As B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville nears 100 years of existence and prepares to mark 50 years at its current location in Rockville, the synagogue is working on a variety of initiatives to support the community, increase support for Israel and improve diversity and inclusion through exciting programs and interfaith outreach.
B’nai Israel has been working toward these evolving goals with the firm resolve to stay apolitical through several Israel advocacy events, collaboration with Washington Hebrew Congregation on a social justice initiative called SEA Change and collaboration with local community organizations.
“We’re trying to engage in a way that works for us. It’s part of our mission as Jews to make the world a better place and so we have to navigate that,” B’nai Israel Senior Rabbi Michael Safra said.
One of the ways the synagogue is working toward that is through social justice work and specially the SEA Change initiative, which stands for “Study, Engage, Act” and focuses on improving racial equity within the community.
SEA Change began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, leading to Washington Hebrew and B’nai Israel to partner and focus the rage they felt into a productive push for meaningful change.
“The idea [behind SEA Change] was what can we do [in response]? How do we express our anger at that moment of division in our country? And what started as [a suggestion of], well, maybe you should have a book club or get people together, became [ a focus where] we need to learn more about the history of racial injustices and also about the method of organizing. And so, our group divided up, we joined together with Washington Hebrew Congregation and 25 leaders from each group, [underwent] a 10-month process of learning,” Safra said.
Through the initiative, the synagogue underwent several changes, including joining an interfaith coalition called Action in Montgomery and deepening ties with Jews United for Justice. Their work has been successful enough that other local organizations are now duplicating the efforts, and Safra said that SEA Change would soon be launching in Boston.
However, the synagogue has had to be measured in its approach to adopting these new initiatives, with Safra noting that as a large organization they were working on these issues in a way that was strictly nonpartisan and rooted in Jewish values and traditions.
“No one political party owns a monopoly on interpreting Jewish texts … When it comes to working on issues outside the community, we don’t use jargon – that jargon is unhelpful and usually proffered by partisans,” Safra said.
He said that when politically charged language gets added to a discussion around issues important to the synagogue’s leadership and congregants, it can turn people off from engaging and bring divisiveness into the congregation.
“We worked on a campaign in Chevy Chase … and lobbied to make sure that they were going to put affordable housing as part of that initiative. [So, while something like] critical race theory is a divisive issue, affordable housing in our county, in that particular area [Chevy Chase], is not divisive, and it was important that we get involved and we actually won in that case,” Safra said.
And that involvement in the community has spilled over to other issues B’nai Israel is working on as well, most notably with providing support to Israel and congregants who were personally impacted by the Oct. 7 attacks and ensuing war.
“The Scotland AME Zion Church community, whom we got to know through SEA Change work and helping them to build their church, their first reaction after Oct. 7 was to help gather supplies [for the Israeli army],” Safra said.
But beyond the larger community response, the synagogue has been working hard to serve as a resource for the community and a beacon of support for the Israeli people, including the sizable Israeli population in the local community.
Safra added that B’nai Israel hosted a solidarity Shabbat soon after the attacks and he was amazed by the turnout, which he estimated to be around 600-700 people during a time when many community members were afraid and hesitant to go outside.
“The synagogue has served its role as a central gathering place for our community to come together and grieve over all this,” he said.
These efforts of promoting unity and inclusiveness while stifling divisiveness will be important as the synagogue turns its eye toward its centennial with a lot of uncertainty swirling around the community in this time of crisis, as Safra described it.
“There are lots of people outside the walls of this building on any issue in the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, who have an interest in dividing the people around them. That’s how politics work. And we’re not going to succumb to that,” he said.
“We can always do more for Israel. We can always do more for [social] justice.”