Temple Beth El’s community organizing work seeks to leverage the power of people in relationship to help bring equity and justice to our city.
Please contact Nicole Sidman, Social Justice Outreach Coordinator for more information.
Recent Community Organizing Blogs
(Charlotte Jewish News Editorial, Feb. 2019)
By Jennifer Clark, February 2019
Tikkun olam—repairing the world, often through social action—has long been a cornerstone of Temple Beth El’s mission and values as a congregation. We have seen this in the number of canned goods collected for local food pantries around the High Holy Days and the many volunteer hours our congregants devote to causes in Charlotte and beyond. Over the last two years, Temple Beth El has worked to broaden our commitment by developing ways we can work together to address some of the systemic barriers to equality and justice, specifically around racial inequality.
This evolution in our approach to tikkun olam as a congregation was spurred by the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the resulting Charlotte Uprising in September 2016, which sparked important conversations around the city on racial inequality. We at Temple Beth El acknowledged that our current efforts—though important and still necessary—were barely scratching the surface. We had focused much effort on the “leaves” and not enough on the “roots” of the issues that we care about.
Tikkun olam is an audacious goal. This guiding principle urges us to act for the greater good (“repair”) by thinking systemically (“the world”). We are charged, as a congregation and a community, to figure out how to make meaningful repairs to an incredibly large and sometimes unwieldy system. At Temple Beth El, we are using the principles of community organizing to help engage our large and diverse congregation around a shared vision of how we can contribute to achieving racial justice in Charlotte.
We define community organizing as building powerful relationships across lines of race, class, and difference, grounded in trust and mutual respect, and leveraging the power of people to act in shared self-interest to help make systemic change. Through building relationships within and outside of the congregation, listening to the varied perspectives of congregants and neighbors, researching key issues, and identifying where our unique capabilities as a congregation can make the most impact, Temple Beth El is drawing on our collective power to tackle complex challenges.
We began with listening. Before taking action as a congregation, we needed to better understand both the diverse perspectives and backgrounds among our membership and actions and strategies of other faith groups and social justice organizations. Through listening circles with members, we learned that some of us grew up in diverse communities, while others didn’t. Some members shared their stories of being both Jewish and people of color. All of these experiences shaped how individual members of our congregation experienced, and still experience, race.
Congregants noted the tremendous disparities they saw between white residents and communities of color, often acknowledging segregation in our city’s neighborhoods and schools. Their stories spanned several decades and showed us the importance in understanding the historic context that created systemic racism.
We then put our listening into action. We identified three issue areas that kept bubbling to the surface in our conversations with members: prek-12 education, affordable housing, and criminal justice. With this narrowed scope, we developed a plan of action for pinpointing specific ways our congregation could make actionable, systemic change in Charlotte. We created three teams to dive deeper into each issue area through research, one on one conversations with other congregants, and meetings with external organizations to make stronger connections in the greater Charlotte community.
We regularly hold community organizing trainings for our members to engage more congregants in this work and build leadership within our ranks, with the intention of developing a sustainable social action model that will guide us over many years.
We also developed a public event series to educate our congregation and other community members on the intersection of racial justice with these three topic areas. Our fall kickoff event featured a lecture from Dr. Willie Griffin, the staff historian of the Levine Museum of the New South, who gave a historical overview of race in Charlotte. January’s events included a talk on implicit bias from Derrik Anderson, Executive Director of Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, and a look at the history of public education in Charlotte, featuring historian Dr. Pamela Grundy. This free, public series will continue with talks on affordable housing (February 27) and criminal justice (March 31).
We embarked on this community organizing model knowing that the work of engaging many people around a shared objective is not often a quick and easy process. An audacious goal—repairing the world—requires an audacious effort.
Jennifer Clark, TBE Congregant
Temple Beth El Is Organizing for Justice, One Story at a Time
By Nicole Sidman, October 2021
We thought this would be a post-pandemic fall, and so we sought to learn what the pandemic had taught us, not realizing that its lessons were still unfolding. Yet here we find ourselves, heading towards 2022 still in the midst of a pandemic, wondering what we learned in 2021.
Nevertheless, we are filled with hope, because we have heard the stories of Temple Beth El congregants whose stories are full of beauty, and strength and perseverance. Mixed in with all the pain and loss, there is so much love and community, and we know this because we took the time, as a community, to listen.
It was an audacious plan, at what we then hoped was the beginning of the end of the pandemic. With the support of a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, Temple Beth El was able to hire our first professional dedicated to organizing and social justice, Nicole Sidman. In March of 2021, we (Nicole, Rabbi Klass, and a dedicated core team of congregants) began organizing a listening campaign to hear what our congregants had endured and what they had learned. Calling it “From Social Distance to Social Justice,” our goal was to give people a place to connect and reflect after so much isolation and national upheaval. We wanted to understand not only their pandemic experience, but how our community’s perspective of social justice had changed in the wake of the pandemic.
The team’s first success was in gathering almost 150 congregants over zoom to reconnect, inspire each other, and share the following goals as we launched our listening campaign:
- Bring congregants together to share stories and begin to process their pandemic experience;
- Create a comprehensive and diverse campaign that is representative of all TBE members;
- Gather lessons that inspire us to build a better community; and
- Identify issues that matter to the greater congregation and develop a shared vision for how to address them in our larger Charlotte community.
Over the course of the next two months, our congregants gathered and shared. In the 20+ house meetings, some held in person and some held over zoom, we heard stories of fear and loneliness, of family and neighbors, and of inequity and increased awareness. Our community, time and again, described the ways in which the pandemic opened their eyes to the realities of racial injustice and income inequality. Congregant after congregant reflected on our education system and the varied, and often unequal, educational experiences of children, particularly children of color. And the pandemic laid bare who had support and who didn’t – financially, emotionally and socially. People were tired of feeling outraged and helpless. It was time to come together and act.
Members of our team read the notes from every one of those meetings. We analyzed the data and we heard the concerns. Using that input and information from our congregants, themes emerged that informed our decision to form three taskforces:
- Income Inequality;
- Access to Health Care and Mental Health; and
- Education and the Technical Divide.
In mid-August over 50 congregants committed to joining one of these three teams and beginning the work of discerning which slice of each of these three huge problems we might tackle as a community. We seek to do this work in partnership with other houses of faith and community organizations, recognizing that those already deep into the work are the leaders in this movement and that we are all stronger together.
Our work has just begun, and our goals are bold. At the time of submission of this article, we have only begun the research process for each of the above topics, and have not yet drilled down to the actions we might choose to take as a temple. By the time you read these words, we may well be close to announcing those actions – stay tuned!
In time, through partnerships and friendships, Temple Beth El aims to be part of a large coalition that can stand together when needed, advocating for those that are often left behind and standing beside our community as we fight for a more equitable city. And yet at its core, it all comes back to connection, sharing, and coming together. It all comes back to those simple meetings – sometimes over zoom, sometimes over coffee. Always with the intent of listening, telling stories, and building bridges.