We Were Transformed and Strengthened, and So Was The World: Celebrating 10 Years of Panim el Panim
If you asked a New York City Council member, New York State senator or Assembly member, or even a U.S. senator from New York about B’nai Jeshurun, what might they say? One thing they might say if they have engaged with us (or heard of us) is that BJ can have an impact. We can help move an issue. We have thoughtful members who are active and committed (even persistent) in their pursuit of justice. We show up and we are organized! How did we get this way? How did we earn this well-deserved reputation?
Ten years ago, B’nai Jeshurun was thriving after more than a decade of growth and innovation. BJ had become a spiritual home for many Jews on the Upper West Side and throughout New York City. BJ became a place that tested boundaries, that was not afraid to try new things, that through its inspiring leadership and willingness to act compelled hundreds and then thousands to live a Jewish life. BJ had begun to help us realize a Judaism that is relevant in our daily lives.
I really appreciated that Panim el Panim focused on tangible goals. It energized the work we were doing, and it gave us a sense of hope. In a number of cases, we achieved our goals, and of course, that felt great! The passage of the Same Sex Marriage Act in Albany was especially thrilling.
— Ruth Jarmul, former member Women’s Rights and Marriage Equality Hevras
Then, in 2003 a group of 20 BJ members, led by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Kathleen Peratis, set out to reach new heights and deepen our congregation’s capacity and power to contribute to positive change in New York City. Together they founded a new initiative for community organizing and advocacy that they called Panim el Panim (face to face).
They recognized that our commitments as a community, at the time, lay mainly in direct service and decided they wanted to develop the capacity to change the systems and structures that necessitated our service. Serving people, meeting their immediate needs, alleviating suffering today is a responsibility.
Nevertheless, they asked themselves, “What about advocacy?” Could we serve the homeless and at the same time attempt to influence the laws, public policies, and resource allocation in the city and state institutions and structures that affect people’s lives and cause homelessness? This group of lay leaders was convinced it was possible for our community to contribute.
Through the Marriage Equality Hevra, I became acquainted with my City Council Representative, my State Senator, and my State Legislator. We now know each other by name. Isn’t it amazing that I live in the largest city in the United States, but have real relationships with the people who represent me? — Joe Antenson, current member Panim el Panim Task Force, former member Marriage Equality Hevra
This type of advocacy depends on people, and therefore it depends on community organizing. So, the first thing that Panim el Panim did in 2003 was to launch a listening campaign, in the model of Congregation-Based Community Organizing (CBCO). Our small band of early Panim leaders trained in how to have intentional one-to-one meetings to hear people’s stories and initiate public relationships. Over the course of three months, they proceeded to have 613 conversations with BJ members. They engaged people one on one, in house meetings, and in a large listening event with over 200 people. The excitement and energy were palpable as the community tried something new and meaningful.
We listened and we shared our own stories. Stories emerged about mothers who brought their children or grandchildren to march on Washington in 1963. Stories about parents who grew up poor and learned how to advocate for themselves. Stories about fighting back against unfair tenant laws. Stories about a homeless person we spoke to on the street for years and what that person taught us.
Stories about why we were pro-choice and how someone we knew had suffered before Roe v. Wade. Stories about how segregation and inequality in our neighborhoods and schools affected us. Stories about the actions of our parents who survived the Holocaust. Stories about the Vietnam War and antiwar movements. Stories about a b’nai mitzvah and what it meant to us. Our collective memory led the way forward.
This was the first of four listening campaigns that Panim el Panim has conducted over the past 10 years. Each listening campaign allowed us to discover which social-justice issues to pursue. After each listening campaign, we reported back to the entire community. Then we formed or maintained a “hevra” that could pursue a specific campaign goal after a period of research and identifying good external partners. Hundreds of BJ members have participated in community conversations over these 10 years. Each step of the Panim process required our volunteers to learn new skills: one-to-one conversations, facilitating meetings, researching an issue as well as who are the various players working on that issue, determining what form of advocacy is warranted for the issue (for example, meeting with elected officials, planning events to educate our community, working with diverse constituencies within BJ, etc.), and working in coalitions to consolidate our power.
If Panim had started and ended with the 20 lay leaders who helped us to get started, we would not have accomplished much more. But in fact it did not end. Panim developed a rhythm and momentum of its own. We have been able to learn, grow, and change over 10 years. We developed clear processes. We developed a structure for our committees. We met and engaged new people. We had support from BJ’s rabbinic leadership and Board of Trustees. We developed clear criteria for what made a good campaign for BJ. We managed leadership transitions with grace.
Our volunteers took turns offering divrei Torah or facilitating at every meeting. We learned to laugh together and came to care about one another. We each found ways to contribute. We found community.
My world exploded and blossomed with connections, dinners, and meetings with so many different people. I didn’t realize how much I was learning and what a privilege it was to have these challenging and often overwhelming opportunities.
— Elizabeth Weiss, former Co-Chair, Environmental Action Hevra
Panim has had its share of frustrations (often due to the slow pace of social change) and successes. We have experienced a great deal of sadness and fatigue when our campaign goals are thwarted or stalled. At times, our campaigns have failed as the political landscape shifts or the status quo prevails. But we have learned to pick ourselves up, dust off our advocacy energy, and start anew, returning to BJ members for insight and thoughts on the path forward. The immense gratification that comes from our successes is matched by our deep sense that we, BJ members, had made a real difference. We have not completed the task, but by embracing the challenge to work together, face to face, we have made, and continue to make, a real impact on the world around us. Panim el Panim became an incubator for new stories and memories that we want to share.
We hope you will join us this year in celebrating 10 years of community organizing! Panim el Panim is excited to face new challenges and will continue to thrive with the participation of many BJ members.
For me the highlights are seeing that an idea can become a transformative reality, that people can become deeply involved through conversations and a sound organizational structure. And through that process I made very close and lasting friendships across generations—feeling more at home when I walk into shul. I think my biggest organizational thrill was the first time we presented to the whole community the results of our 613 campaign, with the stories, the festivity, the deep sense of community. And of course the first event we held for the NYC community [on the Health Care Security Act] that was so well produced, so well attended, and so impactful. It made me so proud to be a member of the BJ community.
— Rabbi Rachel Cowan, former Co-Chair, Panim el Panim Task Force and BJ Board Member
Panim el Panim cultivated the leadership skills, Jewish identity, self-confidence, and political empowerment of so many BJ members. It did those things for me, too! What a privilege and a pleasure to have been part of this movement. May it live to be 120!
— Guy Austrian, former Director of Social Action/Social Justice
A truly memorable milestone for me centered around the excellent work accomplished in the early months of 2006 to establish criteria for upcoming campaign selection and evaluation. I believe that [this] initiative [was] transformative and a reflection of the huge momentum that Panim el Panim had achieved since its inception. (Feel free to quote me on that!)
— Susan Kippur, former BJ President, Board of Trustees
One of my fond memories is of going with Rachel Cowan to St. Cecilia’s on 106th St. and listening to a nun describe how their community advocacy efforts had made a difference to local residents.
— Ted Becker, former BJ President, Board of Trustees
I have been a member of BJ since 1986, and until I joined Panim I didn’t connect or know my fellow congregants. My husband and I attended services and longed for a way to get to know fellow members. Panim has given me a life and family within BJ. I am proud to be the current chair of the Economic Justice Hevra, a Task Force member, and part of a community of people dedicated to the same values as mine.
— Sandy Cheiten, Chair, Economic Justice Hevra
Being part of Panim el Panim was fun! It also changed my life.
For the first time since my Bar Mitzvah I did Jewish. I studied Torah, interpreted, and gave a drash.
I studied the brokenness in our community.
I shared my story and listened to others.
I wrestled with Torah and wrestled with how to make our world a better place.
I celebrated Shabbat and the holidays as if for the first time.
Messages of rest, restoration, reflection, gratitude, accountability, and responsibility for a more just, fair, and compassionate world spoke to me about who I wanted to be and the world I wanted to build.
We met, we noshed, we drank seltzer, we learned, we wrestled, we engaged civically and spiritually.
We partnered with other faith communities, unions, businesses, and nonprofits.
We acted together to bring health care to New Yorkers, to fight for same-sex marriage, to make our community and city greener.
We were transformed and strengthened, and so was the world, in big and small ways.
And it was good.
— Benjamin Ross, Former Co-Chair of Panim el Panim Task Force and BJ Board Member
• Four listening campaigns in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2011 involving hundreds, if not thousands, of BJ members
• In 2005, New York City Council passes the Health Care Security Act, Introduction 758-A four months after 700 people pack the sanctuary of B’nai Jeshurun to ask for support from City Council Speaker Gifford Miller
• 500 people and 22 clergy of various denominations attend Civil Rights and Sacred Rites: an Interfaith Gathering for Marriage Equality: Sharing Our Faith in Prayer and Action at B’nai Jeshurun
• During 2005, BJ’s Environmental Action Hevra participates in a campaign that culminates in a unanimous vote in NYC Council to approve Resolution 0762-A recognizing and supporting the efforts of organizations that work to increase consumer awareness of and commitment to poor farming communities around the world through Fair Trade
• In 2007, we enroll 100 households in the “Greening BJ” campaign to encourage sustainable practices at the synagogue’s facilities and in members’ households, and BJ rededicates its Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) by converting it to renewable solar power through a solar panel on the roof
• BJ becomes an official member institution of Manhattan Together in 2008, a new interfaith coalition for congregation-based community organizing. We host a Manhattan Together Assembly in 2008, bringing more than 700 people from the entire coalition (including 200 BJ members) to our sanctuary to hold mayoral candidate Comptroller William Thompson, accountable on affordable housing and immigrant rights
• BJ members go to Albany for Equality & Justice Lobby Day to facilitate and hold meetings with elected officials in 2008, 2009, and 2010
• In 2010, 100 people participate in a Social Justice Shabbaton organized entirely by the Panim el Panim Task Force
• Over 350 people attend a Town Hall Gathering with U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand – NY in the Spring of 2010
• In the fall of 2010, over 100 BJ members participate in a “wedding march” over the Brooklyn Bridge for Marriage Equality
• BJ’s Domestic Workers Rights Hevra and Employers for Justice Group contribute to the passage of the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the summer of 2010
• In 2011, New York State finally passes Marriage Equality and over 200 people come to celebrate at B’nai Jeshurun, and we are recognized by elected officials and our partners at Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) and Marriage Equality New York (MENY) for our contribution and leadership in the statewide campaign
• In 2012, the new Aging in New York Hevra launches an education series called Aging Wisely: Practical and Spiritual Tools for the 21st Century. Over 120 people attend our first event with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Rabbi Marcelo R. Bronstein to explore our hopes and fears for aging.
• In the fall of 2012, the Economic Justice Hevra participates in the final push for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, Introduction 251-A, to provide living wages for workers in businesses where private developers receive city subsidies from tax payer dollars. The bill passes the city council with a wide margin, in spite of mayoral veto.
• Aging in New York Hevra launches an elder-care dialogue and workforce development campaign to improve the quality of care and training for both workers and consumers with partners from Adhikaar, Damayan, Domestic Workers United (DWU), Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and Manhattan Together.
Face-to-Face Conversation and Stories
We set out to engage in meaningful conversation and hear stories and concerns from our community that would be the basis for our collective action. We know that we want this initiative to be organic to BJ members, emerging from the actual, real, pressing concerns of our own congregants. We will listen to discover the shared issues, values, and social concerns that motivate and inspire us as congregants.
Relationships, Accountability, and Power
We set out to magnify our power by building lasting relationships among BJ members and between our community and our elected officials. We want to enable BJ members to gain access to, and a voice in, our civil society.
We set out to develop specific, actionable, and measurable goals for our advocacy campaigns in order to have an incremental impact on a problem. We want to organize our efforts based on the reality of “what is” and on the thoughtful, concrete proposals for coming one step closer to “what ought to be,” a just and decent society.
We set out to collaborate with organizations in New York City with whom we share common values or goals, across difference.
Thoughtful Leadership and Openness to Learning
We set out to grow individually and collectively, by committing ourselves to learning new skills and providing opportunities for new people to do the same. We want to become thoughtful and effective lay leaders. We want to be able to reflect on our work, to hear feedback, and to continually strive to do better.
We want to engage in participatory decision-making that empowers people.
Action Grounded in Spiritual Engagement and Reflection
We wanted to ground our actions in Jewish text and teachings. We set out to explore our Judaism through the interplay between study, action, and reflection.
Impact and Passion
We set out to participate in the life of New York City as a Jewish community with a passion for justice and a willingness to act.