CRC receives social justice award

Rev. Dr. John Bennett (left) and Rev. Allen Ladage (right) of Missouri Interfaith Impact give Central Reform Congregation’s Jennifer Bersdale and Rabbi Susan Talve the first annual Amos 5:24 Justice Avocate Award during CRC’s Shabbat services Friday night. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Reverend Dr. John Bennett felt last week’s Shabbat experience more than lived up to his expectations.

“I have known and worked with Rabbi Susan Talve and it is such a joy to be in her presence at any time but in the congregational setting it was even more so,” he said. “I just wish every congregation, including those I have served as a pastor and as a member, had the sense of prophetic vitality that Central Reform does.”

And if Missouri Interfaith IMPACT, the statewide organization that Bennett was representing last Friday evening, has anything to say about it, every congregation will hear of that prophetic vitality. Bennett was there to present congregants with the Amos 5:24 Justice Advocate Award honoring the house of worship for its commitment to social justice.

Amos 5:24 reads, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

“We wanted to begin to say thank you for that kind of commitment, that kind of work because we just don’t see as much of it taking place within the state,” said Rev. Allen Ladage, chair of IMPACT. “It was time to lift up those who are doing these things in order to support them and help people know there are others doing this kind of work also.”

Ladage also attended the Friday night observance, which coincided with the congregation’s monthly Social Responsibility Shabbat Service.

But the award isn’t just a first for CRC. It’s also a first for the organization giving it. Though IMPACT was founded in 1980, this is the inaugural year for the honor.

Jennifer Bersdale, director of advocacy and communications for the synagogue, said the award really recognized the totality of CRC’s work in a number of areas, not for any single specific program.

“It’s really for our overall tikkun olam programming,” she said. “It’s based on work we’ve done on a variety of issues but the top criteria are that the recipients must address the root causes of poverty, racism, sexism and other forms of injustice. Addressing the root causes of those issues is really what a lot of our advocacy is about.”

The other criteria for the honor include challenging and seeking to change unjust societal structures and promoting transformative and sustainable change.

Ladage said the award is meant to recognize congregations that lend a more progressive voice to religious dialogue and he was personally impressed by the work CRC did on health care issues.

“It’s a great time and a great day for all congregations to work together to find different concerns that they can begin to respond to, not just on the mercy side of fixing the problems of one person but moving on to the justice side and looking at what the causes of injustice are and then responding to say no,” he said.

Bersdale said that the criteria spoke strongly to the ethos that drives the congregation’s efforts.

“We recognize that programs where you are directly helping individuals are important but you also have to pair them with trying to change the system so that individuals aren’t hungry so that they need food drives,” she said.

CRC Rabbi Susan Talve had high praise for the two presenters and said the award challenges her temple to strive even more diligently to maintain its mission.

“It’s a high bar and it’s a wonderful organization,” she said of IMPACT. “That they would consider us for their first award means we have to take it seriously. It’s a challenge to make sure we deserve it by continuing to work hard on justice issues in the state.”

Talve said it was especially moving that the award wasn’t merely local but reflected a wider swath of the region.

“Sometimes we wonder as Jews if we are really making an impact statewide because while there are Jews in St. Louis and Kansas City and a few [outstate], you don’t think as much about the community making an impact in rural areas across the state,” she said.

Bersdale said CRC was happy to host the pair, who traveled from Jefferson City to make the official announcement. The temple has known about its selection for about a month, she said.

“They really wanted to come at a time where they could share it with the whole congregation,” she said.

Bennett said the experience meant a great deal to him.

“It was a joy for me personally to worship at Central Reform Congregation,” he said. “I said before my remarks that I was humbled to be in the presence of brothers and sisters and Abraham and Sarah. It was a special interfaith moment for me.”

Talve said the nature of the award recognized the power of collective action.

“What’s wonderful about this award is that it is for the entire congregation. That really is honoring the whole community, not any one of us but all of us,” she said. “It reminds us that we can do so much more as a community. We can really make a difference when we all live our core values together.”