Rabbi Lee Paskind is no stranger to social activism.
Until a few years ago a congregational rabbi in Peekskill, N.Y. — now a Teaneck resident and member of Congregation Beth Sholom — Rabbi Paskind has participated in the Conservative movement’s social justice commission for nearly 30 years and now is a part-time consultant on these issues to the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
Political times being what they are, the issues of particular concern to Rabbi Paskind — the plight of refugees, for example — have spurred him, and fellow congregants who share his concerns, to explore ways in which the synagogue feasibly can respond to these challenges .
“I think that about a year and a half ago, there were some people interested in responding in particular to the Syrian refugee crisis,” he said, suggesting that the much-publicized photo of a 3-year-old refugee boy washing up on the shores of Turkey probably had something to do with that.
“It’s ironic,” he said. “The war in Syria had been going on for years. But that’s what happens. Something caught people’s attention, and everyone wanted to react.” As a result, several people at the synagogue started to discuss what the shul might do in the face of this continuing humanitarian crisis.
“It was close to Pesach,” he said. “So we put together resources for people to use at seders.” The materials were not only about Syrian refugees but included information on human trafficking as well. “HIAS [formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] had a lot on its website, and we shared a good amount of that,” Rabbi Paskind said. “We also spoke about it after Shabbat services and got a good response.”
Still, “the sense emerged that this kind of activity did not fall within the purview of our social action committee,” he continued. According to Beth Sholom’s website, “The Social Action/Tikkun Olam Committee is dedicated to spreading the word about opportunities to repair our world through commitment and love for our fellow man and woman…. Members of the synagogue regularly volunteer at the area soup kitchens in Hackensack and Englewood and collect food and clothing for special drives throughout the year. The committee also sponsors special activities based around Jewish holidays so that those who are less fortunate can still celebrate our joyous times — like Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover — with dignity and respect.”
“In some shuls, there is one group that does hands-on gemilut hasadim — which our social action committee does, and that is wonderful,” Rabbi Paskind said. “But the committee didn’t feel that the refugee issue was their niche. People who wanted to do other things felt they had to find a way to do those things.”
Last spring, they began to pursue this goal in earnest. Rabbi Paskind, Dr. Elaine Cohen, Dennis Klein, and Rabbi Julia Andelman — all members of Beth Sholom — began to explore the idea of a separate committee dedicated to these issues. After presenting the idea to Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky — “who has been very helpful and supportive” — and to synagogue president Lynn Geller, who invited Dr. Cohen and Rabbi Andelman to make a presentation to the board, “it finally emerged that we could be an ad hoc committee appointed by the president.” And thus, Tzedek Tirdof — “justice you shall pursue” as Deuteronomy 16:20 tells us — was created to “provide the Beth Sholom community with opportunities to address contemporary social concerns from our Jewish perspective.”
The committee — whose first meeting in January drew some 30 people, much to Rabbi Paskind’s surprise — has been a work in progress. “We wanted to get it right,” he said. “We tried to be inclusive. We want anyone to be involved who wants to be.” At the meeting, facilitators invited attendees to note particular areas of concern. It soon became apparent that members were passionate about dozens of topics, from prison reform to food insecurity to human trafficking.
At a second meeting in February, members were given a narrowed-down list of topics and were asked to select their priority issues and then to focus on “what we could have a local impact on,” Rabbi Paskind said. “We had the feeling that probably we’d have the most impact where people could make a hands-on commitment.”
At that meeting, the suggestion that representatives from other organizations be invited to address the committee — or possibly all interested members of the congregation — to report on the needs of vulnerable groups in the community was accepted. For example, speakers from Family Promise, which offers services for the working homeless, and the Center for Food Action, which helps address the problem of hunger throughout the area, since have been invited.
At the closing session of the synagogue’s Shabbaton last week, several members of the committee “talked briefly about how each of us came to social justice work and how different parts of Jewish tradition motivated us,” Rabbi Paskind said. Inevitably, the issue of President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees was raised, “and some expressed real surprise and dismay that we are not addressing this crisis.”
A subsequent synagogue meeting, to which everyone was invited, drew 30 congregants interested in sharing their thoughts and expectations. “We’re now trying to figure out how to fold them into the social justice group or another parallel group,” Rabbi Paskind said. Tzedek Tirdof might incorporate a group “allowing people to dialogue who see themselves on opposite sides,” he added.
“Many in our community are feeling a great deal of anxiety, fear, and upset these days about the state of the world and the turning inward of our country,” Dr. Cohen said. “Creating this committee has given us a place for conversations about our concerns and our shared Jewish and American values as well as a vehicle for taking productive and constructive action — even though we haven’t yet decided on our priorities for this year.
“Mindful that not everyone in our congregation holds the same perspective or interprets the current realities in the same way, establishing the committee has given us a context for sharing, speaking, and engaging in social justice work together. I feel that it is helping me get beyond feelings of helplessness and frustration, and I hope that we will be able to contribute in some modest ways to the betterment of others less fortunate than we are.”
The scholar, author, and lecturer Dr. Dennis B. Klein — a professor of history at Kean University and the director of the school’s Jewish studies program — has been an important force behind the creation of Tzekek Tirdof.
Echoing Rabbi Paskind’s statement that the scope of the committee is “one of the things we’re sorting out,” Dr. Klein noted that he’s particularly interested in the question of refugees, “and how we understand both sides of the problem. I don’t want to just advocate, I want to talk, bringing folks with different opinions together and recognizing that we probably share more in common than what separates us.”
Dr. Klein said his own experience in the area of social justice comes “very much out of the milieu of Jewish influences, and how I see myself as a Jew positions me toward these endeavors.” Given his line of work, he said, he is very aware of injustice, “and I react to that quite strongly.”
It was while he was working on a paper in high school during the summer that he “got interested in problems we have since referred to as white supremacy. I took my mother to [a white supremacist] meeting to see how people think about this. I could hardly believe it,” he said, adding that, of course, he couldn’t voice his dismay out loud. (He did say, however, that he had an “amazing mother.”)
That experience, he said, had a “clear influence” on him. “I became aware of the other side; I wanted to understand where they were coming from. It’s not me vs. them, but a conversation there.” He has also been influenced by a recent article in Christian Century, written by the journalist David Brooks, “where he makes it really clear that we are an over-politicized, under-moralized culture.” That is, he said, we argue in terms of political symbols rather than addressing moral disagreements. “We need to dig away a little to what we’re all concerned about, so we can get to a conversation that moves us.”
Klein suggested that today’s polarized climate “is basically coming out of a great fear,” amplified by the media. “It will be a challenge for us to get people in the same room who have hard feelings, and begin to create a spirit of good will.”
He became involved in the synagogue’s social justice efforts when he was invited to make a presentation comparing today’s refugee problem to the experience of Jews during the Holocaust. He shared the platform with the late Dr. Stephen P. Cohen, who for decades served as a back-channel mediator between Israel and its Arab neighbors (and was Elaine Cohen’s husband). The program “drew a lot of people to talk about refugees,” he said, adding that it took place right after the violence in San Bernardino. The problem, he said, goes beyond the people now in power. “We’re trying to ‘de-Trumpize’ the conversation — or we can’t have a conversation.”
Dr. Klein is working now to organize meetings between the synagogue and the local African American community, “not about the usual black-Jewish relations but what we’re sharing in common on issues.” He is hopeful that a similar meeting can be arranged with the Muslim community, “to bring in folks we don’t talk with to discuss the difficult spot we’re all in.”