By Stacey Dresner
WESTERN MASS. – Looking to become more involved in social justice on a local and state level, a group of individuals in Western Massachusetts have started a branch of JALSA, The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action.
JALSA, founded in 2001 by 40 former board members of the American Jewish Congress, is a Boston-based social justice organization devoted to “the defense of civil rights, the preservation of constitutional liberties, and the passionate pursuit of social, economic and environmental justice for all people.”
Around 50 people from both the upper and lower Pioneer Valley attended the launch of the group at an informational meeting about JALSA held on Sept. 7 in Longmeadow. JALSA staff from Boston, including Executive Director Cindy Rowe, were on hand to explain JALSA’s work, which focuses on issues such as raising the minimum wage, family and medical leave, criminal justice reform and environmental justice.
Guest speaker State Sen. Eric Lesser talked to the group about the importance of working on social action issues at the local level during this time of attacks on “progressive and Jewish values.”
One of the Western Mass. individuals instrumental in forming this new branch of JALSA is Dr. Norbert Goldfield of Northampton, a member of Congregation B’nai Israel who is also executive director of Healing Across the Divides, which provides grants and technical advice to Israelis and Palestinians trying to improve health within a community framework.
“Essentially, I think that with respect to social change in the United States, that faith-based efforts do have a role, whether its Evangelicals or Jewish and so forth, so I think there is a role for religious-based engagement,” explained Goldfield. “Many synagogues have greater or lesser tikkun olam, social justice-type efforts, certainly the synagogue I belong to, CBI in Northampton does…But if you want to have a broader reach in Western Mass. and you want to recognize that not everybody wants [to belong to] a synagogue…then you need to have a different approach and that is where JALSA comes in.”
David Morse of Longmeadow, another steering committee member, has been involved in the social action committee at Sinai Temple in Springfield for years.
“We have a core group of people who are very interested in focusing us a little more on political social action. A bunch of us are interested in climate change and how to influence legislation on the state level to impact that,” he explained. “Sinai Social Action has for years been involved in the Pioneer Valley Project, an interfaith religious and labor-based organization that has been doing work in the Springfield area for 20 years.”
Morse has also become involved in the Religion Action Center, the national political and social action wing of the Reform movement. He attended an RAC conference held in Washington, D.C. last spring.
“There were 900 people there,” Morse said. “Their big issues…were lobbying in Washington for issues around immigrant rights and criminal justice. It was clear that things in the Federal legislative arena have kind of ground to a halt. And the message was to go and to get involved in your local state government and push legislative reform in your own areas.”
When Morse came back and started looking into criminal justice issues, he found “an enormous amount of interest.”
“The question is how to involve the Jewish community more in that…the non-affiliated and other congregations,” Morse said. “We started contacting other congregations – all have social action committees – but wanted to figure out how to pull all of energies together to reach out and get them involved in social justice issues.”
A few preliminary meetings were held to try to gauge interest in forming the JALSA branch in Western Mass., and as it turned out, individuals from the entire region were enthusiastic about the new endeavor, including Ronnie Leavitt and Michelle Marantz of Longmeadow and Liz Friedman of Northampton, who are all now steering committee members.
Western Mass. JALSA has now hired part-time organizer Molly Bajgot, a UMass graduate, who served as a JOIN for Justice fellow in 2014 with SEIU 509, and a Moishe Kavod House organizer in 2015.
Bajgot and Western Mass. members of JALSA are now working on signature campaigns in support of Raise Up Massachusetts’ “Fight for $15,” the campaign to raise the minimum wage; and the fight for paid family and medical leave.
“In these challenging times, JALSA is excited to be advancing our social, economic, and environmental justice agenda by working with Western Massachusetts activists,” said Cindy Rowe, JALSA executive director. “Our organization is dedicated to the passionate pursuit of justice, and we look forward to working with our volunteers in Western Massachusetts to increase the minimum wage, reform the criminal justice system, and create a more just and compassionate society for all.”
For more information about JALSA in Western Mass., contact Molly.JALSA@gmail.com.