From Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel:
In 2018, students from Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI) journeyed to the South to learn about the American civil rights movement. The teenagers’ meaningful experience spurred a similar trip for adults in 2019, led by Rabbi Daniel Cohen and Cantor Rebecca Moses. That became the inspiration within the group to create a social justice task force at the Reform synagogue.
Today, about three dozen temple members are on the task force, which focuses on activism and community outreach to address the underlying causes of societal issues. The committee, chaired by Alison Oxman of South Orange, directed its energy this year toward voter registration and building awareness of the importance of voting in the presidential election, in a campaign that extended from New Jersey to North Carolina. Aaron Bernstein of Millburn led that initiative.
“Our congregation wanted an outlet to help in some way; they were hungry to do something actionable and measurable beyond more typical social action activities, which generally address the symptoms of issues,” said Oxman, a diversity and inclusion project manager who also volunteers with the Poor People’s Campaign. “Getting more citizens registered to vote was a big first step in getting out the vote among disenfranchised or underserved populations who need their voices heard.”
The TSTI team turned to the non-partisan consortium Reclaim Our Vote as well as SOMA Action for help developing a postcard writing campaign; 46 members eventually sent about 2000 handwritten postcards to North Carolina residents in July and August, with information about where and how to register to vote and get local voter information.
“From an external outreach perspective, the postcard activity helped people feel like they were engaged in something important. As an inreach project, we brought 46 people together to make a meaningful contribution through a shared interest,” said Bernstein.
The Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism was instrumental in TSTI’s subsequent “get out the vote” campaign, implemented in the wider community as well as internally among temple members. RAC provided information and training on phone banking to mobilize votes and combat voter suppression, with volunteers asking people to confirm they were registered to vote in their precincts.
TSTI also participated in RAC’s national civic engagement campaign this fall to be a 100% voting congregation. There were prominent daily reminders in temple emails with a link to register to vote and a commitment form that encouraged members to vote as well as help turn out the vote among family and friends. FAQs and information leading up to the voter registration deadline, as well as timely updates regarding mail-in ballots, were shared on the TSTI Facebook page and in emails.
“With college and high school students voting for the first time, and elderly members who might not have been aware of all their options, we wanted to make sure that everyone was fully informed, and combat the perception that individual votes don’t matter,” said Bernstein.
Temple president Max Weisenfeld said, “I’m so impressed by how well this team can do this valuable and important work in any time, but that they have been so successful at launching this meaningful work in these difficult times is a tribute to their dedication and passion.”
Looking ahead to public policy
The social justice task force is now exploring various public policy issues to work on, including racial and economic matters and climate change. Oxman and Bernstein are reaching out to other groups in the area to get involved but note that education must first start at home.
For example, on Yom Kippur, the group offered a breakout session on bias called “Expanding our World, Finding Commonalities” that Oxman, a 10-year temple member, designed. It included short videos about first impressions and inherent biases, spotlighting the importance of finding commonalities between those with different world views and of reducing unconscious microaggressions. TSTI also partnered with Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston to present a Selichot program with author Marra Gad, who discussed her book, “The Color of Love,” which details her experiences as a Black woman and a Jew, and the many prejudices she has faced.
“Educating our community about these blind spots is the start of an advocacy agenda. From there, we can develop and strengthen relationships with other groups and communities and reduce the idea of ‘the other’,” said Oxman. “Together, we are stronger, and we can work more productively on the underlying causes of issues facing us today.”
Rabbi Allie Klein has worked closely with the task force since the spring on racial justice education, which gained momentum after the murder of George Floyd. She facilitated an anti-racism book club to help members gain an informed foundation from which to engage in the work. She noted that the group is also getting more involved with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
“There is a big vision here to be more outward looking and build a program that supports TSTI’s strong tradition of direct service to others. We need both the social action and the work for justice and systemic change to fulfill on our commitment to repairing the brokenness of the world around us,” said Klein.
“We need to up our social justice game and this talented, motivated group is taking the time to talk about issues and methodology, with the guidance of RAC and the ADL,” said Rabbi Cohen. “TSTI’s social justice task force is about a world view that seeks inclusion and respect of everybody, and working beyond our community to be part of a larger context as well, which is more critical now than ever before. It’s about the enfranchisement of all.”