How I Came to Community Organizing: A Testimonial

This article was originally posted by the Rabbinical Assembly on Mar 24, 2014

Wayne Franklin

By Wayne Franklin, Temple Emanu-El, Providence, Rhode Island

All I knew about Community Organizing was what I read in Barack Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father. At least until Elan Babchuck came to be my partner in the rabbinate at Temple Emanu-El in Providence. Elan often spoke about his work in organizing, and when I asked him for an explanation as to what it means and how it works, he routinely responded, “We are organizing a conference at JTS to train colleagues in the discipline; come to the training.” After more than a year of anticipating the conference, I did attend the program at the end of October, 2013.

RA’s JOIN for Justice Conference
In the meantime, our congregation had begun considering a new approach to engaging members in funding the synagogue. Instead of a dues assessment being levied by the Board of Directors, the leadership was contemplating a voluntary commitment model that would sustain the Temple’s needs. To introduce this new concept, we decided to hold an extensive series of parlor meetings in the congregation, so that one of the clergy and one of the officers could explain the new approach and solicit support. We talked about developing a slide presentation which would show the Temple’s financial needs, the sources of income and the current demographics. As that effort was moving along haltingly, Elan and I went to New York for the October JOIN Conference. There, I learned about “One to Ones” and “House Meetings.” I realized that the House Meeting approach, which would engage people in telling their personal stories, is what we needed to include in the meetings we were planning. It occurred to me that this approach could help us orient members toward positive engagements that they had with the synagogue; with people thinking positively, I hoped we could enlist them in the effort to voluntarily sustain the congregation in the future, in a significant way.

Asking the Right Questions
With my newfound discovery, I mentioned my idea to Elan and then sat down to lunch with our trainer, Jeannie Appleman, to discuss details. Jeannie helped me think through some questions we might pose. When we returned home, Elan and I spent time determining just what we wanted to result from the questions and what we needed to ask in order to lead people in a constructive direction, so that the meetings would not degenerate into complaint sessions about the synagogue. Negativity would not produce the results we wanted. Together, we fine-tuned the questions we wanted to ask and then crafted a complete outline for the parlor meetings, with roles for the clergy and roles for the lay leaders. We presented this outline to the Membership Committee and Officers for their consideration and approval. We have used these outlines successfully in every one of our meetings.

House Meetings Back at Home
Our hopes have been more than met. Each house meeting we have conducted has evoked glowing memories of peak moments in members’ lives in their relationship to the Temple. We have also heard constructive criticism, which is fine. But the outpouring of meaningful moments, from births, to Bar/ Bat Mitzvah celebrations, to weddings, to hospital visits, to funerals, teaching moments and more, have been gratifying for those of us who have been involved in these moments, and they have been inspiring to other members, who didn’t know about those feelings or experiences which their fellow members had enjoyed. To add to the success of this approach, several members have asked us to hold more such sessions, because they found that getting to know other members in a deeper way than they had previously was itself an uplifting moment within the Temple environment. People have appreciated that these meetings have been so different from attending a service or listening to a program, because these house meetings have enabled members to get to know one another and make connections which they found enriching. We don’t need any further encouragement!

New Tools for Rabbis
At one of our meetings, an astute member noted that what we are doing is engaging in fundraising! I acknowledged that she was right.  And with that, all of us in the synagogue’s leadership commit ourselves to continuing this process of engagement, connecting each other to one another, and to the congregation and its future. People crave positive relationships, and they value our efforts to cultivate and promote these connections within our community. The RA’s Community Organizing program has already produced important results in Providence. I feel that I have acquired a new skill in my rabbinic toolbox, which I will use again and again, thanks to my colleague, Elan, and the other younger RA members and the JOIN for Justice trainers who have introduced this skill to me and the rest of us who continue to learn and grow in our work.

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