reality of that first hand when I spoke to one of the members of our delegation. She is a housing activist and also a personal assistant employed with a company that provides services to celebrities. Joanna is a single mom who has worked in that field for 15 years and still must live in a one bedroom apartment that she shares with her 8 year old daughter -- often she's one paycheck away from affording her rent.

Fifteen of us from a variety of organizations heard the mayor say that the time is ripe and he wants to get the legislation passed by the end of June (this legislative session). When he heard about the work that our Affordable Housing Network at Stephen S. Wise is doing, he said that we could quite possibly make the difference between success and failure. Because we have incorporated real estate developers into our network and they are interested in acheiving meaningful solutions the situation is more hopeful than it has been in the past. The state of the economy and the general depression in the building industry also makes meaningful legislation possible.

This Tuesday advocates for the cause will be meeting downtown to discuss strategies for gaining broadbased support for a meaningful change. Hopefully some of our housing advocates will join me for the meeting! In addition, I've asked the Southern California Board of Rabbis to host a session for area rabbis to increase rabbinic awareness of this issue. A number of speakers will address the rabbis and encourage them to advocate in their communities. This is a complex issue and rabbis may not be experts on the financial aspects of real estate development but we can certainly challenge developers, neighborhood groups and regional chambers of commerce to see the moral justification for legislation and minimize opposition they might present. A resolution will be presented to the Board of Rabbis for consideration in support of inclusionary zoning/workforce housing proposals.

For any who might be policy wonks -- see the mayor's plan here.