Faith-Based Community Organizing: A Unique Social Justice Approach to Revitalizing Synagogue Life 1


COMM-ORG Papers 2003

Julie Chizewer Weill
Lee Winkelman


~The Calls of the Shofar
~Stumbling Blocks and How to Shift the Paradigm
~A Movement Afoot, A Way to Connect
~Faith-Based Community Organizing
~What Faith-Based Community Organizing Achieve
~Why FBCO Groups Seek Synagogue Participation
~The Process of Joining
~Talking Tachlis: What the Synagogue Does Once it Join
~Synagogues Benefit From Participation
~Meeting the Challenges of Joining and Participating
~In Conclusion
~About the Author


The American Jewish community of the 21st century seeks new ways to build community internally and externally, revitalize synagogue life, and fulfill its holy mandate to pursue social and economic justice and create a better world. A model of local activism called aith-based community organizing holds promise for transforming the way in which the Jewish community meets those goals. aith-Based Community Organizing: A Unique Social Justice Approach to Revitalizing Synagogue Life explains the objectives, accomplishments, and process of faith-based community organizing and the benefits that synagogues can reap by becoming involved in it.

This guide begins with a description of the Jewish mandate to pursue social justice and analyzes why American Jews in the 21st century are not assertively pursuing this mandate. The guide then describes how faith-based community organizations build community, make concrete changes to promote the public good, and develop community leaders. It describes the benefits reaped by participating congregations, including the building of interfaith and interracial relationships, the development of new synagogue members and leaders, and a new dynamism that transforms synagogue life.

The guide also analyzes the challenges to synagogue participation in faith-based community organizing and the ways in which synagogues can meet those challenges.

This guide was prepared for and by the Jewish Fund for Justice and its Jewish Clergy Task Force on Faith-based Community Organizing to stimulate awareness and discussion of faith-based community organizing within the Jewish community. The Jewish Fund for Justice is the only national Jewish organization solely committed to fighting the injustice of poverty in America. The Jewish Fund for Justice assists, on a non-denominational basis, grassroots organizations struggling for decent housing, schools and jobs. Believing that the passion for pursuing justice, righting wrongs, and creating a better world must continue to be an essential part of our Jewish identity, the Jewish Fund for Justice also assists synagogues, religious schools, and Jewish organizations to develop community-based partnerships to fight poverty and work for social justice.

The Jewish Clergy Task Force on Faith-Based Community Organizing, initiated by the Jewish Fund for Justice, is composed of eight rabbis and cantors who are leaders in local faith-based community organizing groups around the country. The Task Force includes Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist clergy. Its members are committed to helping the Jewish Fund for Justice promote synagogue participation in the field of faith-based community organizing through media work, panel discussions, conferences, and personal contact with interested synagogues.

The Jewish Fund for Justice hopes that this paper will stimulate a much broader discussion of faith-based community organizing within the Jewish community, and lead to greater synagogue participation in local faith-based community organizing groups.

The Calls of the Shofar

The shofar calls of ekiah hevarim eruah and ekiah Gedolahthat we hear annually during the High Holy Days of individual and communal reflection are calls that stir us to recommit to our fundamental, holy purpose as individuals and as members of a collective community: to build a more complete world in which God presence is felt.

The Torah teaches that ekiahwas sounded to gather the Israelites at times both of alarm and of joy as they wandered through the wilderness. It was a call to come together as a community, and it still is. hevarim meaning broken things, is the sound of human suffering. It implored us to respond and repair, and it still does. eruahwas used as a signal that we needed to break camp and move forward toward the Promised Land with vision and purpose, and we still do. And ekiah Gedolahwas a call of ultimate hope and triumph, and we still need to believe in it.

The history of the Jewish people, our Torah, and all of our holy books teach that our purpose in the universe is to pursue justice and righteousness, minimize human suffering, and walk in the way of God. It is through the process of bringing God presence into the world that we sustain ourselves physically and spiritually.

The calls of the shofaror community, repair, purpose, vision, and hope arencient calls that reverberate within us as American Jews living in the 21st century, ever searching for renewal, still seeking ways to fulfill our most holy purpose.

Stumbling Blocks and How to Shift the Paradigm

Where is it more clear to us that God vision for the universe is not a reality than in the faces of hardworking men and women and their children who live in poverty in the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world? It is in the arena of social and economic justice that we American Jews frankly struggle to fulfill our mandate.

This was not always the case: American Jews have a rich history of championing the cause of social justice in our country. Jews were at the forefront of the labor movement and the civil rights movement, in partnership with other immigrant and minority communities.

But we have somehow lost our way.

Perhaps voices have told us that pursuing social justice takes resources away from solving our own internal, Jewish problems. Perhaps some have convinced us that pursuing social justice is to the detriment of pursuing spirituality. Herein lie the ironies, for it is through the pursuit of social justice that we also solve some of our own most pressing problems of continuity and identity, of vulnerability as a minority, and of the need for greater spirituality. Social justice need not be pursued at the expense of the Jewish community. Rather, it strengthens us.

Why else do we stumble?

We lack the relationships. As American Jews have pursued the worthy goal of preserving our individual, Jewish identity in a multicultural society, an unfortunate side effect has resulted: We have become a highly insular community. While we have done an exceptional job of building Jewish communal life in America, in recent years we have been less successful at building community beyond ourselves.

Today we have fewer enduring relationships with people of color, with low-income people, with people of other religions and backgrounds. Perhaps it has happened unintentionally, but our attempt to stave off assimilation is a current that keeps us away from other communities. As our economic status has soared, we have grown distant from the problems of poverty. At the same time, although we may not be able to pinpoint it, we yearn for community and feel a deep, existential loneliness individually and as a people without it. Strong relationships build strong communities, and strong communities make change possible.

We falsely assume that the problems of poverty do not affect us. The problems of poverty are not just about the other. In fact, many American Jews live in poverty or on the edge of it. But even for the majority of Jews who are doing well economically, the problems of poverty affect options and opportunities. The existence of poverty affects where we choose to live, where we can afford to live, where our jobs are located and how we travel to those jobs, where we send our children to school, and where we feel safe. Issues like skyrocketing housing costs, the deterioration of public schools, unemployment, access to health care, and environmental hazards are issues that concern us, too. The problems of the theirs are actually our problems, too. But we often fail to realize that we cannot build a future by building walls to keep problems out. The pervasiveness of poverty also affects how we feel about ourselves, our cities, our government, and our country. Its existence chips away at our own sense of human dignity.

We must acknowledge our communal self-interest in pursuing solutions to the problems of poverty. We must understand that we are inextricably linked to others and that our future is bound up in the future of society. Hillel understood this concept when he wrote his famous words, f I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, then what am I? And if not now, when?We lack the avenues to pursue social justice. Ideally, the synagogue is both a center for Jewish life and a broader communal institution that helps us to relate to non-Jewish groups and institutions in our neighborhoods. Both purposes foster that sense of community for which so many of us yearn. But in practice, many of us have come to view and utilize the synagogue as merely a place to give our children a Jewish education while we ignore our own need to connect with others. We need to change the culture of synagogue life so that we expand the reasons why people join and participate in synagogues. Community and social justice need to be core values of synagogue life, along with the pillars of prayer and study. They need to be a part of the life force of the congregation in its entirety, not just seen as the responsibility of the social action committee. Moreover, social action committees need to be brought into the mainstream of synagogue life and given the resources they need to be effective.

We focus on short-term solutions instead of long-term social change. Sophisticated and well-intentioned synagogue social action committees experience frustration at not knowing how to go about truly making a difference in people lives, at not knowing how to get involved in systemic social change work. While many synagogues regularly sponsor important irect services(such as food drives, feeding the homeless, staffing homeless shelters), volunteers often become frustrated as they see problems persist or even worsen over time despite their efforts. Few congregations know how to take the next step of engaging in sustained efforts to address the underlying causes of poverty through advocacy or organizing on issues such as affordable housing, living wage jobs, safe neighborhoods, and access to health care. And social action committees that want to engage in systemic social change work often have to confront the problem of synagogue members who are apprehensive about getting involved in advocacy and/or controversial issues.

We hold misperceptions about the organized Jewish world. The Jewish communal world is highly organized. In theory, there are many local Jewish organizations through which Jews can get involved in public policy. Yet the multiplicity of presumed options may actually work against synagogue activism, because it creates the perception that he Jewish organizations are taking care of those things. In reality, these organizations may not be addressing local social justice issues; and if they are, they are unlikely to be doing so by building relationships with grassroots groups in the community.

We suffer from a crisis in faith. Many American Jews are synagogue members and attend worship services. But for many, the concepts of faith in and awe for God are foreign. God is not a motivating force in the lives of many American Jews, nor a factor in helping us determine our values and priorities. Uncovering and/or rediscovering our faith in God can enable us to better understand and act upon our role in bringing about a better world.

A Movement Afoot, A Way to Connect

Despite these barriers, signs indicate that synagogues are now poised to become more involved in community-wide efforts to address the causes and consequences of poverty. ynagogue transformationinitiatives such as Synagogue 2000 and Project STAR, which are designed to revitalize congregations at every level, are starting to see social justice as part of the rejuvenation process.

Most importantly, a core of rabbis and cantors are surfacing who are local leaders in social justice work, who are influential in their denominations, and who have found a way for their congregations to engage in community building and social change work through a model of local activism called faith-based community organizing. It is a model they want spread broadly within the synagogue community.

Faith-Based Community Organizing

A force for democracy is growing in the United Stateshe uninvolved are participating, the voiceless are speaking, and the powerful are beginning to listen. Marginalized people in countless neighborhoods across the country are influencing decision-making institutions that control their quality of life. Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians are rolling up their sleeves together to secure living wages, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, effective public education, a healthier environment, and other improvements for their families and communities. Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are planning strategies together, working with school boards, city councils, and state governments to improve public education and create a more equitable healthcare system. And in the process, they are listening to each other life stories and building strong new relationships across the barriers that normally keep people apart. Operating largely outside the media spotlight, these efforts represent a significant force for change and for renewed democracy. This force is faith-based community organizing.

This model of local activism (also sometimes referred to as institution-based organizing) unites people across race and class, primarily through congregations from diverse religious traditions, with a base in low and moderate-income congregations. Faith-based community organizations sometimes also include community groups, unions, and/or public schools as members. Together the member groups build consensus democratically on issues, develop participantsleadership skills, and build relationships as key steps toward creating a civic power base capable of making change to promote the public good.

There are approximately 135 local faith-based community organizing (FBCO) groups in the U.S. with more than 4000 member institutions. Currently at least 60 of those institutions are synagogues, and the number is steadily increasing. Approximately 24,000 people are core leaders participating regularly at any given time, and more than 100,000 people attended meetings sponsored by FBCO groups during an 18-month period from 1998 to 1999. The congregations and institutions comprising FBCOs have a combined individual membership of more than 1% of the U.S. population, a figure rarely reached by social movements in U.S. history. Most of the groups are affiliated with one of four major national training and organizing networks: the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Pacific Institute for Community Organization, Direct Action Research and Training Center, and the Gamaliel Foundation. Others are associated with smaller regional networks or are independent (Warren et al., 2001).

The model of faith-based community organizing holds great potential for deepening synagogue involvement in social justice. It provides an outstanding venue for congregational participation. It has the capacity both to transform Jews in a way that enables them to truly understand and fight for social change, and to meet the needs of synagogues by developing and training leaders whose skills can enrich synagogue life.

Jewish involvement in the process of faith-based community organizing can help to answer pressing questions about Jewish identity and purpose: Why is Judaism relevant? How can Judaism sustain us spiritually? How can Judaism fulfill our fundamental need to feel a sense of community? How can we partner with God to bring about a more complete world in which God presence is felt?

Faith-based community organizing is helping to create the future for synagogue life in America.

What Faith-Based Community Organizing Achieves

FBCO groups achieve significant victories in three broad areas: building relationships and community, making concrete changes to promote the public good, and developing community leaders.

Building relationship

FBCO is based on the belief that healthy democracy is dependent on mutual ties of trust and shared interest among an active and involved citizenry. FBCO groups get people talking to each other and building relationships, both within FBCO member institutions and between them, across the chasms of race and religion and class. These new relationships cause a powerful transformation at several levels. As isolation crumbles, a new community emerges made up of diverse people who have shared their stories with each other. These new relationships often bring life to congregations where people have prayed together for years without ever really getting to know each other. And this is only the beginning: when people are in relationship and have identified common values and interests, they are able to take joint actions to make civic change. The new community created by FBCO is a source of power that makes positive transformation possible for individuals, congregations, and society at large.

Making Concrete Changes to Promote the Public Good

FBCO groups use the power they build to persuade decision-makers to improve or implement policies affecting their members. FBCOs are non-partisan and do not endorse candidates or promote political parties.

FBCO groupssignificant accomplishments include the following victories:

    *BUILD, in Baltimore, part of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network, won the first local living-wage ordinance in the country, which spurred more than 100 successful living wage campaigns across the country, with at least 75 additional campaigns underway.

    *East Brooklyn Congregations (also an IAF group) developed 2,300 owner-occupied, single-family housing units (called Nehemiah housing) for former public housing tenants; many other IAF affiliates have since adopted the Nehemiah program to secure thousands of affordable housing units for first-time homebuyers.

    *Florida groups in the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART) network secured a $20 million investment in an affordable-housing trust fund and more than $100 million in Community Reinvestment Act agreements with banks.

    *All Congregations Together in New Orleans (part of the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing) secured a comprehensive plan to reduce drugs and crime, including a doubling of the city recreation budget and summer jobs for youth, as well as the demolition of nearly 1,000 abandoned houses.

    *ISAIAH in Minneapolis (part of the Gamaliel Foundation network) convinced the state legislature to commit $68 million to combat urban sprawl by redeveloping abandoned industrial areas.

Developing Community Leaders

Faith-based community organizing produces strong community leaders. Groups conduct multi-day leadership training sessions, and education continues n the groundas leaders participate in developing and conducting issue campaigns. Leaders-in-training learn the technical skills of organizing, including weighing alternatives, negotiating differences, and developing strategic plans, as well as concrete skills like clarifying one self-interest, viewing and accepting conflict, and analyzing the power dynamics of institutions. FBCO approach toward leadership development grows out of the principle o not do for others what they can do for themselves. Volunteer leaders are encouraged and expected to share key roles and responsibilitiesaking decisions, recruiting new members, selecting issues, developing strategies, planning issues campaigns, negotiating with public officials, and speaking to the media. Being an FBCO leader is often a transformative experience. Key to the success of FBCOs is that leadership is developed among lay people, not just clergy.

Why FBCO Groups Seed Synagogue Participation

Historically, the FBCO movement has been predominantly Christian with a low level of synagogue participation. An FBCO group can be more effective in claiming moral authority if it represents all segments of the local population. And faith-based community organizing groups, striving to foster participatory democracy and achieve diverse representation, are increasingly seeking synagogue participation.

Faith-based community organizing operates under the premise that there is power in numbers.

Faith-based community organizing groups believe that each member congregation brings a particular set of skills, resources, and relationships to the table. Jews and Jewish congregations have vital strengths to offer.

FBCO groups understand the stake that the Jewish community has in promoting the public good.

The Process of Joining

A synagogue goes through several steps when it joins a faith-based community organizing group, described below:

1. Initial exploration of faith-based organizing

Usually a couple of staff and/or lay leaders are the impetus for a synagogue to investigate joining a FBCO group. The process begins with individual meetings between clergy and key lay leaders and the FBCO organizer. If there is interest on the part of the synagogue after these initial meetings, the synagogue clergy, Board of Directors, and/or social action committee may attend some public meetings or actions sponsored by the FBCO group in order to learn more. The synagogue may also choose to research the FBCO group by talking to other congregational members about their experiences and by talking to community leaders about the work of the organization.

2. Forming a core group

A core group of approximately five to 20 interested congregants is formed, usually includes a clergy member. The core group continues to research the FBCO group and begins to educate the congregation about FBCO. If the congregation eventually decides to join the FBCO group, this core group will lead the campaign within the congregation and relate to core groups from the other participating congregations.

3. Training the core group to lead the initiative

The core group attends training workshops led by the faith-based organizing group, which teach them how to involve a broad number of synagogue members in the effort. They are trained to conduct one-to-one meetings and house meetings (described below) and to chair committee meetings, among other things.

4. Building support for FBCO within the congregation

As is the case with any new synagogue project, it is critical to have buy-in from the congregation before participation can move ahead. Clergy support for this type of work is essential.

The key step to obtaining congregational buy-in is to have the core group lead a process of conversations and relationship-building through one-to-one meetings and/or house meetings. One-to-one meetings are meetings between two individuals; they last approximately one hour, are set up by appointment, and provide a means to build relationships as distinct from (etting business done. During these meetings, each person shares their personal story, discusses what motivates them most in life, and identifies their values and highest concerns. House meetings are meetings in someone home with a group of people present. These meetings convey the purpose of the synagogue potential membership in the FBCO group; identify issues, hopes and dreams; build community; and find additional leaders.

5. Deciding to join

Once buy-in has been established, the Board of Directors votes to join the organization. Joining a faith-based community organizing group requires the payment of modest dues to the FBCO organization, which help to pay for the staff and work of the FBCO group. Dues vary from FBCO to FBCO: Some FBCOs charge a flat fee; some dues are 1% of a congregation operating budget, as defined by the congregation; and some FBCOs have a sliding scale depending on the size of the congregation. Even when the dues are a flat 1%, what that 1% covers may vary (for example, whether the religious school budget is figured in or not). There is sometimes room for negotiation, and dues may also be paid over time.

In practice, synagogues pay dues in different ways. If the dues are paid out of the congregational budget, as opposed to the rabbi discretionary funds, this practice reflects and also creates more congregational buy-in.

Talking Tachlis: What the Synagogue Does Once it Joins

The ways in which a synagogue participation takes shape are described below:

1. Continuing the process of conversation and relationship building within the congregation

Once a congregation has formally joined a FBCO group, the core group continues to meet with synagogue members through one-to-one meetings and/or house meetings.

2. Identifying issues to address

Through the one-to-one meetings and/or complementary process of house meetings, concrete issues emerge. Those most often identified by congregants become the focus of actionfor example, access to health care, affordable housing, or care for the elderly. A synagogue may address the issues independently or in conjunction with the other congregations that are members of the FBCO group.

3. Researching the issues and developing solution

Once an issue has been chosen, synagogue members work independently as a group or with the other members of the FBCO group. They research the identified problems and possible solutions by holding seminars with experts, meeting with public or private officials, and talking with people who are knowledgeable about the issue.

4. Meeting with public official

The next step is to present solutions to public officials and ask for their support and assistance, a step that may necessitate confrontational tactics. Typically, the leadership holds a series of smaller meetings with officials, culminating in a large public meeting, often involving thousands of people, where the official is asked to publicly announce his or her support for the campaign.

5. Winning the issue and moving on to the next

Once the issue is resolved, the FBCO group moves on to a different issue. FBCO groups are designed to address multiple issues over time, in order to bring in and maintain interest from the most people possible.

Through each of these steps, the clergy and a core leadership team from the synagogue and each member congregation take leadership roles by speaking at, organizing, running, and hosting meetings, large and small. In addition, they attend local, regional, and/or national trainings that develop their leadership skills.

Synagogues Benefit From Participation

Synagogues benefit from participation in faith-based community organizing in a number of ways.

More effective social justice work

Faith-based community organizing is an effective way to make concrete, positive changes and have an impact on the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. It has the capacity to transform synagogue members and the way synagogues view their ability to be involved in the fight for social change. Because FBCO follows a clear process, and because the synagogue work is supported by FBCO leadership and staff, the model is sustainable. Participation in FBCO does not have to take place at the expense of service-oriented projects like soup kitchens and clothing drives that synagogues already do well; in fact, it can complement them and make them more effective.

Building interfaith and interracial relationship

Participation also builds relationships across faith, class, and race that simply would not otherwise exist. These relationships are not only institution to institution, but also person to person, Jew to non-Jew.

Developing synagogue leader

Faith-based community organizing has the capacity to meet the needs of synagogues by developing and training leaders whose skills can in turn benefit the synagogue. Members are encouraged to attend local training sessions, as well as regional and national three-, five-, or ten-day leadership development trainings offered by the sponsoring network.

Bringing in new people in new way

Faith-based community organizing provides a new way for active or non-active members to get involved in synagogue life. It also brings in new members who are attracted to the synagogue because of the work. It becomes a source of pride for the congregationne of the key things members mention when they speak with others about their congregation.

Building community within the synagogue

FBCO builds community in the congregation by creating and strengthening relationships that bring a new dynamism to the synagogue.

Reducing vulnerability

Synagogue participation in FBCO ensures that the Jewish community is not isolated, and thus less vulnerable as a minority group in America. Building relationships results in strong allies.

Jewish clergy who have participated in FBCO cite numerous benefits to their own synagogues and to the broader community. Rabbi Mark Raphael, whose congregation is a member of Action in Montgomery (Maryland) says: t is easy to say why and how this work is so Jewish. He also notes that members who previously were not active in the synagogue have become active as a result. Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, whose congregation is a member of Omaha Together One Community, observes he Jewish world has placed so much recent emphasis on pirituality,sometimes to the detriment of social justice issues. My involvement in OTOC has enabled me to combine the two.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, whose congregation is a member of Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, says that participating in faith-based organizing has transformed his congregation and been the best experience of his career. Rabbi Israel Stein believes that his congregation involvement in Greater Bridgeport Interfaith Action in Connecticut as redeemed the congregation and my rabbinate. When he points out how his congregation has been on both the giving and receiving end of GBIA work, he captures the Jewish community healthy self-interest in this work. t also a whole lot of funsays cantor Jack Chomsky, who is active in Building Responsibility, Equality And Dignity in Columbus, Ohio adds, "It exciting, not medicinal. It is invigorating spiritually and emotionally.More information about the impact of FBCO on congregational development will be provided by a study, now underway, by Interfaith Funders (IF). IF, a national network of faith-based funders (including the Jewish Fund for Justice) is committed to advancing social change and economic justice through support of grassroots community organizing and community economic development. Five synagogues are included in the IF study.

Meeting the Challenges of Joining and Participating

Because participation in a faith-based community organizing requires us to enter a tradition and culture with which we are not familiar, it poses particular challenges to the Jewish community. Participation requires a purposeful, steadfast commitment on the part of the synagogue. Challenges will arise initially as the clergy, Social Action Committee, and Board of Directors decide to join, and then as active participation takes shape. The various challenges and ways in which some synagogues have met them are described below.

1. The religious differences between Christians and Jews; the cultural differences between churches and synagogue

Because Jewish participation in FBCO has been minimal, synagogues that participate enter an organizational culture that is largely Christian in nature. There are major differences in the ways that Christians and Jews relate to God, communicate their feelings about God, and give breath to their respective religions in other aspects of their lives.

Some FBCO groups are more educated than others about Judaism and its differences from Christianity. Because faith-based organizing uses religious values as a key impetus for motivating people to act, meetings often involve prayer or text study and reference the religious mandate to pursue solutions to community problems. Christian norms of prayer may be uncomfortable for Jews and may even trigger anxiety about the religious roots of anti-Semitism. Conflict also can surface about scheduling meetings and public actions and what kind of food is served at events.

Synagogues that handle this problem effectively do so by seeing it as an opportunity to open a dialogue within the organization and address the sources of discomfort. In a culture where relationships are key, synagogues can seize the opportunity to share their feelings with the group. Building relationships across faiths leads to the better understanding of religious differences and creating the trust needed to bridge those differences. One synagogue utilized this trust building so effectively that now, before each opening prayer; a statement is made that reflects respect for each person individual faith.

2. Systemic change takes time.

Since FBCO is based on the premise that issues cannot be won until relationships are created and power is amassed, a new group often takes a couple of years to build relationships and put together a strong organization before it ever chooses an issue to address. This modus operandi is different from typical Jewish social action projects, which are often one-time, direct-service opportunities such as serving meals, providing shelter, and donating clothingll activities that have a clear beginning and end.

Some synagogues report that they meet this challenge by changing the way in which they measure success. They have learned to value the relationships built as accomplishments in their own right, in addition to the eventual concrete insthat are achieved. They sustain participation by reminding themselves of their long-term vision for their synagogue and their community.

3. Synagogues lack experience with an organizing agenda on poverty issue

We are used to organizing most effectively for issues affecting the Jewish community (i.e. freedom for Soviet Jewry) or for money (funding for the state of Israel), not for a broad agenda on poverty issues.

Synagogues meet this challenge by educating themselves about the issues before they get into the process, often inviting guest speakers from the FBCO and experts on the issues to help orient them to the field. In addition, many synagogues have called upon their own members who work on poverty- related issues to help familiarize them.

4. The Jewish propensity toward individualism

Historically, Jews have an understandably negative reaction to authority and conformity. Jews do not like to sacrifice their individual liberty to be part of a group process, they value the ability to dissent. This can present a dilemma when the organization, through a consensus vote, takes a stance that may be contrary to the views of some synagogue members.

While an FBCO group may take a stance that is contrary to the views of some synagogue members, it generally would not take a stance that was contrary from the majority opinion within the congregation. Rather, faith-based organizing groups choose issues and take stances based on the consensus opinion of the participating congregations. Participating congregations find comfort in the democratic nature of the faith-based community organizing process, and in the relational culture that encourages people to share opinions openly and honestly.

5. Competing demands for time and energy

People lead busy lives and FBCO demands a time commitment from both clergy and synagogue members. In some instances, congregants may question why clergy are making FBCO a higher priority than other synagogue matters.

Some participating synagogues have done an exceptional job of bringing this work not just to the clergy, or to a committee, but to a larger group of synagogue members who commit to engaging in the work on an ongoing basis. Clergy participation is still necessary, but it requires less time because the effort is being driven by members who share the work with each other.

6. Competing financial priorities

As mentioned, congregations pay dues as members of a faith-based community organizing group. Paying to be involved in the work of social justice may seem like a foreign concept to synagogues, in contrast to the practice of many low -and moderate-income churches that either budget for social justice work or raise designated funds for it. In a climate of competing financial needs, it may be necessary to clearly establish up front the self-interest of the congregation. Sometimes saying, e don have the moneyis a smokescreen for other reasons why synagogue members do not want to join a FBCO group.

Many synagogue members believe that their congregation mission is based on three thingsorah (learning), avodah (worship), and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindness within the community). But when congregations examine their budgets, most realize that the majority of their funds go to torah and avodah, not gemilut hasadim. Paying dues to a faith-based community organizing groups should be viewed as an act that makes the congregation commitment to gemilut hasadim a reality.

Those congregations that report initial difficulty in gaining approval from their Boards of Directors to pay dues also report that the paying of the dues actually helped their congregations. Paying dues created a stronger sense of congregational commitment to the faith-based organizing process and greater sense of accountability to the Board to demonstrate how the congregation was benefiting from involvement.

7. Tensions between middle-income and low-income communities

Broadly speaking, members of the upper and middle class have to confront fears caused by stereotypes when they meet low-income people or enter low-income areas. Similarly, low-income people have misconceptions about middle- and upper-income folks.

These tensions initially feel real to participating synagogues. But the process and culture of the one-to-one meetings that permeate the faith-based community organizing process very quickly break down these tensions and create a level playing field. As people get to know each other individually, they discover their shared humanity and values. They see each other as people rather than as members of a class or group and learn to appreciate each other unique experiences and shared concerns.

8. Different orientations of suburban and urban congregation

Historically FBCOs have been most successful at recruiting urban synagogues or those based in close-by, first-ring suburbs. The more suburban the congregation is, the less likely it is to feel a strong connection to the city. Every congregation needs to determine its own self-interest in participating in faith-based community organizing.

Recently, more and more FBCOs have started to work on a metropolitan or regional basis rather than focusing just on the inner city. These groups lend themselves particularly well to participation on the part of suburban congregations, whose self-interest is evident.

Synagogues that can move beyond the challenges described above, can accept that everything about their participation may not be perfect, and can believe that the benefits of participation far outweigh the costs, will reap the rewards of participation.

In Conclusion

Faith-based community organizing is a way for Jews to answer the calls of the Shofar year round. It is Torah in motion. It is one antidote to some of the problems that ail American Jewry and synagogue life today, and thankfully, it is catching on fast.

Through faith-based community organizing, we can fulfill the Jewish community age-old mandate to build community, pursue justice, and complete the world. In doing so, we sustain ourselves, our communities, and our God.


Warren, Mark R. and Wood, Richard L., Faith-Based Community Organizing: the State of the

Field—A report of the findings of a national survey conducted by Interfaith Funders, January 2001, Published by Interfaith Funders.

no author. 2001. aith-Based Community Organizing: Building Democracy for the New Millennium Published by Interfaith Funders.


1. This paper is a publication of the Jewish Fund for Justice, 260 Fifth Avenue, Suite 701, New York, New York 10001 (212) 213-2113, fax (212) 213-2233,,

2. The section of this paper that describes faith-based community organizing was taken with permission from a publication entitled aith-Based Community Organizing: Building Democracy for the New Millennium 2001. Published by Interfaith Funder

About the Author

Lee Winkelman is a program officer at Jewish Fund for Justice. Before becoming a funder he was a long time organizer in Massachusetts and a member of the strategy team of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a FBCO group affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Julie Chizewer Weill is the Director of Education and Outreach at the Jewish Fund for Justice. For the past 10 years she has worked to strengthen synagogue life and deepen the Jewish community's commitment to social justice through her role at JFJ and through positions at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform movement) and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago.


From: Richard L Wood


I've read this paper already, think it's an excellent look at the Jewish experience of community organizing under the recent evolution of that model. Really worth a read, for its challenge both to the organizing world to better understand synagogues and to the Jewish community to recommit itself to concrete work for justice in American life.
--Richard Wood, University of New Mexico