East Bay runs boot camp for progressive Jews

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So many liberal Jews, so little time.

More than 250 of them crowded into Oakland’s Samuel Merritt Health Education Center on Sunday, Nov. 6 for the Consultation on Social Justice, a one-day seminar sponsored by various East Bay synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

The purpose was to develop strategies and skills for fighting hunger, homelessness and other social ills, a drive grounded in Jewish values.

Keynote speakers included state Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Hollywood director/activist Rob Reiner.

Attendees broke into small groups to learn more about issues. In a session on hunger, Allison Pratt of the Alameda County Food Bank demonstrated how to make an impression with politicians.

She held up a mock film-festival schedule, intended for the present governor, featuring a new “Terminator” movie all about terminating hunger. She also donned a green fork-through-the-head, something she used in Sacramento to show lawmakers that eliminating hunger is a no-brainer. “We’re not a rich country if we have so much hunger,” she said.

In a session on the health insurance crisis, Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation began by describing his “failed career” coming up with national health-care solutions, such as Bill and Hillary Clinton’s effort in 1994.

After explaining how the U.S. has fallen behind in terms of the number of people covered, Levitt said, “Access to health care is a basic right, and there are serious consequences to being uninsured.”

His solution: A universal system such as Canada’s single payer system. But he acknowledged such “change is hard,” and that this idea would be slow to catch fire here despite growing gaps in the system.

At a session on affordable housing, Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah spoke of his own efforts in the field.

“There are two problems,” he said of his experience as chair of Contra Costa Interfaith Housing. “One is NIMBY [not in my back yard] and the other is NIMTOO [not in my term of office].”

Reiner brought star power to the event, wowing the crowd with an impassioned argument for his new ballot initiative, one that would guarantee preschool for every 4-year-old child in California.

Some political observers speculate Reiner will run for governor, especially if his initiative makes it on the June 2006 ballot and passes. He was looking every inch the candidate, disarming the crowd with humor and a command of the facts.

“This is the first time in the history of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce that they have ever endorsed a tax increase,” he said of one of his strange bedfellows on the measure. “They understand that in the long view, this [initiative] helps us all.”

Attendee Robin Reiner of Berkeley shared not only Rob Reiner’s politics but his name as well. “I’ve been waiting to meet him,” she says. “I was relieved to know that if I am going to share somebody’s name it’s someone I respect and like.”

Co-sponsors included Temple Sinai (Oakland), Congregation Beth El (Berkeley), Kehilla Community Synagogue (Piedmont), Temple Israel (Alameda), the East Bay-based Jewish Community Relations Council, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Rabbi Suzanne Singer, the main organizer of the event, was very happy with the day and hoped attendees would now get busy serving their respective communities.

“The conference exceeded our expectations,” she said, “in terms of turnout and in terms of excitement about and commitment to social justice advocacy on the part of participants. I think attendees came away enthused, hopeful and eager to take on the next steps.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.