Panim el Panim Community Cafés Lead Us in New Directions

By Marcy Einhorn | Issue Date: July 2011

We are “… not obliged to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”                  — Pirkei Avot, 2:16

At the Community Café Celebration on April 13. Photo: Denise WaxmanWe heard you say:

The cost of health insurance is too high, especially the cost of COBRA and insurance for the self-employed; you value income diversity in our neighborhoods; you are struggling to navigate services and care for aging parents; we heard you say affordable housing is scarce, and you “can’t afford to leave or stay,” you are concerned for housekeepers, nannies, and elder-care workers.

You are angry about:

The high cost of food; a perceived lack of civility in public spaces; that New York State and our country deny the rights of same-sex couples to marry; you are angry about the threat to women’s reproductive rights; about attacks against Muslim Americans in our city; the loss of small businesses in the neighborhood; about the cost of basic health needs like eye drops and hearing aids; the problems of domestic violence and date rape; and you are angry about the cost of high interest rates on personal credit and all of the hidden fees.

You are worried about:

Aging in New York; about job availability and security; your children coming home with college degrees and not being able to find work and encountering a limited field of possibilities; you are worried about student loans overwhelming our young people; about anti-Semitism; budget cuts to senior services; insurance coverage for catastrophic illness; your own isolation or that of your friends living alone; people losing their homes due to high rent, high maintenance fees, or foreclosure; the growing gap between rich and poor in our city; slipping from the middle class; and your ability to retire someday; budget cuts and resulting layoffs.

You care about:

The quality of our drinking water in New York City and the risks of hydrofracking; the quality of New York City public education; access to quality food in all New York City neighborhoods; immigrant rights; well baby care; fair share taxation and living wages; you care about pedestrian safety at traffic lights and near bike lanes; accessible and public transportation; access to mental health care including supportive housing; and respecting teachers.

At the Community Café Celebration on April 13. Photo Credit: Denise WaxmanPanim el Panim is hopeful about what we can accomplish together.

“Please take your seats. We are ready to begin.”

With that call to action, Jamie Emhoff, co-chair of Panim el Panim kicked off this year’s Listening Campaign, which we called the Community Cafés. Every few years, Panim el Panim hosts listening campaigns as a way of gauging what social justice issues are of concern to the congregation. When Panim el Panim was founded eight years ago to do congregation-based community organizing, we held a series of 613 one-on-one meetings, which led to formation of four different hevras, or working groups, to address a variety of issues from an advocacy and organizing standpoint.

This year we tried a different model forlistening campaign. At each of the three Cafés, members were guided through a program that was designed to give everyone an opportunity to share their concerns, without judgment or criticism, in order to generate the clearest picture of the issues that are on BJ members’ minds. Members had a chance to move through three different conversations over the course of each evening with a facilitator and a volunteer to record the stories, ideas, and thoughts that were discussed. At designated times, the groups shifted to a new position in the room, leaving behind their comments for the next group to reflect on from a new perspective. In the first round we focused on issues and concerns in members’ daily lives, or those that their community struggles with, the things that keep them up at night, or that come up in conversation with friends and family. In the second round, participants were invited to share personal stories that speak to why they or others they know are affected by certain injustices. Powerful examples were shared around each table highlighting how deeply felt many of these issues are by the community. For the third round we changed gears by tasking each table with writing a vision statement for the ideal city and state. A participant reported feeling chills after reading her table’s piece: “We strive to live in a city/state where everyone has enough to eat, no one is lonely, everyone feels accountable to their community, where we consider the long-term effects of our actions and where we really listen to others as a way of gaining perspective and learning from each other.” At the conclusion of the three Cafés, volunteers gathered the notes and recorded impressions of each event and considered which issues had the potential for future campaign work.

Over 70 members gathered again on April 13 for the Community Café Celebration and Report Back event in the sanctuary. New York State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and New York City Council Member Gale Brewer opened the evening by reflecting back the power organized communities have in making change. They reminded us of the successful campaigns BJ has been involved with including the passage of the Health Care Security Act, making Plan B emergency contraception available to all city residents, and passage of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. We heard from several members who shared personal stories: Jamie Emhoff spoke about the profound impact Panim has made on her life and her personal connections to the Marriage Equality Hevra; Melanie Sherman spoke about the financial burden of caring for aging parents; Amy Lavine shared her fear around the high cost of housing; Ester Rose shared her concern for the unmanageable costs of healthcare; and I shared my experience with credit card debt and high interest rates. The message at the Report Back was one of hope about what we can accomplish together, and I left feeling inspired, hopeful, and proud of BJ as a congregation.

“So, what do we do next?” asked Judith Trachtenberg, co-chair of Panim el Panim. With that inquiry, Judith announced the creation of two new issue exploratory teams to expand BJ’s social justice work beyond the already hard-working Marriage Equality Hevra and the Affordable Housing Working Group. After a thorough review of the input at all three Community Cafés, it was decided to create two new teams to address issues of Aging in New York and Economic Justice.

The issue of Aging in New York is a response to the palpable sense of anxiety in the congregation about the many issues related to aging: taking care of aging parents, navigating benefits and services, accessibility to public spaces and transportation, and the ability to retire and live with dignity after work. Some work has already begun in the Upper West Side and other parts of the city that have been designated as Aging Improvement Districts, so this team will begin to explore what you would want to see in an age-friendly New York City and how that translates into an actionable campaign.

The Economic Justice Exploratory Team is an outgrowth of a small group that has been focusing on issues of usury and predatory lending. It will begin to research issues of high interest debt, living wages, ethical banking practices, unemployment, and financial education needs for BJ members.

Each of these groups will require the efforts of many members, and each will also give members the opportunity to learn about community organizing and work toward needed changes. Please be in touch with Channa Camins, Director of Social Action/Social Justice, if you would like to learn more about how to be involved.

Marcy Einhorn is an attorney, author, and motivational speaker in the area of consumer law. Marcy and her two adult children have been BJ members since 2009.