Synagogues get involved with grassroots citizen movement

I. Am. A. Citizen.

Imagine this chanted like a mantra by 612 people.

I. Am. A. Citizen.

The words echoed in an overcrowded gymnasium. Rabbi Lavey Derby stood at the front of the room, conducting the audience in the refrain: I am a citizen.

This is how the rabbi of Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar concluded a community action assembly May 8 at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in San Rafael. The “I am a citizen” chant was intended to remind Marin residents that they can have a voice in county politics.

The assembly brought together a huge cross-section of Marin residents, most of whom had previously engaged in small group sessions as part of a countywide effort called the Marin Organizing Committee.

“This was the largest nonpartisan political gathering ever held in Marin,” Derby said.

The MOC, as it’s known to participants, is based on a model for community mobilizing started in the mid-1970s by a Chicago-based nonprofit. Since then, about 50 regional groups across the nation have adopted its grassroots approach, which encourages nonprofits and religious and public institutions to work within their organizations and together to improve their communities.

In Marin, 25 organizations have joined the MOC, including Congregations Kol Shofar and Rodef Sholom. On May 8, the MOC addressed three major issues: building an emergency homeless shelter, providing better mental health services and monitoring the proposed Redwood Landfill expansion in Novato.

The work, however, is only just beginning. The action assembly was more like a groundbreaking than a ribbon cutting, announcing to public officials that “we are citizens, we have voices, and we will be heard,” Derby said.

The MOC began in a conference room in 2002 with a small group of lay people and clergy who returned to their organizations with one goal in mind: Get people talking.

“The Jewish people have known this forever — nothing is more powerful than telling a story,” Derby said.

Rodef Sholom called the meetings Panim el Panim, which translates as “face to face.” More than 300 members of the San Rafael synagogue have since met in small groups at the synagogue and in members’ homes. The meetings encouraged congregants to talk about issues they consider important, from health care to immigration — topics that were logged as potential action items for the larger MOC.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman at Rodef Sholom and Rabbi Derby said talking about social action transformed their synagogues into more welcoming places. And congregants agree.

“I had been a member of Rodef Sholom for five years and I always felt like I really didn’t know anybody — mostly because I didn’t know anybody,” said Susan Barnes, who has lived in Marin since 2001.

And then Friedman asked if anyone in the congregation could facilitate a Panim el Panim meeting. Since Barnes is a trained facilitator, she volunteered.

She presided over six meetings and “suddenly I knew all these people, and I was a part of a community, whereas before I hadn’t been.”

Derby estimated that 100 congregations across the country are involved in community organizing work. Congregations in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Sonoma and on the Peninsula also are involved in similar regional organizing efforts.

“There are people who say rabbis should not talk about political issues. But engaging in politics is a fundamental mitzvah of the Torah,” Derby said.

“It’s our responsibility to make the world a better place. And the way you do that is by sitting down and talking to people about their mutual concerns — not always to agree, but to talk and decide on a course of action. That’s what tikkun olam is.”

The Marin Organizing Committee‘s next public meeting, which will focus on state and county budgets, will be held 7 p.m. June 5 at the Dominican Sisters, 1520 Grand Ave., San Rafael. For more information, contact Meredith Parnell at (415) 479-3441 or [email protected].

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.