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Listening Campaign Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, January 17, 2014

Saul Alinsky, the source of much of the methodology of our Shir Hadash Organizing Committee, is often portrayed as an enemy of the American Way. Actually he was a nice Jewish boy, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, who shared his parent’s love and appreciation for the United States.

Raised in an Orthodox home by parents who hoped he would become a rabbi, Saul described himself as very devout, at least until his Bar Mitzvah. Even as he moved away from his parent’s Orthodoxy, the value they placed on education stuck, and working part time, he put himself through the University of Chicago where he majored in archeology. Alinsky continued studying archeology for two years in graduate school, but the prospects for archeologists in those depression years was so grim that he dropped out to take a part time job with the state of Illinois as a criminologist.

Alinsky first gained notoriety through his work in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, a community whose poverty and despair were depicted in Upton Sinclair’s famous book, The Jungle. In that campaign, as in many future campaigns he worked with the religious community, in this case the Catholic Church.

Based on his success in Chicago, Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation with funding from Marshall Field III, the department store magnate, and began teaching community organizing.

Though he called himself a radical, he always urged working within the system, avoiding violence, and increasing people’s commitment to democracy. He believed that through the system he could transform the world as it is into the world as we would like it to be.

In the 1950’s Eastman Kodak would not hire African Americans. The Rochester Council of Churches brought Alinsky to Rochester, New York to help African Americans fight this job discrimination. Later it was the San Francisco Bay Area Presbyterian Church which brought Alinsky to work in Oakland.

Alinsky was probably most famous during Barak Obama’s first campaign for the presidency when Obama’s career as a community organizer received a great deal of scrutiny. At that time Alinsky was demonized by Newt Gingrinch, though Dick Armey has earlier used his book, Rules for Radicals, to organize his own campaign.

Alinsky’s biographer tells us that he looked like an accountant, but swore like a stevedore, his flair for the dramatic often catching others unawares. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1972, while living in Carmel. He was not yet 65 years old, and was on the verge of organizing a campaign among middle class whites. Barak Obama was still a child at that time, but Hillary Clinton did have the opportunity to interview Alinsky for a paper she was writing for college.

Alinsky did not embrace any of the political philosophies of his age, being by nature opposed by doctrine. He explained: “My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they will generally reach the right decisions.” It was that confidence in individuals and the importance of their making choices for themselves, that lead to the organizing strategy of the listening campaign.

I encountered Saul Alinsky style organizing while I was in high school in Cincinnati. We lived in a neighborhood that was racially integrated and as a result the city decided to cut our garbage pick up from twice to once a week. Since the powers that be were sure that those people were dirty, what was the point of picking up garbage at the same level of the other nicer neighborhoods. Restoring the second day of garbage pick up was the North Avondale Neighborhood Association’s first action, and it was followed by many other campaigns to maintain the neighborhood and its excellent elementary school. The community remains racially integrated to this day, and is still among the loveliest in Cincinnati.

Saul Alinsky’s strategy of getting attention was used by our clergy council in the 1990’s when we wanted to get the City government in San Jose to address the shortage of affordable housing. The Clergy Council built a Succah on the front lawn in full view of City Hall, and dwelt there, making a nuisance of ourselves until $25 million was allocated to low income housing.

PACT, People Acting in Community Together, is our local religiously based community organizing alliance. When Shir Hadash joined Pact, almost ten years ago, we were its first non-Christian congregation. The value of PACT to Shir Hadash, was not only its organizing model, but also the opportunity to interact with the other 20 congregations in the organization and to have many of them interact with the Jewish community for the first time in their lives. One of our great early programs was a meal in the Succah for all the lay leaders, many of whom had never met anyone who was Jewish, let alone visit a Temple.

Synagogues around the country have gotten involved in Community Organizing.

One of Boston’s largest Reform congregations became involved when they discovered a common interest between their members whose parents were in assisted living facilities and the workers who cared for their parents in these institutions. The workers were fighting for better staffing ratios, which would not only make their jobs more humane, but would also improve life for the residents.

More recently efforts by Reform rabbis here in California helped turn the tide on the Trust Act, which ultimately passed, offering better security to undocumented immigrants who had not been convicted of any other crime. I had the opportunity to meet with Republican Congressman Jeff Denham at the San Jose station--his district is pencil thin and that day he was doing a rolling town hall on the ace eastbound train . This fall he has been one of a very small number of Republican Congressmen pushing for immigration reform. .

Congregation Shir Hadash has been involved in two campaigns, one relating to expanding health insurance coverage, and the second concerning transporation alternatives for the elderly. Through an early listening campaign we learned that we had members who didn’t have insurance for themselves because of pre-existing conditions, or for their 20 something year old children who did not have jobs with health insurance. We also heard from the self-employed for whom insurance was a nightmare. Our second campaign identified transportation as the key factor that allowed senior adults to participate in the many social opportunities that improved their lives, along with getting to medical appointments and doing their regular errands.

Currently we are beginning the process of identifying our next campaign. The philosophy of community organizing insists that this choice not be made by the board, or social action committee, but that every member of the community have the opportunity to express his or her views and to be heard. To accomplish this we have begun a listening campaign which is fanning out across the congregation. Everyone who is interested in participating will have the opportunity to attend a parlor meeting and share their views with a small group of their fellow congregants. Information from all these meetings will be brought together and shared as part of the process of cutting an issue for our next campaign.

The weekend we are celebrating the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King whose passion for justice, combined with grassroots efforts by millions of individuals struggling to improve their lives, brought lasting change to our country. Saul Alinsky is another of those figures whose leadership allowed many other less known leaders to make a contribution to our society. As we think of these great leaders this weekend, we think also of the many leaders who are unknown but whose work for the greater good, advances our communities. Perhaps you have the potential to be one of these leaders, only by participating will you be able to find out.

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