FOX POINT — In a time when social injustices and racial inequalities have been increasingly laid bare by police violence and the COVID-19 pandemic, a local synagogue is forging new partnerships that it’s hoping will have a positive impact.
Congregation Sinai of Fox Point has long been involved in social justice causes, but those efforts got a boost in 2018, when a vicar from Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee reached out to see if the leaders from the two institutions could meet.
What formed is a partnership that led to the two congregations collaborating on a variety of different outreach efforts.
Efforts first kicked off with an annual pulpit–sharing practice and have continued to evolve to include Congregation Sinai’s work to help stock Cross Lutheran’s Bread of Healing food pantry with fruits and vegetables from the synagogue garden. Sinai members also volunteer their time to work at the church pantry.
Stepping up for students
Most recently, the collaboration has seen the congregations band together to create a summer “step up” school for students who lost ground this past school year because they were out of the classroom.
Social justice teams from Cross Lutheran, Congregation Sinai, and fellow partners at Tikkun Ha-Ir and Hillel Milwaukee, have been meeting biweekly via Zoom to help organize the school, which they hope will serve up to 120 students in grades 1-12.
Organizers are still looking for a location for the school but are hoping it will be close to Cross Lutheran, which is situated near North 16th and West Walnut streets.
The program will run from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday, and children will be served breakfast and lunch.
The curriculum is expected to focus on math and reading, said Eva Hagenhofer, co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Congregation Sinai.
“It is a justice issue. The pandemic has affected everyone. But it hasn’t affected everyone equally,” Hagenhofer said. “Children who are less resourced, who have historically been less resourced because of structural racism and segregation, are suffering the most now and we want to do our part to help them get on a more solid footing before school re-starts in the fall.”
The hope is to recruit at least 25-30 adults who can commit to the four-day-per-week schedule, and who will have time to participate in the training that is needed. The group is also looking for assistants and will be busy recruiting potential volunteers from churches and temples throughout the Milwaukee area in the coming weeks. Those interested in volunteering can email EvaMeredith@att.net.
Focus on civil rights
For the Rev. Michelle Townsend de Lopez, the pastor at Cross Lutheran Church, the summer school effort has allowed the two congregations to partner on something that is close to both of their hearts and missions: Civil rights.
“This is where I would say we are very much akin to one another. Jewish communities as well as African descent communities have been on the cutting edge when it comes to focusing civil rights and inequalities that have appeared in our communities,” the pastor said. “There is that heart for understanding around social disparities that we all connect on. But then also from a faith perspective, we are both very much committed to serving one another.”
Addressing inequities at home
Congregation Sinai’s focus on civil rights has also led members of the social justice committee to form a relationship with the Multi-Ethnic Parent Association at Nicolet High School in Glendale.
The partnership began in November of last year, following the congregation’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement, social justice marches and other related events, Rabbi David Cohen said.
The exposure of the inequalities – laid bare by the death of George Floyd and police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha – sparked a lot of interest and passion at Sinai, Cohen said. It had a lot of congregants asking: “What are we going to do about this?” The “this” being the ongoing racial inequities affecting minorities in the Milwaukee area.
“We reached out to Lisa Jones, who is the lead organizer for MICAH (Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope), and she got us thinking about doing something closer to home and working on issues of race as they are manifest in our own neighborhoods, and in our local schools,” Cohen said.
From that conversation, the congregation realized that the question of addressing racial inequalities shouldn’t simply be “the suburbs reaching into the city to help but should also be the suburbs going to work on themselves,” Cohen said.
With its involvement with the Multi-Ethnic Parents Association, the congregation is trying to “bring to light and deal with some of the discriminatory patterns and policies that are still part of our civic institutions, in particular our schools,” Cohen added.
So far, the partnership has included attending virtual meetings, and sponsoring, along with the school’s Black Student Union, a talk featuring well-known social justice advocate and historian Reggie Jackson.
The congregation and the Multi-Ethnic Parents Association, are next planning to host a discussion of the book, “Despite the Best Intensions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools.”
For Multi-Ethnic Parents Association president Yolaund Sulcer, the partnership has helped to strengthen the group’s efforts to curb racial inequities in the school, because the congregation, in Fox Point, represents the part of community where the high school is located.
“Managing any biases is the main thing,” Sulcer said. “Some community members have a bias in thinking that the students of color that are coming into Nicolet are from Milwaukee, but in reality, that is not the case. You are getting more and more families of color in the area, and we want to have a true effort of inclusion.”
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