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CONGREGATIONAL COMMUNITY ORGANIZING


Congregational (faith-based) community organizing (CCO) is a method for strengthening Judaism and congregational community. CCO recognizes that American Jews experience pressures and disappointed hopes in their day-to-day lives, and that the temple and synagogue are largely irrelevant to them. The pressures and disappointments can't be ignored, however; they push people to spend significant time and energy in seeking relief; and when they don't find it in Judaism and a congregation, they go elsewhere to meet their needs.

CCO is designed to help a congregation become relevant by gathering members who can act together to build community and do mitzvot that will relieve the pressures and realize the hopes in their lives. To accomplish this, a congregation must develop many leaders—that is, it must raise up gatherers who can create a series of openings (kharakim) to the deepening of relationships and the doing of mitzvot, and help people through those openings.

Through this process, congregational community organizing leads to the awesome experience of acting for the good with many others in a congregational community

Challenge in Relationships

The initial goal of congregational community organizing is to deepen relationships through which members of a congregation, guided by Judaism, can challenge one another to congregational action based on their pain and hope. We know that the success or failure of building Jewish congregational community is largely related to common action, but the foundation of such action is relationships that encompass knowing one another as neighbors. It is by talking about our deepest pain and hope that we discover our common humanity and our interest in common action based on shared Jewish beliefs.

Relationships are the keystone of community, but the practical behavior by which relationship-building and community-building are connected is challenge. The essential issue for Jews, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, is not what we want from God and Judaism, but what God and Judaism ask of us. We are being challenged. The recognition that we are needed is not for the sake of mindless religious sacrifice but to inject meaning and purpose into our lives.

It is through our free choice to respond to that challenge, to assume that responsibility as Jews toward our God and our fellow human beings, that we become fully human ourselves. In the words of Rabbi Heschel, we may trade the question, “What will I get out of life?” for the question, “What will life get out of me?” It is that shift in understanding—with its inherent challenge—that stimulates, motivates, and, ultimately, reinvigorates all religious life. It places before us the choice of whether we will regard evil not only as a threat but a challenge, recognizing that our creation in the image of God is, as Rabbi Heschel said, “not as an analogy of being but as an analogy of doing,” and thus have we been given an opportunity to “start working on this great work of art called . . . [our] own existence.”

Spirituality and Awe of God

The often disappointed expectation in much of organized Jewish religious life is that with the right prayer leader, liturgy, or kavannah, spirituality will be enhanced and worship will be beautiful and powerful. For many congregationally affiliated Jews, however, attendance at services is simply an obligation. We imagine that in the minds of most Jews who have religious convictions, the desire for deeply moving, God-connected worship is not usually related to the idea that one has acted, is acting, or is going to act in the world, in a common effort out of a common purpose and vision, with a community of Jews and with God—which is precisely what does make for consistently meaningful worship.

Our observation is that most modern Jews are in a crisis of faith. They do not believe there is anything substantial that they or their congregation or their religion or their God can do about what is wrong in the world in which they are living. We have been told by successful business executives, professionals, and academics—most of whom are wielding power and influence in their respective institutions—that it is not possible, even naive and pointless, to believe that their own faith, their congregation, their religion, and their God can make any practical difference in their lives or in their communities.

Our tradition teaches that the power of worship is proportional to one's awe of God. Awe of God is the compelling mystery in Judaism—not something to be unraveled, or a state of intellectual insight or consciousness, but a higher level of experience of many people in community acting with God. The central mystery in Judaism is our ability as a Jewish congregational community to create good in the world with God! It is that experience which is truly mysterious, and it is undeniably an awesome experience of God's power when many people are acting righteously as one.

Remedy for Klal Yisrael

We imagine that such congregational community organizing may be a small part of the remedy for the torn fabric of Klal Yisrael. Our understanding is that the remedy is not essentially intellectual. That is, we do not believe that if only we Jews all had precisely the right set of religious ideas, processes, or practices, we could heal the breach between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and the remaining non-affiliated, secular Jews. To the contrary, our hope for Klal Yisrael springs from the possibility of common action on issues of widely shared concern, guided by the Torah. We see little possibility for disparate Jews to agree on what to believe or practice Jewishly; we believe, however, that given the many common pressures in their lives they may well be able to agree on what to do and why to do it in the wider world. It is not a hypothesis but a tested and proven professional methodology in the last two decades. (For a detailed description of a congregational community organizing project, see Moshe ben Asher, “Faith Into Action—Community Organizing in Orange County, California,“ Organizing, 3(3/4):31-38, Fall/Winter 1992.)

Challenging All Jews

The questions asked by those who have converted to Judaism, by intermarried Jews, and also by disaffected and disaffiliated Jews—What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to live a Jewish life? What is the value and meaning of Jewish ritual?—are the same questions with which we need to challenge all Jews to deal with the absence of supportive community and the pressures in their lives by living Jewishly in a congregational community. The answers to these questions should not take the form of intellectual information or even guides to traditional practice, but should be put as challenges to act Jewishly as a congregation in dealing with the pressures of daily life.

Given the dimensions of needed Jewish congregational community development, there is no small group or combination of groups of Jews that can make a significant difference in dealing with the three-pronged Jewish crisis of faith, authority, and community. On the contrary, within synagogues and temples many members must be organized in action to deal with the massive numbers of disaffected, disaffiliated, and secularized Jews. Significant inreach must be launched before there can be outreach that is effective numerically, given the number of Jews who are out-migrating.

But synagogue and temple inreach must foster much more broadly based leadership development that also leads to outreach action in the wider community by the majority of synagogue members, based on their shared self-interests and Torah learning. The motivation of those already affiliated, to organize and reach out, notwithstanding their own doubts about and less-than-enthusiastic participation in congregational life generally, is likely to be their acknowledgment of the pressures in their own lives; many may have a desire to be a member of a Jewish community that deals with those pressures, based on Judaism. They must be challenged directly and individually to acknowledge the pressures in their lives and to act on them within the congregation and in the wider world—but as a Jewish congregational community.

Rebuilding Congregational Community

Given our understanding and analysis of Jewish "out-migration," that is, the historic modern movement of Jews away from Judaism and congregational life in 20th century, the solution strategy must aim to build or rebuild congregational community. An authentic congregational community, however, is not the same as a fellowship (a small number of like-spirited souls) or religious agency (a handful of active producers and a large number of passive consumers)—the models most of us know in congregational life.

A congregational community, by our definition, includes many people; they have long-extended, face-to-face relationships with one another; they have a shared history of responding to pressures and challenges in their lives; they have evolved sacred beliefs, values, customs, and ordinances together that guide their responses; and they have survived and succeeded as a body (and thus individually) by acting effectively on their common concerns and hopes, both as a congregational community and in the larger world.

We do not believe that the choice in fostering Jewish identity in congregational community is between offering the how-to of making Kiddush and home observance or teaching Jewish history, theology, or davening—although we value and teach these too. The more direct route to enlarging congregational community is through leadership development based on support, challenge, and accountability in relationships among many congregation members. This requires challenging individuals, one by one, to invest in building supportive community and to deal with the pressures and problems of their daily life by responding to the blessings and commandments of Torah. Jewish education in this approach is education for Torah-guided congregational action, both in the synagogue and in the wider world.

We have a generation of Jews that has not learned in any practical way that Torah is “a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy”—they have not learned a way of living in which Torah is the source of meaning, order, community, and ecstatic experience. These four missing pieces may be thought of as their unspoken “wants.” These wants can be satisfied when many members of this generation of Jews begin acting together for the common good of the their own congregations and the wider communities in which they live: that action is both the practical method and the desired outcome for achieving the Torah-derived satisfaction of their wants.

Acting Jewishly in the Wider World

To those who say let the non-Jews fix the problems in the wider world, we say: the congregation must be involved in the real pain and hope of its members, most of which is linked to their lives and experiences in the wider world. Consider: what is the result of failing to make Judaism and the congregation relevant to the day-to-day pain and pressures in the lives of Jews? We have thus removed the best incentive possible for their investment of spirit, time, energy, and money in congregational life. There is another undesirable consequence when organized Jewry acting in the name of Judaism is not a force in the wider world. We are not a light to the nations but a stumbling block, because we have failed to act on our Judaism in the public square; we have denied to the nations the opportunity to learn about the One God and the Torah.

There are those who say, “If we invest our time, money, and energy in the wider world, it will take away resources from Jewish education—and we cannot in good conscience do that.” We believe that the most compelling Jewish education occurs when one is living Judaism as an integrated part of daily life, not simply within the four walls of the beit knesset or beit midrash—but beyond, every day in the wider world. Why do we think this is the best Jewish education? Because the student has an inordinate incentive to learn—as in the shtetl—when the learning is connected to the pressures of daily life.

Judaism as a system for living is inherently enabling; it offers hope in dealing with all the demands and destructiveness of our everyday lives; it offers practical guidance for daily life; and it offers the potential to satisfy our deeper wants for meaning, order, community, and ecstatic experience. But achievement of those goals is not happening within most Jewish congregations because they have evolved into fellowships and religious agencies. The community has moved out of the congregation. In sum, if one opposes Jewish congregational community development and action in the wider world, where most Jews spend most of their lives, it should be clear that Jews will be prevented from relying on Judaism for answers to the most pressing problems in their lives, as they often are now, and that Judaism will be further undermined as a source for satisfying deeper wants.

Khevra shel Kharakim

The GTP approach to strengthening a congregational community typically begins with a series of initiatives that seek to deepen relationships and participation among members. The path is paved with organized opportunities for members to get to know each other better and to actively join in the life of a congregational family—parents and children, singles, and elders—all together.

Examples of GTP approaches to community-building include frequent use of readers' theatres in place of conventional devrei Torah (sermons) at services, thereby offering to many children and adults an opportunity to learn and teach together in a way that is both informative and fun. Another GTP approach to community-building is the weekly Rabbi's Tisch (literally, "table") and Formal (potluck) Dinner following Shabbat services (either Friday evening or Shabbat morning). These dinners create opportunities not just for informal socializing, but structured learning, singing, and personal sharing—all aimed to deepen the bonds of relationship and thereby strengthen community.

Congregational community organizing typically begins with a series of one-to-one visits by an experienced organizer, first with the rabbi, then with leaders and members of the congregation, followed by a series of three or four two-hour workshops. These workshops explore the “real world” of pressures and problems faced by members of the congregation, their vision of the local community if it were to be much more b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), the links between community problems that are “out there” and family problems that are “in here,” the role of the congregation in bringing “Days of Mashiach,” and practical training for home visiting. The workshops lead to the development of a khevra shel kharakim (literally, a group of the openings), a committee comprised of members of the congregation, typically numbering 15 to 30—which is followed by a series of home visits by the khevra with most other members of the congregation.

Khevra members meet regularly to talk about their experiences of visiting members of the congregation; and everyone is openly held accountable. Typical accountability questions include: How do you feel about what you did in your visit(s)? What did you do that worked well? What did you do that didn't work well? What did you learn about the person? Did you challenge the person in any way? How will you follow-up with that person? (Remember, the purpose of this initial inreach is relationship-building.)

When khevra members have themselves been challenged over time and they have responded, they are asked to reflect on their experience of building relationships in this way, and they are further challenged to challenge many others in the same way. This is the beginning of broadly based leadership development, that is, congregation-wide, relationship-driven leadership development through support, challenge, and accountability.

Congregational organizing committees, over a period of several months, may visit upwards of several hundred members of their own congregation, each member of the khevra visiting five to ten members of the congregation. They may also visit other congregationally unaffiliated Jews who share a common problem or issue-interest with members of the congregation. These visits are focused on getting acquainted (relationship-building), identifying pressures in daily life, and uncovering deeper concerns and hopes.

When a substantial numbers of visits have been completed and one or more widely shared concerns have been identified, members of the khevra in small-groups begin research actions to learn more about the identified areas of concern. A half-dozen or more members of the khevra set up meetings with local experts and decision-makers in the larger community to learn more about the problem and what institutional authorities are doing about it.

Moving into Action

When the khevra has made itself knowledgeable about a problem that is widely shared within the congregation, an action strategy is formulated—the khevra plans how to create openings so the congregation can do a mitzvah to achieve a solution to the problem the khevra has identified.

Such openings may involve: self-help, such as a clean-up day in a local park; advocacy, such as recruiting and training members of the congregation to regularly visit a local nursing home to “advocate” for elderly patients who cannot adequately defend their own interests; service, such as recruiting many members of the congregation to staff an after-school study hall for “latch-key” children; and accountability, such as bringing together many members of the congregation in meetings with local liquor store owners to hold them accountable for supervising and training their employees to ensure they are not selling liquor to minors. Accountability actions with decision-makers are also directed at public and non-profit organizations and institutions.

The numbers of people involved in the congregational community organizing process can be understood schematically as a set of expanding concentric circles. At the center is the smallest circle, occupied by the rabbi and the organizer; the next circle, somewhat larger, is occupied by the khevra of 15 to 30 members; the next circle is occupied by most of the congregation's members, numbering from 100 to 1000, when they take action together; and the next circle is occupied by those outside the boundary of the congregation to whom outreach may be directed, which conservatively can be estimated to be in the hundreds for a medium-sized congregation. The net effect of this process is broadly based empowerment of congregations for inreach, outreach, and action.


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Updated: 7/6/04