Conference to help people link Judaism, social activism

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While talking loudly on a crowded subway car in Manhattan may annoy the likes of Miss Manners, for Ilana Schatz, it's sometimes social action.

"I remember the story of a woman in the subway who saw someone across the car she knew. She told the friend what she had been doing and educated the whole car about an issue in the process. She had a captive audience," said Schatz, director of the Poverty Action Alliance of the American Jewish Congress in San Francisco. "There are many levels of involvement that fit into any schedule."

Nonetheless, many people never get involved in volunteer work or activism. They find the arena daunting, unsure if they have the time, energy or finances to make a commitment.

Schatz hopes to dispel those myths at a workshop titled "From Charity to Justice: Translating Advocacy into Action." Hosted by the Poverty Action Alliance and co-sponsored by a number of Bay Area businesses and Jewish organizations, the Sunday, March 24 conference is geared toward increasing public involvement.

Professionals working in the nonprofit sector will offer skills and information during morning and afternoon workshops.

They will address such as issues as affordable housing and preventing homelessness, welfare reform, immigrant and refugee rights, health-care and senior issues, and economic development.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Santa Rosa) will give the keynote address.

Petitions and mailing lists will be circulated throughout the day, and speakers will offer advice on writing letters to legislators and giving public testimony.

The speakers range from Jewish community professionals to unaffiliated Jews and non-Jews working in the secular nonprofit arena. All share a commitment to putting their politics into practice. And many of them speak of their passion in the context of Jewish teaching and obligation.

For example, speaker Ralph Silber of the Alameda Health Consortium thinks it's a "privilege to get paid to do this kind of work full time."

Silber, executive director of an association of 10 nonprofit Alameda County community health centers aimed at improving service to poor and minority clients, said his work is "who I am, how I was raised.

"I was raised with the value of taking care of oneself, but also the knowledge that alone wasn't enough. I had an obligation to other people. And ultimately my own well-being was tied to the well-being of others."

Silber believes many Jews were raised with similar values — "It's our heritage" — but "don't know how to make the world a better place." In preparation for the conference, he's compiling a list of ways to "get active" — among them, writing letters to California legislators.

But first, "we need to identify the issues," Silber said. Among them: "The Republican Congress assault on Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children and proposed limiting of public benefits to immigrants.

"As Jews this should be of special resonance," he said. "We're only a generation or two away from the immigrant experience."

Meanwhile, speaker Richard Allman is looking out for another community — the business people and residents of San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

The new executive director of the North of Market Planning Coalition, the central organization for planning and improvement of the Tenderloin, Allman oversees everything from neighborhood sidewalk cleaning projects to economic development plans.

He suggests people volunteer their professional skills to assist with legal issues, assure that public and private funds are well targeted to create real jobs and infuse residents with a sense of control and responsibility.

"I don't have much question all of us want to impact what happens in our lives. We don't get to do that often enough. And low-income and other marginalized communities have that sense to an extreme," Allman said.

Allman, a self-described "unaffiliated Jew returning to the fold," became involved in not-for-profit work through a secular sense of obligation to "make the world and my neighborhood a better place to be." Currently, he's seeking to link his Judaism and his involvement in social action.

Performing social action in a Jewish context, Schatz added, is "also an opportunity for a lot of influence. We're bringing a Jewish face and voice to the table. Legislators and policy makers are paying a lot of attention to [the opinions and concerns of] people of faith."