Strength of 51 rabbis helps pump up alliances progressive fight

The Bay Area’s Progressive Jewish Alliance now has the strength of 51 rabbis.

The agency’s new rabbinic advisory group is a huge boost for the PJA, which campaigns for social justice and human rights.

“When we go to, say, a negotiation meeting with an employer about immigrant worker rights, we can say to them, ‘There are 51 Bay Area rabbis who support our position that immigrant workers should be treated with dignity and fairness on the job,'” said Rachel Biale, the PJA’s Bay Area director.

“This gives us a lot of clout within and outside of the Jewish community.”

The PJA decided to build a broad coalition of rabbinic support last year. It started by gathering four rabbis from different regions of the Bay Area and asking each to outline how some of their rabbinic responsibilities go hand-in-hand with PJA’s work.

Eventually, the four leading rabbis and PJA staff came up with seven ways a rabbinic advisory council could help advance the PJA’s mission.

Rabbis then began joining the advisory group, which now has members from as far north as Santa Rosa and as far south as Los Gatos. They are Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist. They work at synagogues, prisons and universities; some are retired.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Temple Sinai in Oakland said the PJA often has helped Sinai congregants who wanted to take up a cause but were unsure of the most effective approach. So for her, it was a no-brainer to sign on to reciprocate that support.

“Given the kind of work they do, it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of rabbis were interested in supporting PJA’s work and joining with their colleagues to give it a stronger voice,” she said.

In joining the advisory group, Mates-Muchin and her colleagues agreed to:

• Support current PJA initiatives and provide moral guidance for PJA’s future work;

• Participate in PJA campaigns;

• Provide spiritual and material resources;

• Provide guidance to PJA staff and lay leadership;

• Encourage colleagues, Jewish organizations and interfaith groups to learn about PJA’s social justice work;

• Help the PJA anchor its work in Jewish values, history and traditions.

“We assured the rabbis there would not be any meetings,” Biale said, chuckling, “and that we’d communicate with them by email and phone. We’re basically asking for their ongoing support for the kind of social justice issues PJA works on.”

For example, the PJA has asked rabbis to talk to their congregants about the potential reintroduction of executions at San Quentin State Prison, which PJA opposes.

“We hoped rabbis would talk to their congregations and mobilize members to go to vigils” opposing executions, Biale said. “It’s hard to know the impact, but the rabbis are certainly raising the public profile of our opposition to it.”

Also, the rabbinic group gives the PJA more leverage when working on social justice campaigns.

For instance, when Biale met with managers at the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, she brought along several rabbis. All expressed frustration and disapproval over the hotel’s refusal to follow a municipal ordinance enforcing higher wages for hotel workers.

“The rabbis said, ‘As community leaders, we have to advise our congregants not to patronize your hotel,'” Biale said. “It made a very big impression.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.