Synagogue activists organize around vexing urban issues

Activists at Congregation Sherith Israel knew that no magic bullet could solve all the problems facing San Francisco’s public schools. They decided to take a shot anyway, believing that one simple step could make a difference.

They were right.

Brooke Agee

Congregants received training in community organizing through the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP). Then, after months of brainstorming, they came up with a single, workable proposal to improve local schools.

At a packed meeting at Sherith Israel in May, San Francisco Unified School District administrators publicly committed to implementing their idea: to strengthen school partnerships with local businesses to sponsor after-school programs, college counseling, sports and music activities — helping schools to better fundraise from the business community.

SFOP is a nonpartisan coalition of congregations and schools that attempts to find solutions to the thorny problems facing the city, from health care to immigration to violence prevention. Sherith Israel is one of more than 30 synagogues and churches that formed its own local organizing committee (LOC) under the aegis of SFOP.

“We’ve been learning a process called ‘cutting an issue,’ ” said Sherith Israel Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller, who sits on the committee. “You take a too-big problem and turn it into something you can do, something achievable.”

Sherith Israel has been working with SFOP for three years; S.F. congregations Sha’ar Zahav and Emanu-El also have partnered with the organization to learn about its style of community organizing.

Dana Vinicoff, a Sha’ar Zahav congregant, has belonged to her synagogue’s LOC for six years. Choosing health care as its issue, the Sha’ar Zahav committee lobbied the Board of Supervisors to adopt the Healthy San Francisco initiative, which instituted universal health care in the city.

“We were very proud of our role in that,” Vinicoff said. “We’ve been keeping an eye on how it’s rolling out.”

Her committee also has been active in Sacramento, lobbying legislators on health care issues and hosting a forum last October on health care in California.

Brooke Agee, a congregant at Emanu-El, joined her synagogue’s LOC last fall when it was less than a year old. A key part of the SFOP method, especially when starting out, is for committee members to listen to one another until their collective activism comes into focus.

Agee said areas of concern have been narrowed down to education, economic insecurity and isolation (of seniors, disabled people and the like). Her group has not yet settled on its one doable step, but she’s enjoying the process so far.

“It’s all about building relationships with people,” she said, “talking to people about what their concerns are, and finding out what’s important to them.”

Agee is a coordinator for Experience Corps, which trains older adults to be mentors in underserved schools. She, like other SFOP synagogue activists, is motivated to make the world a better place.

“People have taken very personally their commitment to achieving something real here,” said Saxe-Taller of the community organizing experience. “You listen to the congregants for concerns, research what to do, take action, then do some more listening.”

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.