Turning Learning Into Action

by Rabbi Jared H. Saks

Last March, I traveled with nine teens from Congregation Bet Ha’am, along with a parent chaperone, to Washington, DC to participate in the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar with the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC). Our teens lobbied our members of Congress on climate change, criminal justice reform, disability rights, and gun violence prevention, bringing their Jewish voices to Washington to effect change for themselves and future generations. That trip was my seventh L’Taken Seminar, my second with Congregation Bet Ha’am. L’Taken is one of the most powerful experiences of my rabbinate. The opportunity to watch our teens grow over a four-day seminar with peers from across the country, tackle an issue that tugs at their heartstrings, and craft and deliver powerful lobbying speeches on Capitol Hill never ceases to bring me to tears. It is in those moments that I most fully believe in our ability to bring about tikkun olam, the repair of our world.  

The RAC is the political justice arm of the Reform Judaism, founded in 1961, largely in order to further the Jewish community’s work in the Civil Rights Movement of that decade. As the RAC’s website indicates, “For nearly six decades, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) has been the hub of Jewish social justice work. As a joint instrumentality of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we represent the values of the largest and most diverse Jewish Movement in North America. The RAC mobilizes around federal, state, and local legislation; supports and develops congregational leaders; and organizes communities to create a world overflowing with justice, compassion, and peace.” 

On this most recent trip to Washington, though, I found myself wanting more, believing that as a rabbi I was capable of greater impact than bringing a group of our teens to Washington every couple of years. I knew that our congregation was more capable of effecting change in our world, but that I needed to develop the skills to lead greater work in tikkun olam, social justice, and social action. That was when I decided that I would apply to become a fellow with the Rabbi Balfour Brickner Clergy Seminar and Fellowship Program, a program of the RAC. Rabbi Brickner, after whom the program is named, served as co-director of the National Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism). He was an outspoken advocate on key political and social issues, including race relations, reproductive rights, and the Vietnam War. The Brickner Fellowship is designed to train rabbis and cantors in social justice and social action work so that we can deepen our foundation and build skills necessary to make us more effective advocates and to better lead our congregations in the work of tikkun olam.  

At the end of August, I applied for the Brickner Fellowship and want to share with you some of what I wrote in my application: 

“Social justice has been a cornerstone of my Jewish life and my encounter with God from before I knew it. I was raised at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey with Rabbi Joel Soffin who inspired us with his own activism and the wisdom of Danny Siegel. I have come to believe that in the 21st century, one of the most important and unique opportunities that our synagogues have to offer, that our members may not be able to get elsewhere, is the ability to harness our collective power to effect real change in the world through the lens of Judaism and our relationship with God. Where I struggle now is in how to build the skills that will make this work a cornerstone not only of my personal Jewish life, but also of my rabbinate and in the life of my congregation. 

“All too often, I have preached about causes of social justice, encouraged congregants to take action, but have failed both in mobilizing my congregation fully and actually showing up, myself, to do the work. I look forward to the Brickner Fellowship’s teaching me the skills to lead by example and to activate my congregation in the work of social justice. I look forward to learning how to prioritize this work, even as I successfully fulfill the other responsibilities of my rabbinate. I look forward to becoming part of a cohort and community of colleagues dedicated to this holy work so that I can glean wisdom from them that will empower my rabbinate and, hopefully, also will be able to share my wisdom. 

“Years ago, I learned about the dual footprints of tikkun olam, which are tzedek and tzedakah, the justice work to create systemic change and the acts that address immediate need. I regret that I don’t remember now from whom I learned these principles first. My congregation is generally good at tzedakah. But we fail at tzedek. Being part of the systemic change is not work that we are doing. Over the eight years that I’ve been serving Congregation Bet Ha’am, I have wrestled with this and felt overwhelmed in my attempts to mobilize the congregation. It is my hope that, if accepted, the Brickner Fellowship and ultimately bringing a delegation from my congregation to the Consultation on Conscience, will teach me, my lay leaders, and my congregation more broadly, the skills, knowledge, and wisdom to do the work that I believe we are called to do in this world.” 

I am delighted to share that just before the High Holy Days, I received word that I was accepted into the Brickner Fellowship. In January, I will travel to Maryland to participate with colleagues in a four-day retreat that will include training around leadership, community organizing skills, and community building. Over the next year and a half, I will engage in monthly online learning sessions with colleagues and receive guidance through cohort-based support to transform my learning into action. In the spring of 2021, I will attend the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience, a three-day social justice leadership conference in Washington, DC. I am expected, as you read above, to bring a delegation from Bet Ha’am. I hope you’ll consider joining me. I look forward to leading you and working alongside you in this important task. 

Image via Unsplash.

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