Sermon given March 16, 2001, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Standing to preach at this historic pulpit, I occasionally think of Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, of blessed memory. Rabbi Frisch was the predecessor of our beloved Rabbi Jacobson. He was known for his fiery oratory and his equally passionate opinion articles, published in local newspapers. Often, Rabbi Frisch’s positions were unpopular with some of his most influential congregants. The most famous incident involved the pecan shellers’ strike.
At that time, pecans were one of our city’s largest industries, and at least one of the major pecan businesses was owned by Temple members. Pecan shellers were poorly paid manual laborers. Pecan shelling was also unhealthy. You and I may enjoy shelling and eating a pecan or two, from the nuts that fall in our yards. The shellers, though, sat in poorly ventilated rooms, shelling hundreds of pecans in the company of scores of others like them. The dust in the room was thick, and respiratory illnesses were common.
The pecan shellers went on strike. The pecan business owners were livid. The strike was big news, and a civic crisis, because of the importance of the industry in the city. Imagine if all the hotel and restaurant workers went on strike today. The police were called in to break up the picket lines. These actions against the strikers were well-received by many. After all, they thought, the strikers are Communists.
Rabbi Frisch disagreed. Right here on this pulpit, in the presence of some of the employers, his own congregants, he spoke out on behalf of the pecan shellers. Quoting our ancient Hebrew prophets, he reminded the business owners that the ethical demands of our Jewish faith required them to pay living wages, and to assure a healthy work environment.
Rabbi Frisch became unpopular with many of the members of our Temple. Soon after, he concluded his service here. Certainly, the reasons for his departure were many and varied. Most would argue that his sermons were not the principal reason. And yet, Rabbi Frisch paid a heavy price for taking a risk. We would all like to think that we would speak out on behalf of the poor and needy. The truth was, though, that the pecan shellers had chosen a rather obnoxious and occasionally even violent method of redressing their grievances. Not only their own livelihoods, but also those of the business owners, were threatened.
Rabbi Frisch was not the only occupant of this pulpit to have spoken out on controversial issues. Rabbi Jacobson was outspoken in his support of the Civil Rights Movement, even when his activism was not appreciated by some Temple members. Rabbi Stahl has been forthright on a number of issues, most recently the rights of homosexuals. A handful of congregants have resigned Temple membership as a result of our stance on same-sex unions and the Boy Scouts’ discrimination against gay Scout leaders.
Standing in this pulpit then, as your next Rabbi, I am awed by a legacy of social activism. Your rabbis have stood in this place and spoken the words of our ancient Hebrew prophets, calling on the people of God to care for the needy. In the legacy of Isaiah, they have called upon this congregation to protect the despised. Recalling Jeremiah, they have insisted that Temple Beth-El protect the weak. All of us are humbled by the examples of those ancient prophets. They prophesied against the kings, the priests, and all the rulers of their land and time. Most of them were despised. Some were imprisoned. Elijah was targeted for death.
Almost all the prophets had one trait in common: They were obnoxious, or at least they supported causes that were hateful to many in their midst. In retrospect, we would agree that their goals were just; and yet, we may still question their tactics. They were rabble-rousers. They told the people, in sharp terms, straight out, what they were doing wrong. They did not respect their kings and priests, whom they believed to be corrupt. They did not often select quiet, sweet, and subtle means of achieving their objectives.
As faithful Jews, studying the words and the lives of our ancient prophets, we are likely to defend them. The situations they faced did not lend themselves to moderate words or quiet tones of voice. To paraphrase and reverse the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, they had no big stick, so they had to speak loudly.
Certainly, nobody here would argue that either Rabbi Stahl or Rabbi Jacobson is obnoxious. Both of them have found courteous and friendly words by which to convey their occasionally controversial beliefs. Rabbi Frisch has been described differently by some, but perhaps his time, like that of the ancient prophets, required a more severe tone.
And so, in that spirit, let us come to an evaluation of COPS, Communities Organized for Public Service, and its sister organization, the Metro Alliance. These two organizations have been at work in San Antonio for some twenty-seven years. Perhaps some are not familiar with these groups. They are alliances of churches and schools that struggle for the welfare of less advantaged citizens and poorer segments of the city. With very little paid staff, the decisions are made and the work is done almost entirely by volunteer activists.
Their accomplishments have been legion. As a direct result of their efforts, over one billion dollars have been leveraged for investment funds for infrastructure needs in the poorest areas of the city. Tens of millions of dollars have been made available to purchase, build and rehabilitate housing for the poor. Over half a billion dollars in school bond issues have passed, to improve the quality of education in Bexar County. Countless families have been enrolled in programs to provide health care coverage to the uninsured.
We may certainly applaud the accomplishments of COPS and Metro Alliance. But what of their tactics? In the early years, these organizations and their leaders were indeed obnoxious. By their own admission, they employed tactics that were destructive to some relationships and hurtful to many. They lost friends, delaying the success of some of their critical endeavors. They put off potential partners, preventing some like-minded citizens from being sympathetic.
Some will say that the ends justified the means. Others will disagree. However, I have been persuaded that the leaders of COPS and Metro Alliance had only two choices in their early years: They could be obnoxious or they could abandon their cause. Like Rabbi Frisch, and like the prophets of old, they would not give up the struggle that they knew to be right. If others viewed their tactics with disdain, then so be it. They had no money or power to wield. They had nothing to offer but their efforts, their bodies, and their very loud voices.
Their models were the freedom riders and the college students who staged sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the south. They, too, had been forced to employ tactics that many would call hateful, or even law breaking. Not so many years later, though, those Civil Rights “criminals” were viewed as heroes. Perhaps the time has now come for us to regard the founders of COPS and Metro Alliance as champions of our San Antonio, almost on par with the martyrs of the Alamo.
Not so many decades ago, fewer than we would like to admit, the west side of San Antonio had neither sewers nor running water. Bacterial diseases were a constant problem, as children played in open sewage, all in a supposedly civilized city, in the greatest nation in the world, in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Even today, the schools in the south, east, west and central portions of our city are sub-standard at best. Bonds have been passed, yes, and efforts have been impressive in some districts. And yet, how many of us would consent to send our own children to San Antonio Independent School District schools? And that large District is hardly the worst here.
Even today, San Antonio reports record incidence of diabetes, teen pregnancy, untreated mental illness, and other ills that are heavily concentrated among the poor. Even with the passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program two years ago, insurmountable barriers prevent thousands of families from securing sufficient health care coverage. Medicaid in Texas will not pay for family planning if the family income is greater than seventeen per cent of poverty, meaning that free birth control is only available to the very poorest of the poor, folks who are defined as eighty-three per cent worse off than poor! No wonder that our rate of unintended pregnancies is astronomical.
The members of COPS and Metro Alliance have reason to be angry. They struggle every day for the welfare of the needy, who are so poorly served in our community. If the tactics of COPS and Metro Alliance were still obnoxious and unsavory, who could blame them?
And yet, COPS and Metro Alliance have recently found success in alliance with powerful leaders of our city. Many of the captains of finance and industry, not to mention politics, consider COPS and Metro Alliance to be their partners, if not always, then at least from time to time. COPS and Metro Alliance sit at the table with the Chamber of Commerce, City Council and the Commissioners Court.
Not long ago, their leaders also sat down for lunch with leaders of Temple Beth-El. You see, earlier, when describing COPS and Metro Alliance, I said that it is a collection of churches and schools. No synagogue is a member. While there are some north side congregations in the membership, almost none are what may be termed large, mainstream largely Anglo congregations. Among congregations considered to be our peers in the city, only First Unitarian comes close among current members of COPS and Metro Alliance.
Temple Beth-El has been invited to become a member of COPS or Metro Alliance. Rest assured that our Temple leadership is proceeding with caution. We all want to be sure that we are doing the right thing, for San Antonio and for Temple Beth-El. There are financial considerations, and we want to be comfortable with the decision-making process. Most importantly, we need to be certain of a mechanism for facing situations in which we or a large number of our members may disagree with COPS and Metro Alliance. We hope to join with large, center-city Christian Churches, that are similar to us in many ways, to explore efforts to cooperate with COPS and Metro Alliance, possibly short of full membership, at least at first.
As we do, let us turn a merciful eye toward the early days of COPS and Metro Alliance. We have walked in their shoes, though it was a very long time ago. We were once strangers, in Egypt and elsewhere; the founders of COPS and Metro Alliance were strangers to the power structure of San Antonio. Let us remember the heart of the stranger.
May we recall the vision of the prophets, and their voices. May we emulate our Rabbis – Ephraim Frisch, David Jacobson, and Samuel Stahl – and may we speak up for what is right, even when doing so is difficult. And when we’re not the ones speaking and acting, but our friends in COPS and Metro Alliance are, let us find ways to be at their side.