Organizing: The 21st Century Rabbinate

Mar 8, 2013 by

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been attending CCAR conventions for a Bar Mitzvah of years, since ordination in 2000.

I attended a session called “Praying With Our Feet:  Reclaiming the Rabbinic Mantle as Agents of Change in the World,” at which my classmate and colleague Rabbi Seth Limmer spoke.  Seth, the Chair of the CCAR’s Justice and Peace Committee, talked about the efficacy of collaboration and the principles of Organizing in amplifying the power of the rabbinic voice in confronting the issues of importance in today’s society.

Rabbi Seth Limmer

Rabbi Seth Limmer

“Our first campaign as Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is… comprehensive, humane, common sense Immigration Reform,” Seth pronounced to much applause.  As I see Seth up there, and think back over our thirteen years in the rabbinate, I am drawn to a single question.

To wit: What are the big shifts in the Reform rabbinate since 2000?  It’s as fitting a time as any to ask the question — not only because of the conveniently Jewish 13-year milestone which naturally recommends a moment of contemplation of the past years of evolution and even revolution; it is also appropriate that I would pause here after 13 years to consider the shifts in rabbinical leadership since the obvious secular boundary-marker of the year 2000 itself, the last year of the 20th century and the gateway to the 21st.

I would isolate the theme that we gathered in Long Beach to consider:  the use of Community Organizing principles in our spiritual leadership.  13 years ago, no one in the Reform Movement was speaking this language — the language of Organizing, the language of using relational meetings to build broad-based consensus and develop strategies for action, thus leveraging congregations’ power, mobilizing people of conscience, and thereby giving us a shared model for our Social Justice work. Nowadays however the language of Organizing is our lingua franca. In Westchester, we have used Organizing to develop a growing coalition of churches, synagogues, and other institutions outside the faith community to work for the greater good of our county and to confront Social Justice challenges including mandated access to kindergarten throughout New York state, a boon to beleaguered school districts that must sometimes consider cutting kindergarten under budgetary pressures; we are also using Organizing principles to mobilize action around gun violence prevention.

I’m eager to read comments on this subject: how has Organizing shifted your rabbinate? Your congregation? Your community? And what are the other big shifts since 2000?

Rabbi Jonathan Blake
 is the Senior Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in 
Scarsdale, New York.

 

1 Comment

  1. Robert Orkand

    I want to thank Jonathan for his thoughtful post For the past five yeas I have been involved in the creation of CONECT (Congregations for a New Connecticut), a federation of 27 congregations that have come together to do the relational work that will result in societal change in our state. For me, the greatest payoff has been learning how to do organizational work within my congregation.

    I would guess that most of us–especially the rabbis of my generation–were taught a “social action” model which is top-down rather than bottom-up. We think in terms of issues and projects rather than organizing. While one does not preclude the other, relation-building within the congregation makes an enormous difference in how people interact with each other and on our ability to understand the issues that “keep people up at night.”

    I will be retiring in June will be moving up to the Boston area and hope to be able to use what I have learned in a new setting. In the meantime, I will continue the work in Connecticut which has already resulted in several major victories that have already changed the lives of many people.

    Bob Orkand
    Senior Rabbi, Temple Israel, Westport, CT

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