Arizona Institute for Public Life

Local groups join campaign for social change


Last month, as part of a delegation from Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, I participated in a remarkable national gathering that renewed my confidence in the ability of the American Jewish community to affect social change. Nearly 300 lay leaders, rabbis, and rabbinical students representing all facets of Jewish life gathered in Santa Clara, Calif., for K'hilot K'doshot: Holy Congregations, Just Communities," sponsored by the Jewish Funds for Justice. As a pluralistic group ranging from secular to Orthodox, we studied together, prayed together, and considered how to transform our communities through organizing for justice.

As described in a recent AJP article ("Commitment to ongoing social action transforms synagogue members," 2/3/07), congregation-based community organizing is a process that begins with congregants building relationships with one another and leads to congregations working with other institutions, across lines of race, class and faith, to confront injustice in their communities. Community organizing is an approach to social justice that was originally embraced by churches and labor unions. However, Jewish organizers have long been leaders in the movement, because the approach resonates deeply with Jewish values and practices.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer made the connection for me most clearly when she described her father's death. Spitzer grew up in a close-knit havurah in Los Angeles, a group that slowly moved apart after children had grown and left home. When her father died a few years ago, however, the members of that community each took their turn as part of the chevra kadisha (burial society), sitting with her father's body through the night and comforting Spitzer despite their years of separation.

Spitzer described that sense of holy obligation as "covenantal community," a commitment to supporting one another at times of deepest need, regardless of differences that might otherwise separate us. This is at the root of the Jewish notion of tzedakah (justice). But Spitzer argued that this vision of covenantal community also stands at the heart of American democracy. Our obligation as members of American society is to hold our nation's leadership ac-countable for maintaining that covenant. As we work to create nurturing Jewish communities, neighborhoods and families, we also must ensure that our government does not abandon responsibility for the health and welfare of its citizens.

In Tucson last month, this message was echoed at a powerful community summit convened by the Pima County Interfaith Council (PCIC) and sponsored by a number of community institutions including Jewish Family & Children's Service. On Feb. 23, 150 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El to begin a dialogue about the economic pressures that families face in the region today. They participated as representatives of over 75 institutions, including churches and synagogues, social service agencies, businesses, educational institutions and government.

Each participant brought expertise in and concern for particular issues of inequality in Tucson. The goal of the summit itself, however, was not to decide on a particular issue campaign but to consider a proposal for alliance-building and community dialogue. Participants agreed to begin this process by returning to our home institutions and conducting a series of focused conversations about the economic pressures that families face. We will reconvene in early summer, armed with detailed stories of the daily realities of families in our communities, and begin to negotiate an issues agenda that addresses the root causes of poverty and inequality in our region.

PCIC's membership currently includes two synagogues, Congregation Chaverim and Temple Emanu-El. Like many other synagogues in Tucson, our congregations are engaged in a variety of social action projects. Yet our involvement in PCIC provides a unique opportunity to strengthen our own communities while building relationships across the Tucson region. This campaign will help our congregations to explore the struggles that our own members face, even in communities we often think of as affluent. At the same time, it gives us the chance to understand the experiences of families from across the city, with whom we share a sense of hope for change. I invite other synagogues in Tucson to join us in this work of creating covenantal community.

Leah Mundell, Ph.D. is research and development coordinator for JobPath, a nonprofit career counseling and skills training program in Pima County. She may be reached at


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