Rabbinic Activism and Raising Tzedek as a Congregational Value


Outside of our modest synagogue in a middle-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Boston hangs a blue banner with white lettering. In Hebrew and English it reads: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue.


To some the banner may seem uncontroversial. Yet the process of choosing the language, and even agreeing to place any statement outside of our building, was slow and contentious. Our congregation had never placed a banner on our building in seventy years of existence, except for announcements of High Holy Days or the opening of our Hebrew School.


For twenty-three years, as rabbi of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah (HBT), I have witnessed our emergence as a social justice congregation. From early visioning sessions that included “Tikkun Olam” as one of our four pillars, to embracing gay marriage before it became legal, to partnering with African-American churches, to conducting internal assessments and making change to truly embrace a diverse community, our community has deepened its commitment to tzedek, justice.


When I came to HBT in 1995, it was barely four years since the congregation had begun accepting women in a minyan. Around that time a havurah of young parents had received a warm welcome from the aging membership of this erstwhile Conservative synagogue. Together, they took the bold step of engaging a rabbi who is a Reconstructionist and a woman. Eventually, HBT affiliated as a Reconstructionist synagogue. The congregation spent two years considering that change, one of many values-based decision-making processes that has helped to raise awareness and to strengthen our community.


Within the first few years, with support from our local federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), we undertook a two-year congregation-wide process to develop a statement of principles, reconfigure our governance, and establish a fair-share dues structure. We embraced Havurah (community), Torah (learning), Avodah (spirituality), and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). These have remained our pillars, though our understanding and practice of each principle has evolved over the years.


In 1999, five years before Massachusetts voted to legalize and celebrate same-sex marriage, several lesbian couples came to me asking for a Jewish commitment ceremony. Though I had been officiating at these ceremonies since my ordination in 1987, the congregation had not yet taken a stand on the issue. When Anne and Susan asked that their union be celebrated in our sanctuary, I turned to the leadership to consider their request. After months of conversation, during which time I officiated at their wedding in a different temple’s sanctuary, an ad hoc committee came to a decision, which was then endorsed by the board. The Temple board supported my decision to officiate, without officially endorsing same-sex weddings in our building. Such are the quiet beginnings of any revolution.


At that time, our congregation was beginning a journey of welcome and inclusion of many different kinds of Jews and their families. Children of color, whether adopted or with a parent of color, joined our Hebrew School. Children with two moms opened my eyes to rephrasing the standard “honor your father and your mother.” During another year-long process, we clarified ways to welcome non-Jewish parents fully in b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and other ritual practices.


HBT was the first Jewish organization to join the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, our Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate that championed social change in our city and that now boasts a large Jewish contingent, including a dozen synagogues and the JCRC. For three years we collaborated with a local historic African-American church to hold a joint Liberation Seder, whose purpose was “to meet in a place of common ground, a place where we can celebrate and appreciate the uniqueness of our religious traditions, cultures, and backgrounds.”


Throughout my tenure at HBT, I have rarely been at the forefront of these changes. As I often quipped, “I don’t go out on a limb unless someone is holding my hand.” By creating opportunities for congregants to voice their concerns and to share their vision, we have all been pushed to listen and to learn.


That was the impetus for our debate about putting up a banner. After Trayvon Martin, after Ferguson, and after the Eric Garner verdict, I finally began to hear the voices of congregants clamoring for a broader vision of tzedek. It was not enough to open our doors to multi-racial families. It was time for the white members to become true allies, to create a safe space encouraging kids and adults of color to express their uniqueness and to be celebrated for who they are.


We spent another year assessing our congregation, our school, our policies, and our leadership, identifying our strengths and focusing on areas that needed to ramp up a commitment to people of color. We stopped referring to “blacks and Jews,” recognizing the growing number of Jews of color who are central to our community.


Building on those changes, one parent made a request to the board to hang a banner outside our synagogue proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” as her son had seen in front of so many churches. For some, the idea seemed to be the obvious next step. For others, it felt like a precedent that would threaten our place within our local community and divide our congregation.


Another year-long process ensued. As the board conferred about putting up any banner, the congregation discussed the Black Lives Matter platform and the families that sought a banner became impatient. Placing a banner outside would imply that we stood together as a congregation and were prepared to face opposition by our neighbors, many of whom are Boston police officers. Ignoring the request meant that we refused to hear the pained voices of our own members and had abandoned our commitment to tzedek. What did our work to end racism truly mean to this congregation?


Finally, a small group reflecting a spectrum of members came to a consensus. They accepted the board’s decision to display the message “Black Lives Matter” inside our building, alongside other messages of support for immigrants, refugees, and human rights. They also followed the board’s directive to find wording for a banner to hang outside. Drawing on Jewish tradition, they embraced a verse from Torah that represents justice and activism: “Justice, Justice you Shall Pursue.”


That decision was overwhelmingly embraced by a majority vote of the congregation. It has also had some fallout. Some multi-racial families felt this was the appropriate decision. For the families who lobbied for the #BLM message, our banner does not go far enough. We have fallen short of proclaiming our commitment to end racism, even as more families of color, including Jewish adults, have joined our community. Yet the message has not divided us. Through our discussions we learned more about each other, often in surprising ways. The broad-based discussion spurred more of us to increased activism on many fronts.


Within the year, for the first time, our board voted to endorse a congregational stance on a social justice issue, namely, to join a local sanctuary cluster. Our tikkun olam efforts have been embraced by newly arrived and veteran members alike, stepping up to work within our congregation on ending racism, lobbying for criminal justice reform, accompanying ICE detainees, supporting transgender rights, and creating a welcoming space for people with physical and mental disabilities, among a variety of pressing issues. Small as we are, we have made a name for ourselves in the Boston Jewish community as a congregation committed to social justice.


With the clarity of the message of tzedek, we continue to grow and attract individuals of all ages, families of all types, who call HBT their Jewish home.



Rabbi Barbara Penzner, a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, serves Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston. She is currently an AJWS Global Justice Fellow, a T’ruah chaver and #Tomato Rabbi, and co-chairs the New England Jewish Labor Committee.

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