ACT: Advocacy. Education. Philanthropy. Service.


Houston. Florida. Puerto Rico. Northern California. These are just four of the stories of natural disasters bringing destruction and devastation to our neighbors. As these disasters approach, while they are happening and in their aftermath we often ask ourselves, “What can we do?” With each successive event, many of us have asked the community, “What are we doing?”

We can experience a wide range of emotions during these times. At times we feel empathy for those suffering. Other times we feel a sense of helplessness, because of the size and scope of these disasters. Still other times we feel a sense of purpose and energy, knowing that others are in need and we are capable of offering assistance.

When approached with any Social Justice problem, we have a number of ways to respond. When faced with disasters as massive and diverse as the floods and fires that have struck our neighbors in the past months, it is important to respond in a variety of ways. When we engage in Social Justice work, we can engage in a number of different ways. Four large categories of this work are, Advocacy, Education, Philanthropy and Service. As our congregation is responding to the natural disasters, we are trying to respond in a wide variety of ways that fall into all these categories.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which we read in November, is instructive of the variety of ways we might respond to a natural disaster. In the story, God condemns the people of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to be destroyed, through terrible fire. The cities would be destroyed during the course of this story we see many people react differently to the events unfurling around them.

At the beginning of the story, Abraham welcomes three strangers into his tent, three angels of God. He provides them with food and comfort. He provides food for these three individuals. This is an act of charity, an act of philanthropy. It is an act of goodwill, to help strangers in their time of need. Philanthropy, providing gifts, often monetary, to improve one’s status and situation.

When that decree of destruction is made, Abraham famously argues with God. He advocates on behalf of the people who live in those cities. Abraham negotiates with God, encouraging God to save the two cities, to stop the terrible disaster from hurting the people who lived there. Abraham makes the case, that there are enough good, righteous people in the cities that they are worth saving. He argues for his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, but he also advocates for all the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Advocacy is the process of supporting a cause through well reasoned argument. It is speaking with the controlling forces and individuals, working with them to adapt and change their policies, so they more closely aligned with yours. Abraham advocated for God to change his decree of destruction on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. While he was not as successful as he hoped to be, he continued to make these arguments through the end of the story, and he was able to save his nephew Lot and Lot’s family from the destruction.

Later, when two angels arrive in the city, Lot serves them directly, he provides them with safety and warmth. He protects them from the mobs which wish to hurt them. Lot puts himself, his family and his home in harm’s way. Lot’s actions are direct actions of service. Working with individuals directly to improve their situation. Lot provides these two strangers, these two angels with a warm safe place to stay for the night.

Service is action in direct connection with an individual or group to provide them with the basic needs. Lot did this through providing the strangers, the angels with a warm place to sleep, a safe place to stay, and protection from the mob which wanted to hurt them. He directly impacted their lives and experiences.

Lot then tries to educate his fellow citizens. He spoke to his neighbors telling them to turn from their ways, “I beg you my friends, do not commit such a wrong.” (Genesis 19:7) In trying to educate them, Lot wanted them to improve their actions, to improve their attitudes and change their future. Education, in Social Justice, gives an opportunity to understand the root causes of an issue and to understand how we can act to improve the future. Lot wanted to educate his neighbors so they would change their behaviors, turn from their ways, stop hurting each other and the strangers who lived amongst them. Through this process of education he hoped to be able to save the city he lived in.
In looking at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see four different ways to respond to a disaster. We see Abraham’s Philanthropy in providing food for the wandering angels. We see Abraham’s Advocacy, negotiating on behalf of the cities. We see Lot’s service, providing safety and caring for the Angels of God. We see Lot try to educate, to turn the people from their ways, towards ways of good.

So, too for disasters in our world, we seek to respond in multiple ways.

First we responded with philanthropy. Over the past months, through our Community Concerns Fund, we have made contributions to help the rebuilding and recovery efforts. The first needs of many of these communities was economic support to assist them in their immediate efforts to cope and eventually to rebuild. We have made donations to local and national organizations to help with their disaster response. To our local Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago’s disaster relief fund. To the national Jewish Federation of North America’s disaster relief fund. To the One America Appeal, a collaboration of former Presidents Carter, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama to respond to devastation caused by the Hurricane’s Harvey, Irma and Maria. To URJ Camp Newman, the Reform Movement’s overnight camp in Northern California which was decimated by wildfires. We have also collected and distributed hundreds of dollars of gift cards to help individuals with the day to day costs of rebuilding their lives.

Second, we have advocated and will continue to advocate for better policies to address climate change. Over the past year, our congregation adopted a resolution reiterating our commitment to fighting climate change. These natural disasters of directly connected to and exacerbated climate change. Through the work of our Environment Committee, we have been working on this issue. We will continue to partner with the Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement’s national advocacy organization to create stronger policies in our state and nation to combat climate change.

Third, in the coming months, our environment committee is working to put together educational series which will help all of us understand how we directly impact the world around us.

Finally, this April, we will be taking a community mission to Houston to directly assist with local rebuilding efforts. Since 2008, Chicago Sinai Congregation has gone on a Service trip each year to help with local rebuilding efforts in communities affected by disaster around the country. This began as a response to Hurricane Katrina and has continued every year since. This April, we will be going to Houston to directly serve the communities impacted locally. From April 12 -15, we will work to rebuilding individuals homes there. We invite you to join us, no experience necessary. Please contact Jill Peters for more information.

There are many different ways to respond to Social Justice issues. We can respond through charity and philanthropy. We can respond through advocacy or education. We can respond through direct service. When we respond to issues as large as natural disasters like those which impacted our neighbors this year, it is important for us to respond in multiple ways. To follow the example of Abraham and Lot and to bring all of these methods together. Our action is a combination of advocacy, education, philanthropy and service.

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