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Bringing Social Justice into Your Congregation
Though Judaism values taking an active role in the battles for social justice in the community at large, we cannot forget that we are also charged with creating righteous synagogue communities. There are a number of areas of synagogue life that should be considered when you are evaluating the tzedek that your congregation itself is modeling. Below you will find some suggestions to assist you in ensuring that your synagogue is a welcoming K’hilat Tzedek, a community of justice.
1) Accessibility- The temple should be a leader in assuring that disabled people have access to all synagogue functions, with ramps, special parking that is enforced, and access to all rooms. Hearing devices and ASL translation should be provided if needed. The religious school can also have special awareness sessions on what it is like to be disabled, both experientially and through presentations by children and adults. For more information on how to meet this important need, visit the department of Jewish Family Concerns website and explore the Lehiyot materials (http://urj.org/life/community/).
2) Community Investment- Community investment involves investing capital in the redevelopment of a community. It can be difficult for people in blighted communities to access credit necessary to fund restoration and redevelopment from traditional lenders. As a result, community groups and individuals have begun to take on that role. Capital that a congregation or other community group is looking to invest can be invested in a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). That CDFI can then make loans to members of the community and provide general banking services not available in many poor neighborhoods. Because money is repaid it provides a “double” return on the investment. Not only do investors benefit from the arrangement financially, but they also benefit by improving their community. More information about this concept and the opportunities for congregations and communities to become active in community investment as part of the Union’s Chai Investment Program (CHIP) is available in pdf form at: www.urj.org/csa/chip.pdf. Additional information can be found on the Shefa Fund website: www.shefafund.org.
3) Environmental Considerations- It is important to consider the impact your congregation is having on the broader environment through its purchasing and facilities management. Think carefully about energy conservation, waste reduction, recycling, landscaping, purchasing, transportation, and synagogue programming policies to determine if there is more that your congregation can do to promote environmental awareness. For an environmental audit of your community created by the Union’s Small Congregations Department, go to: uahc.org/small/pdfdl/greening.pdf. You may also wish to explore the website of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish life (www.coejl.org) .
4) Labor Matters-Synagogue employees should be treated fairly and paid a living wage for the work they are doing. Though there may be distinctions between contract and non-contract employees on the synagogue staff, all should be clearly informed of their responsibilities, salaries and benefits. Some questions that the synagogue personnel committee may wish to ask as it evaluates the compensation policies of the congregation are: Has our synagogue kept up with cost of living increases? Are the salaries of office and custodial staff competitive with those in our local labor market? Does our synagogue provide staff people with enough income and benefits so that their financial problems do not interfere with their doing the best work possible? (These and additional questions can be found in the Department of Synagogue Management manual, “And Keep the Paths of the Righteous”.
5) Outreach to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews- Synagogue life is often organized under the assumption that all of the members are heterosexual. Teen and young adult activities often create uncomfortable situations for GLBT youth. In order to create inclusive, diverse, and just communities, our congregations must consider the needs of GLBT Jews as we create synagogue programming. Kulanu: A Program for Congregations Implementing Gay and Lesbian Inclusion, is a publication of the Unions Department of Family Concerns. To order a copy of this manual, go to: uahc.org/jfc/inclusion.shtml.
6) Sensitivity to members with Financial Need- Congregations must ensure that they put into place fair and equitable systems of dues relief. Though it is also important to have a balanced synagogue budget, the temple should be held to high ethical principles and must serve its members regardless of their financial means. In addition to considering dues relief, congregations should be aware of the extra costs associated with participation in religious school, youth group activities, holiday programs, etc. Congregants experiencing financial strain may not be able to join in these programs without assistance. Methods that protect those congregants from embarrassment in such situations should be established. For suggestions in ways of dealing with these sensitive areas, download the Department of Synagogue Management Manual, “Who May Abide in Your House,” available at: uahc.org/synman/publications.shtml.