Don’t Just Do It, Do It Justice

By Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein | Issue Date: January 2013

At the 2009 rally with Atria Assisted Living residents about resident housing costs and working conditions. From left: Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein, BJ member Hilda Greenberg, and Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal.Ten years ago, we were invited and challenged by a group of BJ members to rethink the old model of rabbinic leaders as the sole drivers and messengers of the synagogue’s core social-justice vision. Maybe it was passé for us, as the rabbinic leadership, to go it alone. We had a rich history of engagement, and Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer’s legacy as a human-rights activist remained in the hearts of our congregants. After all, our homeless shelter and lunch program were a demonstration of our community commitment to tikkun olam (repair of the world).

The way we operated had been successful for a time, but striving for systemic change required thinking outside of the box. A group of revolutionaries in our community was headed by Kathleen Peratis, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, and our newly appointed Director of Social Action Amanda Silver. They traveled to Temple Israel in Boston with the goal of learning about another congregation’s experience with Congregation-Based Community Organizing (CBCO): an alternative way of thinking about social-justice issues, community organizing, and advocacy.

Our revolutionaries returned with renewed energy and convinced that this was the right direction for the congregation. When they first presented the principles of the model, it seemed almost oxymoronic. The emphasis on sharing stories and “listening campaigns” seemed to go against all we had been teaching. Our central modus operandi had been to identify a problem and to just go for it: “Just do it.”

To think that we had to embark on a long process of engaging in conversations felt, at the beginning, like a waste of time; we thought, “Are we just going to be talking instead of doing?” That would be a desecration of our obligation to make change. Our fear was that we would not have an impact. Thus, with a little hope and vision, we embarked on a journey together that would have an impact beyond our expectations.

Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein at the Equality and Justice Lobby Day for Marriage Equality with Empire State Pride Agenda, Albany, Spring 2009.We were asked by these amazing and visionary community organizers to make a leap of faith and to trust the process. They did incredible research and showed us the complexities, depth, and benefits of a model of community advocacy built on broad participation and relationship. The congregation that we were used to leading was asking us to trust that this process would open a new world for us.

There was also a sense of awe in us; we felt a sense of empowerment with the possibility that a prophetic, redemptive vision could arise from our community and our members’ many voices. To embark in true dialogue between partners about what the future might hold felt very exhilarating.

Hence, with some fear and a lot of love, excitement, and trust we jumped in to community organizing and advocacy, Panim el Panim (face to face).

Panim el Panim has become one of the most important and fundamental of B’nai Jeshurun’s initiatives. It has shaped the way we think about social justice and also how we think about ourselves. It has brought to the surface the stories that we carry behind our actions; it has made us tighter as a community.

In the introduction to the Panim el Panim manual that documents the early years, Roly, Felicia, and I wrote:

Panim el Panim—in Hebrew, face to face—has brought hundreds of our community members together to have serious conversations about what moves us personally to pursue justice. Through these conversations, we tell each other our stories. Memories are awakened and passions are expressed. We are moved by each other to become more involved and to take ownership of our responsibility. We become accountable to each other to not just sit on the sidelines, but to become actively engaged. We build trust that enables us to act together, and with each and every person who engages in communal action, we grow our capacity to make change, and we become a movement of power. By giving voice to our deepest values and hopes for justice in our world, for ourselves and for others, we become able to act together to move toward that prophetic, redemptive vision. We walk farther along our spiritual path of becoming a kehilla kedoshah, a holy community.

For thousands of years, we as a Jewish people have been telling the story of our liberation from Mitzrayim/Egypt. The tradition teaches, “behold, it is praiseworthy” to expound on that story at the seder, the ritual meal of Passover. Why is it praiseworthy to retell and expand the story of this liberation from bondage? We believe that the story awakens us, so that we grasp the blessing of freedom and recognize that so many in the world are yet to be free. We will tell and retell our stories over and over again, with the hope that they will awaken our passion not just to speak, but to act, as a community in partnership with each other and God to create a more just world.

In their book Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society, Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers write: “We believe that there is a greater need than ever for leaders to meet and genuinely ‘think together’—the real meaning of dialogue. Only through creating such opportunities can there be any hope of building the shared understanding and coordinated innovative action that the world desperately needs.”

Ten years is a time to be grateful, for the original leaders of this initiative, the hundreds who participated in our community conversations, in the hevra meetings, in the actions that followed the meetings. We are grateful for the leaders of today: Director of Social Action and Social Justice Channa Camins; Larissa Wohl; the Panim el Panim Task Force, skillfully headed by Judith Trachtenberg and Jamie Emhoff; and all of the members for their love and commitment to the community. We are a better community because of Panim. We have been creating new memories as we talk, as we meet, and as we do.