This is a guest post by JCA member Steven Mayer.
I thought I had enough going on, semi-retired, teaching an on-line course on Nonprofit Program Development and Evaluation through Johns Hopkins University. That, and archiving my parents’ papers from 1932 to 1945, getting them ready for exhibition and study at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York (an interesting place dedicated to commemorating the German-Jewish immigration experience).
But I made time to show up a few times in support of a friend whose home was being threatened by her bank’s deceitful foreclosure practices, and JCA organizers were there, and a couple times at the state legislature in support of a bill that would make such practices illegal, and JCA organizers were there, too.
I’d known of Jewish Community Action from its beginning, knew its founders and some board members, and wrote occasional checks, so when Vic Rosenthal (JCA’s Executive Director) took note of my apparent “free time,” he did what all good community organizers do: called to build on the relationship. When he asked if I could accompany him on a visit to my City Council member in support of the City’s newly passed (with JCA leadership) “Responsible Banking Ordinance,” I said yes. In the next few weeks I was asked if I could sit with JCA’s Economic Justice Committee, and then also participate in the Tzedek Institute, and then also meet with the Responsible Banking steering committee. Yes, yes, yes. Nobody was more surprised than I with all this Yes-ing!
In my life as a consultant to nonprofits, on those wonderful occasions meeting with community development organizations, social justice groups, and grant-making foundations, I learned a lot about the social ills of injustice and inequity. I’d been in the room when critical discussions took place, but only as a professional bystander, not as an “activist” helping to shape direction and add push.
One of the challenges that everyone with a social conscience faces is, “Where do I sign up to do something meaningful?” Is writing checks enough? Signing internet petitions? Participating in election phone banks? These are all important, as was my work as a writer, but what I really wanted was to help fix something, not just study it. So when Vic called, and staff organizer Rachel English followed-up, I was apparently ready to say Yes.
Rachel asked me early on why I thought work on a Responsible Banking Ordinance was a natural for JCA, I said, “Well, I hear Jews are all about banking, and we’re certainly all about responsibility.” Working to repair the damage created by predatory banks, working to create ways for banks to work more in partnership with fragile neighborhoods, working with low-income neighborhood groups to strengthen their asset base and create better opportunities for their children to succeed – that’s tikkun olam.
Working on this Responsible Banking initiative also fits in nicely with JCA’s activities with Shmita, the sabbatical year with its own special mitzvot of economic justice spelled out in Exodus and Deuteronomy. To tell the truth, I’d never heard of Shmita before, but planning for a calendar full of house gatherings linked to Twin Cities congregations to discuss the relevance of Old Testament principles to the modern world has helped me deepen my connections to the history of my community.