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.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Social Justice Networks Now Forming!

Community Organizing for Social Justice depends on interest, opportunity and potential. As our house meetings continue, we are discovering that there is interest and potential for us to start working on a number of areas:

Housing Action Network

LA Voice is involved in an affordable housing action and many on our leadership team are connected to the real estate industry. Our Housing Action Network is involving real estate professionals with those in Los Angeles looking to increase the pool of affordable housing. Often on opposite sides of the issue, if we develop a dialogue between developers and community advocates for housing focused on cooperative problem solving the potentials are endless. Through our involvement with LA Voice we are presented with a unique opportunity. Imagine if solutions satisfactory to both sides can be developed! What an opportunity! The first meeting of the Housing Action Network and the LA Voice professionals happens this Friday, January 30th. More details to follow.

Community Support Network
Throught the efforts of Temple member Dr. Susan Donner and the project coordinator from LA Voice we are developing a parenting program for parents of young adolescents. Together with Counseling interns and professionals from the Stephen S. Wise Community (some of them Spanish speakers!) we'll develop a program to teach and strengthen parenting strategies for adolescents. This was something requested by the residents of Ramona Gardens (an area of Boyle Heights) at their latest meeting with the LA Voice rep and Susan Donner. As things develop there is potential to include Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters to help train student and young adult mentors to guide the young people in Boyle Heights.

It is exciting to see how our efforts are begining to take wing after only five months of organizing and house meetings that have involved about 100 people!

Interested in joining a network? Send an email to Rabbi Stern.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Community Organizing Writ Large

This article reflects the extent of the grass roots organizing that led to Obama's success and is still in operation as a means to implement the vision that he outlined. It is interesting for us and the work that we are doing at Stephen S. Wise because the networks that we are attempting to establish will also derive from our House Meetings (in the article they are called House Parties) and hopefully enable us to reach the goals for organizing Stephen S. Wise that we are developing as a Social Justice Leadership Team.

Time Magazine, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009
Obama's Permanent Grass-Roots Campaign

For Kenneth Richardson II of Owings, Md., Barack Obama's election-night victory was not the end but the beginning. "We can't let this go," the 58-year-old father of three remembers thinking. "People feel invested. They feel they can actually do something." So he did. A couple of weeks after the confetti settled, he posted an alert on proposing a new activist group in Calvert County, a rural exurb of Washington where the rolling farmland is dotted by weathered barns and crab shacks. Complete strangers signed up. A retired Air Force pilot, Phil Pfanschmidt, and his wife Joyce, both 71, came to the first meeting in December. So did Chris Melendez, a self-employed art dealer who lives about 30 miles away. Richardson's old motorcycle buddy Al Leandre brought his wife, a public-school teacher, and passed the word to some friends he had met through his government-contracting business. With a few clicks of a mouse, the Owings Grass Roots Group was born.

They were white and black, old and young, middle-class professionals who shared a collective frustration with the state of their country. At least four of the founding 12 had once been registered Republicans. Most had stories of helping the Obama campaign; all had internalized Obama's message of bottom-up, people-powered political change. "For anything that is going on in southern Maryland, Barack Obama personally can have an impact — through us," explained Leandre. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)

This sort of thing has been happening quietly all over the country this winter. For the first time in decades, a President will enter office at the spearhead of a social movement he created. The exact size can be measured in various ways. He controls a 13 million-name e-mail list, which is nearly the size of the NRA and the AFL-CIO combined. Three million people have given him money; 2 million have created profiles on Obama's social-networking site. More than 1.2 million volunteered for the campaign, which has trained about 20,000 in the business of community organizing.

But the best measurement of Obama's grass-roots power may still be its unrealized potential. In December, when the Owings group first met, about 4,500 house parties were held around the country, and a total of 550,000 people responded to an online survey asking how they would like to contribute their time and energy over the coming years. At about the same time, nearly 5,000 groups responded to a call from Obama's transition team for reports on the best ways to tackle health-care reform. More recently, some 100,000 people participated in an interactive feature on the transition website, which allows people to vote on questions they want Obama to answer. Some popular examples: Will you legalize marijuana? Will you appoint a prosecutor to investigate possible Bush Administration crimes? All this was done with almost no publicity and barely a whisper of encouragement from Obama himself. As a scholar of online politics, Personal Democracy Forum's Micah Sifry, puts it, "I think Obama is sitting on a volcano."

The question for Obama is, Can he harness its power? Obama anchored his presidential ambitions in his background as a bottom-up community organizer and in his belief that two people together are exponentially more powerful than two people alone. "In the last 30 or 40 years, a lot of politics turned into marketing," explains Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor and community organizer who has worked with Obama. "Marketing is all about selling soup to individuals. It's not about bringing people together." Obama's model, which has made him the envy of a generation of political consultants, focuses both on selling the soup and on giving his supporters the tools to make soup together — for one another. (Watch a video about Obama paraphernalia.)

This formula delivered huge returns during the campaign, and Obama swamped his opponents with vastly superior fundraising and grass-roots organizations. But it has never been tried on a large scale by a sitting President. So Obama's web of supporters and his online organizers must now feel their way into uncharted territory. During the campaign, Richardson, an unemployed customer-service specialist, downloaded phone numbers from the Obama website and then made calls from his home office to nudge voters to the polls. He hasn't heard directly from the Obama organization since, but with the help of the Obama website, Facebook and e-mail, he has created an Obama satellite organization on his own. The Owings group is in business, with a mission statement, the beginnings of a logo and plans to incorporate as a nonprofit.

Richardson's group has signed up overseas supporters and planned a series of community dinners and a potluck in honor of the Inauguration. On a recent NFL-playoff Sunday, 11 members gathered in Richardson's brick-lined den to discuss ways to improve local schools. "When we as a group put a package together to send to Barack Obama, what should we ask for?" Richardson posed the question at the start of the meeting. The answers were varied and thoughtful. Why not encourage high school students to get passports to promote foreign travel? Why not sponsor overseas pen-pal programs via the Internet? Should there be more awards to recognize great teachers?

Though few talk in public about it, a 13 million-man army, with foot soldiers ready to act in key congressional districts, could come in handy if the White House has trouble lining up votes for various bills and proposals that reach Capitol Hill. Obama's army can make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of e-mails — and it has proved it knows how to act fast. Rallying support for legislation is one mission; so is making sure the army is intact — and still writing checks — in a few years, when Obama is likely to seek re-election.

While his supporters seek out ways to stay involved, Obama's team is working to connect with citizens outside politics. Buffy Wicks, who helped run Obama's Missouri campaign, has spent the past couple of months putting together a new website,, designed to capitalize on Obama's call for Americans to volunteer in the days before the Inauguration. Even James Dobson's conservative Focus on the Family, no friend of Obama's campaign, is encouraging members to participate.

Meanwhile, at the transition office, Macon Phillips, 30, the director of new media, has been experimenting with other ways to remake the stodgy White House website. The new transition website invites comments at nearly every turn, with regular video responses from all ranks of Obama's incoming Administration and a promise to collate feedback into reports for policymakers, Cabinet officers, even the President. Citizens can view and comment on briefing papers submitted by the interest groups that have been lobbying Obama ever since he won the election. Most of these interactive devices will be carried over to the Obama White House site. Asked if all this feedback would really reach decision makers, Phillips responded, "I wouldn't enjoy my job if I felt the whole thing was a charade."

As one campaign ends and another begins, Obama will need to broaden his base without disappointing true believers like Richardson. In the 1970s, Richardson graduated from college with a degree in urban studies and hoped to work in the public sector. But his first job, working for then D.C. mayor Walter Washington, was dispiriting. He found himself handing out public-assistance checks to people who were gaming the system, an experience that led him to register as a Republican. Now, he says, he may finally be able to serve as he had always hoped. "I will be 59 in April," he said, "and I have never, ever come across something like this."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Mayor Comes to Stephen S. Wise for Shabbat

This past Friday (1/9) night, Antonio Villaraigosa joined us for Shabbat Services. If you were there, you know how meaningful it was for the mayor of the second largest city in the nation to stand up before a Jewish community and affirm that he stands along side the Jewish community in its support of Israel. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one to feel the tears pool in my eyes. Mayor Villaraigosa didn't have to say anything. He is not involved in international politics, currently his ambitions may extend to governor which is also not a position that requires international participation. Nonetheless, he stood up firmly for Israel over the past week and subjected himself to vociferous objections from the city's Muslim population. Why did he do it?

The mayor told a story of growing up in Boyle Heights to immigrant parents. There he was guided through school by Jewish teachers, Jewish guidance counselors and Jewish administrators. Many of his neighbors in what was then a mixed Latino, Asian, Jewish community were Jewish and he remembers nothing but kindness and embrace from the Jews whose lives intersected with his own. He also spoke of his experiences as Speaker of the State Assembly and then later as mayor. Throughout his career, even until today, the Jewish community reached out to him with support, encouragement and cooperation. When Rabbi Herscher called the Mayor's office and invited him to our synagogue as an expression of gratitude for his support of Israel, it took him a few hours to arrange his schedule and commit to attending. You might say, it's good politics and that he's a smart politician. To which I'd say that it is and he is and so are we. But it also speaks to the painstaking work of relationship building that started when he was only a young boy in Boyle Heights.

You probably get where I'm going here: Our Boyle Heights-Stephen S. Wise Partnership Project is part and parcel of that relationship building with our city's Latino community. Latinos already play a significant role in the governance of this community along with many other ethnic representatives. Our relationship with them matters. Mayor Villaraigosa's connection to our community was built on a lifetime of positive, meaningful contact. Our partnershp project will affirm our synagogue's commitment to our Latino citizens not only in Boyle Heights but throughout the city. The dividends of that connection will be reaped in ways that we can't imagine today. Do you think that those Jewish teachers who touched little Antonio's life in the 1960's knew that he would one day be mayor? Of course not, but because they did our lives benefit.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. This is a partnership project for the long term and one that stands to make our city even stronger -- perhaps in our lifetimes -- but certainly for our children.
(Thanks to Paul Jesser for the photos!)