Sunday, January 30, 2022

Stefan Presser z"l Social Justice Retropsective: 15 Years!

Last night we gathered on Zoom for Havadalah and to hear from four of our leading Tikkun Olam activists: Donald Joseph, David Mosenkis, Tamara Cohen, and Seth Lieberman.

Betsy Teutsch shared this history of the Stefan Presser Memorial Social Justice Shabbat programing.

Stefan’s presence in our minyan intensified along with his illness. He was a husband to Sandy and father of their three young kids [adults, and all present tonight!], in his late 40s, when diagnosed with a brain tumor. His prognosis was not great. He had been a member of Dorshei Derekh for several years, but once ill, he came to Dorshei Derekh most every shabbat, often sharing where he was on this distressing journey. When he had to stop working, and his world became smaller, the times he spent with us became increasingly precious. He radiated love, and we all beamed it back at him. Many of our members regularly went to visit with him as he became more frail.

He died on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in 2005. A few of us organized a program on his 2nd yahrzeit. His dear friend Professor Seth Kreimer spoke on legal issues issues of the day.

My memory is hazy on how we decided to repeat this annually, but I recall meeting up with David Mosenkis at High Point to kick around ideas. Stefan had been the Legal Director of the Pennsylvania ACLU and many Minyan teens interned for him. Inviting them to speak was a way for us all to process both the loss of Stefan, and nurture his legacy. We got to hear what work Ari Spicehandler Brochin, Josh Marcus, Frances Kreimer, and our son Zach Teutsch, were up to. They are all active in social justice work as adults.

By 2010 our planning group included Donald Joseph. In Stefan’s memory we  planned an annual program on a specific social justice topic in the late fall/early winter. While the GJC community was always invited, it has primarily been an internal Dorshei Derekh event.

Our formula was to choose an issue we wanted to learn more about, invite an expert activist to speak, and pair them with someone with substantial Jewish insight on the topic. Adding a lunch or, as we called it, lunchy kiddush, encouraged people to stick around. This was our approach for the ensuing decade, pulled off on a shoestring, funded by our minyan treasury.

In the ‘0s, Germantown Jewish Centre’s social justice portfolio resided in the Social Action Committee. This committee was tasked with the annual MLK program done in conjunction with local churches, through the Neighbourhood Interfaith Movement. They also planned the annual Granger Shabbat focusing on local social justice issues. Additionally, the committee focused on direct service, organizing volunteers for tutoring and Story Times at our neighborhood’s Henry and Houston Schools. GJC’s program for housing and feeding homeless families, the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, began in 1996, a complex undertaking with its own team of in-house volunteers. It became a major focus of direct service GJC mitzvah activity.

What was missing at GJC was a way for members with a passion around a particular cause to organize and build support for shared activism. We have always had many members involved in a myriad of issues. In our minyan Stefan brought his ACLU background; Mike Masch z”l was our pipeline to city politics, as well as to Harrisburg and Pennsylvania state government policy and budget. It’s not every minyan that offers a misheberach when the State Budget passes!

Many of our Stefan Presser program topics were proposed by Dorshei Derekh members wanting a platform for causes in which they were  already immersed. Malkah Binah Klein became our committee chair, and brought some specific programs, including the one on Gun Violence and another on Returning Citizens. On some level, we used this Social Justice annual program as an incubator; quite a few of the topics grew into synagogue-wide concerns. 

In 2016 the GJC Social Action Committee was restructured as the Tikkun Olam Coordinating Team. One of those working to bring about this change is our own Abby Weinberg. The mission is now very different, supporting members to advocate and organize for the causes they care about, and running programs where congregants can get involved. Tikkun Olam means Repairing the World; clearly we have continued providing direct services to but have expanded to working for systemic changes.

And we will be hearing Donald Joseph’s update on the Pennsylvania School Funding Trial, the culmination of decades of work by the Public Interest Law Center.

David Mosenkis will be talking in a few minutes about the synagogue’s deepening commitment to POWER, a state-wide multi-faith multi-racial movement advocating for systemic change in a number of arenas.

We will be hearing from Seth Lieberman, the chair of the synagogue-wide Refugee Committee. 

We will be hearing from Tamara Cohen, on the minyan’s antiracism task force, along with hearing about the synagogue’s.

These are all topics that we featured at specific Social Justice shabbatot, and are now woven into our synagogue’s work.

Personal activism and community organizing have taken off exponentially since the beginning of our Presser Shabbatot in 2008. The language around this work has changed. We have moved from Social Action to Social Justice to Tikkun Olam. We are now more nuanced about justice: we speak of racial justice, environmental and climate justice, reproductive justice, education justice, disability justice, and gender justice. Kol Tzedek, the Reconstructionist Congregation in West Philly where many GJC Gen Xers are active, including Josh Marcus, named itself Kol Tzedek, A Voice for Justice - right there, front and center. There are many similar synagogues around the country that have sprung up with a primary focus on Tikkun Olam.

Obviously, the 4 years of the previous administration raised the pursuit of social justice to a crisis level. And 2 years of a pandemic have reset most everything.

The Jewish community has generated ever more justice-oriented organizations. Keeping track of all of them is challenging!

Tonight we are reflecting on how social justice/Tikkun Olam moved from the periphery of Dorshei Derekh - something some of our members were devoted to - to becoming a central focus of our community.  And how Dorshei’s Derekh commitment to these values connects to GJC, our larger home.

We cannot claim that our Stefan Presser Social Justice programs brought this about, but we immodestly perhaps, do think they have helped to galvanize Dorshei Derekh, and motivated many of us to get more involved in initiatives we learned about at these programs. Indeed, we are better together. Pursuing justice is more effective, and more satisfying, when it’s a shared effort.

    - Betsy Teutsch, January 29, 2022