Volunteers fuel congregations’ social action programs

I grew up at Leo Baeck Temple, a large Reform community in Los Angeles in the 1970s and ’80s. Then, as now, Leo Baeck was a hotbed of social action. Our founding rabbi, Leonard I. Beerman, was a compelling speaker and a brilliant orator who wove current events into his sermons like the blue threads in his tallis. Beerman and his colleague, Rabbi Sanford (Sandy) Ragins, were unapologetically and relentlessly political. Leo Baeck Temple didn’t just talk the talk: our congregation sponsored a Vietnamese boat family; bought a run-down hotel in Los Angeles’ skid row and rehabilitated it as low-income housing for homeless people; collected barrels of food for Mazon, the anti-hunger organization; rallied for nuclear disarmament; and participated in innumerable other projects.

For my parents, as for my brother and me, the message was clear: Judaism was inextricably linked with concern for the wider world. As Jews, we must engage ourselves in the issues of our time, and work to make the world more just.

More than 40 years later, that definition of Judaism still holds for me. So it’s interesting that, until recently, I wasn’t involved with social action (tikkun olam) projects at my current shul, Havurah Shalom. Havurah Shalom, which began in the late 1970s, is a participatory shul; in addition to paying dues, membership is also defined by each congregant’s involvement with some aspect of communal life. When I joined in 1990, I became one of Havurah’s congregational musicians. With my newly minted music degree in hand, I added my voice and guitar skills to Friday night and High Holiday services. I don’t recall any of the tikkun olam projects Havurah was working on at that time; I was too busy being a musician.

Flash forward to 1996. I returned to Portland after four years in graduate school back east and took up my accustomed place in Havurah’s musical community. For a few years, I was immersed in my work, as I slowly cobbled together a living in music. I didn’t have time or energy for much else.

But something else was holding me back from participating in tikkun olam at Havurah. I’m all about hands-on direct action, and some of Havurah’s projects, like debt relief in Ghana, although worthwhile, were too remote and removed from my life. And as a low-income Jew in a community of high-earning professionals with enough disposable income to travel to Africa, I couldn’t afford to participate.

Two years ago, I was invited to join Havurah Shalom’s Tikkun Olam Committee because of my work helping to found Portland Tuv Ha’Aretz, Portland’s Jewish connection to sustainable, ethical food. I told the committee chair I wasn’t sure I was a good candidate since I’d never participated in previous projects. She replied, “Come join us and help shape the work we’re doing now.” Sometimes all it takes is an invitation.

Of the many projects and events I’ve worked on with Havurah’s TO Committee, I’ve been most fulfilled by the Shabbat services we’ve organized. Each service, which was preceded by a community dinner that featured seasonal local foods, highlighted a different aspect of tikkun olam. For our first series, we focused on the idea that tikkun olam begins at home. This past year we discussed the economic disparities and struggles within our own congregation, and how these problems can isolate congregants. We also talked about barriers to health care that affect members within and outside Havurah; at another service we discussed how eating sustainably and ethically are also Jewish activities. During this coming year, we’ll expand on what tikkun olam means. Possible topics include raising awareness about the global need for safe clean drinking water, and ways to help young adults find meaningful employment as they struggle with paralyzing student debt.

I’m grateful to have found a way to engage with tikkun olam again in a manner that is both personally significant and financially manageable for me. It’s a privilege to use my passion, skills and knowledge in essential work that, for me, defines what it means to be a Jew.

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