Social Justice

DACA and Your Congregation: Ascend the Ladder

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught:  People were on a ship.  One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him.  The others said to him, “What are you sitting and doing!”  He replied, “What do you care? Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?”  They said to him, “But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship.” (Vayikrah Rabbah 4:6)

Some of us see the Dreamers as sharing our ship.  They may be our children’s classmates or we may meet them in the community.  We are moved by how hard these youth have worked to achieve success in school, work, or the military.  We hear echoes from Biblical texts and our own history that compel us to help.

Yet other congregants dissociate themselves from the issue of DACA.  They worry about their own economic security — whether their own vessels are seaworthy — failing to recognize that we are all in the same boat.

If 788,000 Dreamers are forced back into the shadows, or worse yet, are deported to countries they don’t remember, we will all be affected — seeing our country act without humanity, coping with the economic repercussions from lost talent, and fearing who will be the next victims of xenophobia.

How do we speak out as Jewish institutions, recognizing that the polarizing political views in America today are represented within our congregational membership?   How do we respond as rabbis when our conscience calls us to act?  And if we find traction to move forward, how do we guide our congregations to respond to DACA so that our actions make a difference?

Over the past three years, we, Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, have been researching how synagogues work for social justice in local communities, states, and our nation.  We have seen multiple ways in which synagogues effectively respond to the critical issues of our day — the rungs on what we call the “Ladder of Civic Engagement.”

In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreamed about angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching from the earth to heaven.  Just as the angels were said to have dwelt on earth, congregations eager to support Dreamers would be wise to start from the more accessible lower rungs — volunteering, educating, and donating — and then some congregants may continue the climb with our institutional support.

In responding to the President’s phased termination of the DACA program, many synagogues are finding that their volunteer efforts have enabled them to hear and understand the struggles of the immigrant community. This rung leads us to build relationships with those most affected.

Another non-controversial rung is education. Create programs with professors, lawyers, experts, and Dreamers themselves to understand the issues and build support for further action.  Your congregants will be inspired by the successes and aspirations of the Dreamers.

Philanthropy can also support social change.  Some Jewish communities are considering raising funds to help DACA youth submit renewal requests by the October 5 deadline by paying the $495 filing fee — a steep financial barrier for any young person with four weeks’ notice.  Others are working to fund lawyers so that these young people have legal advice and representation.

Ascending the upper three rungs becomes more challenging to many congregations. Advocacy is about using our voices to create changes in policies and laws. Examples include raising the issue at social events, posting responsibly on social media, and calling representatives.

Organizing entails joining with others as you strategize ways in which to protect our undocumented youth. Collaborating with other synagogues, other houses of worship, and immigrant rights organizations will guide and amplify your efforts.

Joining a movement is the fuel that helps us cross the finish line. The RAC — the voice of our movement — is supporting the most recent bipartisan Dream Act, sponsored by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a bill that will pave the way to legal status for these youth.

We feel called to act — by our consciences, by our faith, by our history, by the Dreamers themselves.  We will be most effective if we work with our lay leaders and boards to find the rungs they are willing to ascend, and then perhaps inspire them to climb one more.

Rabbi Tarfon urges us forward:  The day is short, the work is much…it is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from working on it (Pirkei Avot 2:15-16).

Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen are the co-authors of Recharging Judaism: How Civic Engagement is Good for Synagogues, Jews, and America – now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. Rabbi Judith Schindler is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University of Charlotte. Judy Seldin-Cohen is a community advocate and author. She has spent the last ten years collaborating on social justice issues with Rabbi Judith Schindler, her then synagogue rabbi and now co-author.

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Organizing: The 21st Century Rabbinate

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.