Rabbi Stacy Friedman held aloft a modest tin bowl before those gathered at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael last week.
“This tin bowl is the reason I do what I do,” she said, clutching her immigrant great-grandparents’ only surviving possession. A talisman against hard times, the bowl symbolized their fight for acceptance in a new country, one that welcomed immigrants.
“For so many of us, that is our story,” she added. “If we are lucky we have a physical representation.”
Several among the 75 people in attendance nodded. Friedman and her fellow Rodef Sholom clergy had gathered them in the sanctuary on Feb. 9 for what was billed as “Organizing Around Our Values: A Community Conversation,” a chance for attendees to better understand their concerns after the election of President Donald Trump and how they might take action in response to Trump’s now-stayed executive order restricting immigration to America.
Organizers paired up attendees to talk about what brought them to the sanctuary, and what experiences made them want to take action in the present.
“I grew up in small town in San Diego County,” said Betty Jo Waxman of San Rafael. “I was the only Jewish kid in school. I was aware of feeling different, of being in a minority. It was loud and clear to me.” Due to her childhood, Waxman added, she takes particular interest in issues that support justice and fight oppression.
Jeff Greendorfer of Larkspur echoed her sentiments about standing up for minorities. “The statement being made is we are not going to allow this in our community,” he said in regard to the Trump-issued ban, which, before it was blocked by the courts, barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for 90 days, banned all refugees for 120 days and halted indefinitely refugees from Syria.
I was the only Jewish kid in school. I was aware of feeling different, of being in a minority. It was loud and clear to me.
After one-on-one discussions, Friedman reviewed a few of the ongoing contributions Rodef Sholom congregants make in Marin, including volunteering for the REST program (a rotating shelter to house homeless individuals), the synagogue’s Mitzvah Kitchen, which feeds the homeless, and Jewish-Muslim dialogue circles and dinners.
Jon Marker, a congregant, San Rafael resident and the CEO of the nonprofit Youth Leadership, showed a slideshow of Marin County demographics using 2012 figures from the Marin Community Foundation. While many of the statistics were not surprising — a majority of Marin residents are white and have a higher income than the U.S. median — some neighborhoods, such as the Canal district, which skewed Latino, had the highest life expectancy.
Attendees broke into small groups after the presentation, discussing specific community actions they might want to pursue. In one group, Rena Victor of Marin spoke about her experience as a Holocaust survivor.
“I empathize with the people standing there and being told to turn back,” she said about the refugees who were unable to complete their journeys to the United States.
Others in the group expressed concern about the need to actually do something instead of just speaking about the anger and fear they felt about the election.
By the end of the night, attendees were asked to write down how much time they would be willing to commit to organizing activities and what areas of interest they preferred: such as LGBTQ rights, racial equity, housing, voting rights, anti-Semitism, immigration and education.
“In 20 years, what would you want to have done?” Friedman asked.
As participants made their way out of the sanctuary and said their goodbyes, Friedman swerved through the crowd, tin bowl in hand.
“I think we accomplished what we wanted to,” she said. “It’s a continuation. We’ve always stood up for the rights of the stranger. It’s a deepening of the justice work we are already doing. I’m proud that everyone is wanting to do more.”