Temple Beth Israel and
Social Justice

TBI has a very long history of community service about which we can all be
justifiably proud, with many key social justice activities over the past twenty two years.

Guided by principles of egalitarianism and respect for others, TBI seeks to provide a spiritual home for all who wish to embrace its values.

Social Justice Group

We have engaged our members in social justice activities in a formal way ever since 2001 when Rabbi Morgan inspired Dorothy Graff to lead a Social Justice Group, or SJG as it became fondly known. It had a long life span of 10 years with John Hillel taking over from Dorothy after five years and further running most impactful activities. The success of the SJG was in no small part due to each Committee member introducing their passion project for which they sought help to achieve from fellow members of the SJG and then inviting the TBI community at large to join in to help.  We thus provided a channel for TBI members to give practical assistance to others wherever they wished to do so.

Examples of activities were: providing food and company for members at their time of personal need.  We also organised a Telechat program which ensured that housebound people had someone who rang them regularly on whom they could rely – several phone partners became firm friends as a result.  From time to time, we corresponded with Jewish prisoners until their release. We worked with the Sudanese community who, at that time, were the largest refugee group in Australia.  Through the generosity of many TBI members, we collected clothes, food, household items and furniture for them.  We engaged with the Muslim community, and shared a fascinating evening with Muslim women where we exchanged stories on how we show hospitality to others.

Our Mazon bag food collection, continuing to this day, began in this group.  TBI always values your contributions and especially when we have Mazon bag collections.  Volunteering at the Sacred Heart Mission to prepare and serve food for the disadvantaged also began with the Social Justice Group. TBI’s organisation of this is now graciously organised annually by Reuben Urban.  Another example of our work included collecting textbooks and sweaters for children whose parents were homeless and without monetary means.

One year, we wrote articles for the then Temple Time, now Kol Yisrael, on issues of social concern e.g. climate change, under the categories of Torah (study), avodah (service), and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).

We had no budget and had no need to spend money – all came from the will to serve.

Communal Life Committee

In 2017, TBI’s attention turned from a prime focus on social justice activities in the world around us to primarily addressing the needs of our own TBI community. The Communal Life Committee CLC) was formed.  We established as our purpose and mission: “to enable TBI members to feel that they belong to a caring spiritual family where each person is valued and where meaningful relationships with each other matter profoundly”. Our secondary purpose was to give support to volunteer Committee Convenors and so we produced, and regularly updated, two volunteers’ manuals, one for members and one for participant non TBI members.

The Committee was with Dorothy Graff’s initial leadership and is now with Vivienne Rosta’s leadership.  Cantor Michel Laloum has been our constant and long term spiritual advisor.  The Committee has always comprised a group of quiet achievers who reach out with a generous heart to ensure TBI is a warm community and that we forget no one.

Over the years, CLC members have visited and continue to visit TBI senior members in aged care and at home and call on TBI members who may be unwell, bereaved or isolated. We have made many phone calls, especially during Covid, to ensure our members are not lonely or needy. With Rhonda Nirens’ inspiration, we have cooked for members not able to leave home at the time and have delivered meals to them in an initiative named “Take them A Meal”. We have organised live stream capability for our hospitalised members and for isolated people. We have cooked for and delivered food to members temporarily not able to cook for themselves.

We assisted members who wished to learn how to write Life Books for our senior members and then coached them while they were doing so which typically took six months per book writing.  The resulting family books made a major impact on the families concerned.

We are very proud of our conversion students’ mentoring offer which we developed and piloted with some significant successes as a result.

The Committee continues producing and distributing gift bags to celebrate the festivals with members at home and in aged care to further relationships that are important to us all.  Its members co-ordinate community dinners throughout the year to celebrate Jewish festivals.  The number of people attending this year has been astounding.  We anticipate that the dinners will continue to reunite our community, add fun to our celebrations and also encourage new members to participate in TBI’s community events.

In a separate initiative, Dot Nathan has been organising and running “Drop in and Chat” for twenty three consecutive years now. The group’s emphasis has developed over time but has continuously been aimed at our senior members who value companionship with likeminded people. They chat, knit – often for others such as hospital patients – , play word games and undertake craft activities. All this takes place at TBI in a relaxed, warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Several years ago, Project Dignity and Nourish became structurally a part of the CLC.  Their key successes are mentioned below.

Project Dignity

Project Dignity is a direct ‘descendant’ of the Social Justice Group in its wish to give service by acts of loving kindness and that, in very pratical ways. It was begun by David Jones, inspired by a High Holyday sermon by Rabbi Lazarow, and has been run by John Hillel with Rabbi Morgan’s and Cantor Laloum’s participation for approximately eight years now. We focus specifically on support and advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers. To do this work, we partner with outside organisations, mainly The Salvation Army Refugee Service and Deakin University’s Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training and Education (CREATE). We formed these partnerships because we did not wish to duplicate the work already being done by dedicated and much larger organisations than ours, and also because we recognised that we could achieve more through partnering than on our own. We offer English conversation assistance, we feed those who require meals with food gifted to us by major food chains, we run a film club for this group of people which also, assists them to make friends, we have family outings, for example to the zoo and on a Yarra boat trip, and much more.

Nourish

In 2016, Ellen Frajman and Joanne Loewy Irons, with the backing of Rabbi Lazarow and Cantor Laloum, began what was to become signatory TBI work dedicated to the needy around us.

The modern interpretation of tikkun olam is actively repairing the world as taught to us by Torah. Nourish is an example of hands on tikkun olam, feeding around 60 of the ‘strangers amongst us’ every week at the TBI gates. Some of ‘the strangers’ are homeless, some just down on their luck. High quality food is prepared lovingly by volunteers in our commercial synagogue kitchen.  The quality food we give the needy each Monday is enough food for a couple of days.  We make sure to include sweet treats that they could otherwise not afford, not just essentials.

We began by serving 30-35 meals per week to almost double that in 2023. We have at times offered hand knitted items from TBI’s Drop in and Chat group (see below) such as beanies, scarves, gloves, and blankets.  The students of King David School have also joined us from time to time.  Currently, there are three teams of committed volunteers and team leaders who cook, prepare meal packs, and serve. Nourish is made real by the leadership of Andrew Jakobovits and teams of enthusiastic and generous volunteers ready to give of their time. Some are not shul-goers. It is Nourish which allows them to realise and express their Judaism. Through Nourish they are praying with their hearts, hands and feet.

Mitzvah Day

In 2016, Rabbi Morgan saw the opportunity for TBI to be involved in the then nascent community Mitzvah Day.  Ellen Frajman and Joanne Loewy Irons took up the challenge.  Annually, other than during Covid, we have contributed, for example, by putting together flower arrangements for people in aged care, concerts for the elderly, cooking and providing food to needy people.  We continue now to contribute with the assistance of our rabbinic staff.

Each of the contributors to this article has said how much they have personally gained from helping others. If you feel inclined to join us or suggest something new, please contact Cantor Laloum at the TBI office. You will be made most welcome and connected with the appropriate person to meet your needs.

Contributors to this article: Dorothy Graff, John Hillel, David Jones, Gary Sauvarin, Vivienne Rosta, Dot Nathan, Ellen Frajman and Jan Epstein.

10 September 2023

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