ornate designs at b'nai jeshurun
All Programs

History of
Social Justice

Social Justice & Activism

BJ is a sanctuary congregation unequivocally committed to racial justice, economic justice, and environmental justice. We root our action in the social justice values of our Jewish tradition and text. We engage meaningfully with our neighbors of all faiths in New York City. We learn from one another and honor our diverse stories and experiences. We build relationships through individual and community dialogue and conversation. We concern ourselves with the needs of the BJ community, the Jewish community, and the city at large.

Be The Change

BJ maintains an awareness of and a concern for the challenges and injustices we encounter in our society. We can contribute to change and deepen our Jewish practice through this action.

Every day, many New Yorkers face real and immediate challenges that jeopardize their well-being. In our BJ community, we face hardships as well. In order for us to begin to address all of these issues, BJ looks for ways to work with diverse communities across race, class, and religious differences.

BJ recognizes that there are countless examples of injustice on a global scale. Our community is focusing locally to produce tangible solutions that contribute to broader social justice efforts. As a community, we are called to action, and as Jews we are obligated to respond. Our work together inspires spiritual searching, lifts our souls, and challenges our minds. We strive to experience and express God’s presence as we serve together.

Our History of Social Action

BJ has long believed that involvement in political action and social change efforts are at the heart of what it means to be a contemporary Jewish community. Since BJ’s refounding by Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer in the 1980s, we have been engaged in some of the most pressing social and political matters of the day as an expression of our faith values:

  • Opening our doors to gay and lesbian Jews during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when many other religious institutions were rejecting the LGBTQ+ community;
  • Founding a women’s shelter, which operates to this day, in partnership with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew;
  • Launching a community organizing initiative called Panim el Panim in 2003 and helping to pass legislation such as the Marriage Equality Act and the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights;
  • Lobbying to extend labor protections to migrant farmworkers;
  • Protecting the environment by greening our own supply chain and participating in local campaigns and national demonstrations.

Most recently, we have responded to the issues of immigration and refugees by founding the Synagogue Coalition on the Refugee and Immigration Crisis, and have launched a racial justice initiative that seeks both to engage in external political campaigns and to look internally at how racial dynamics play out in our own diverse BJ community. Nearly all of this work happens in deep partnership with other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations, a testament to our belief in the power of relationships and interfaith collaboration.

Community Organizing & Advocacy Initiative

In 2003, BJ took a giant leap forward in our commitment to working for social change as a Jewish community when we launched Panim el Panim, our congregation-based community organizing and advocacy initiative. Panim el Panim came into being as a way to fulfill the dream of engaging a wider spectrum of our community in our passion for social action and social justice. It came as a response to the need to mobilize our community to take action around advocacy work that could make a difference not only on the individual level, but also at the level of the systems and structures, laws, and policies that create suffering and injustice. It came as a response to seeing ourselves as a force of power and faith in our city, state, and country.

Panim el Panim (in Hebrew, face to face”) has brought hundreds of our community members together to have serious conversations about what angers us, which problems we encounter in our city and state, and what moves us personally to pursue social 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. 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 kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.

Manhattan Together

Manhattan Together, a local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), currently has 24 member institutions, mainly religious congregations from black Baptists to Latino Catholics to white Episcopalians, as well as SAJ, West End Synagogue, Central Synagogue, Rodeph Sholom, East End Temple, and Town & Village Synagogue. Common Ground and Picture the Homeless, organizations focused on housing and homelessness, are also member institutions.

Previously, “Upper Manhattan Together,” an IAF coalition that is part of the current “Manhattan Together,” gave BJ some assistance in 2003 as we created Panim el Panim. Manhattan Together uses the same model of congregation-based community organizing (CBCO) that we use, which makes it a good fit for our participation. BJ has been on the leading edge of a growing national trend for synagogue involvement in CBCO, and joining a CBCO coalition is our next exciting step forward.

Presently, BJ members participate on the Manhattan Together Strategy Team, the umbrella body that looks at overall work being done and assures that strategies chosen can result in action.

Contact Us