Eighty years ago this month, on June 29, 1937, uniformed and plainclothes officers of the San Antonio Police Department raided the headquarters of the San Antonio Workers Alliance, a group that supported workers’ rights.

The police brought axes and “enthusiastically destroyed everything,” according to one participant. They smashed dishes in the kitchen, kicked over the stove, chopped up the piano, hammered chairs and benches to pieces, smashed the typewriter and duplicating machine, and arrested seven members of the alliance.

Among the first community leaders to respond with outrage was Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, the senior rabbi of San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El.

In a scathing letter to the San Antonio Light, Frisch condemned the police raid as worthy of praise from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. When the editor of the Light truncated Frisch’s letter and consigned it to a corner of page 6, Frisch printed 800 copies and distributed them throughout the city.

Less than a year later, the fiery Frisch would openly challenge a wealthy and powerful board member of his own congregation, Julius Seligmann, owner of the largest pecan shelling operation in the nation and the target of a massive labor strike led by Emma TenayucaFrisch publicly sided with the strikers, condemning the six cents-per-pound pay and the wretched working conditions that often meant poor ventilation, no water or toilets, and a choking pecan dust that destroyed the workers’ lungs. 

Over the ensuing decades, Temple Beth-El’s rabbis were equally visible and no less influential in the affairs of San Antonio, especially when social justice issues arose. That tradition continues today, with a new generation of rabbis who share their predecessors’ commitment to those issues.

There have been only four rabbis in the 80 years following Rabbi Frisch. Rabbi David Jacobson served for 38 years until 1976, followed by Rabbi Samuel Stahl, who served for 26 years. Rabbi Barry H.D. Block was senior rabbi for 21 years, retiring in 2013.

The temple’s online history says Jacobson, Stahl, and Block “used their prestige and moral authority to work for the peaceful desegregation of San Antonio, the initiation and perpetuation of an interfaith dialogue and partnership, the ongoing quest for human rights and equality, and the advancement of Jewish ideals for the betterment of the city of San Antonio.”

Rabbi Mara Nathan, the current senior rabbi, works with her congregation to support today’s struggles for equal rights, women’s and gender equality, working on behalf of people who are underprivileged, and alleviating childhood hunger in our community.

Nathan, who assumed leadership of the temple in 2014, is the first woman to serve as senior rabbi of a major Texas congregation. Her fellow clergy members are Rabbi Marina Yergin, who came on board in 2015, and Cantor Julie Berlin, who has served the temple since 2008.

(From left) Rabbi Marina Yergin, Rabbi Mara Nathan, and Cantor Julie Berlin read the Torah at Temple Beth-El.
(From left) Rabbi Marina Yergin, Rabbi Mara Nathan, and Cantor Julie Berlin read the Torah at Temple Beth-El. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A Commitment to Tikkun Olam and Social Justice

Nathan said the Jewish understanding of tikkun olam has been foundational to the life of the congregation of Temple Beth-El. 

Rabbi Nathan explained that tikkun olam, which literally translates as “to repair the world,” can be properly understood only within the context of the imperative for Jews to engage in righteous giving. In Judaism, the Hebrew term for righteous giving is tzedakah, which has its roots in the biblical requirement to promote justice. Far more encompassing than just giving alms, tzedakah means giving not only of one’s resources but also personal time, talent, and energy to repair brokenness and to create a better world.

The community activism of Frisch in the 1930s and ’40s and that of his successor rabbis at Temple Beth-El were rooted in tzedakah and tikkun olam, Nathan said.

“Each of us has a personal responsibility for tzedakah, and every Jewish congregation as a community has responsibility for tzedakah, righteous giving,” Yergin said. “However, each of us, and each Jewish congregation, must determine its own path to practice tikkun olam.” 

Imbedded in traditions of Jewish ethical behavior is the imperative to look around, see and acknowledge the brokenness in our world, and then do something about it, Berlin said.

When asked how they personally bring tikkun olam to the world, the two rabbis and cantor answered almost in unison, “Our lives are tikkun olam.” 

“As Jewish clergy we live our responsibility for tikkun olam 24/7/365,” Nathan said. “It is our role and it is our life. Tikkun olam is not merely what we do; it is who we are.”

“Each of us has the education and background to pursue successful secular careers,” Nathan said. “But this is the life we choose, to repair the world through our rabbinical leadership and personal efforts, both in our congregation and in our broader San Antonio community.”

(From left) Rabbi Marina Yergin, Rabbi Mara Nathan, and Cantor Julie Berlin dress the Torah at Temple Beth-El.
(From left) Rabbi Marina Yergin, Rabbi Mara Nathan, and Cantor Julie Berlin dress the Torah at Temple Beth-El. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In addition to her role as cantor, Berlin gives back to the community through her work and music, through participation in the outreach initiatives of the National Council of Jewish women, and by showing concern for those who are ill. 

Yergin dedicates herself to working with teens and youth, not only within the congregation but in other areas of outreach in the community.

Nathan works to promote women’s rights, human dignity, respect and rights for the LGBTQIA community, and helps children with special needs.

Educating Temple Beth-El members about the imperative to engage in tikkun olam and mitzvah starts with the youth. In preparation for their bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, every youth at Temple Beth-El must have a mitzvah project. Among the many mitzvah projects this year, one student prepared blessing bags for the homeless with water, nutrition bars, and personal items.

One of the many ways that Temple Beth-El maintains its longstanding commitment to tikkun olam is by feeding local people who are hungry and disadvantaged. 

In the temple bulletin, Temple Beth-El announced its 2017 Food and Fun Summer Camp to combat childhood hunger with the headline, “School’s Out, But Hunger Takes No Vacation.” Last week more than 100 children came to the Temple for fun and educational activities, but more importantly to receive meals they might not otherwise get with schools closed for the summer. Tikkun olam.

Earlier this month, Nathan and temple members shared a Ramadan meal with members of the Muslim community, using the opportunity for mutual understanding. Tikkun olam.

As a result of its longstanding commitment to social action, Temple Beth-El received the nationally recognized Irving J. Fain Award, which honors Reform Judaism congregations for exemplary social justice work. Beth-El was honored in 2009 for its Darfur Calls program and again in 2013 for its Food and Fun Summer Camp.

Temple Beth-El’s commitment to tikkun olam extends beyond its own congregation’s work into the wider community. The Temple is a member of the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee, a coalition of faith-based groups that work to address issues such as quality education, access to health care, living wages, and fair lending practices.

The congregation has also engaged in enhancing its initiatives by becoming a Community of Practice within the Union for Reform Judaism. This program helps Jewish congregations more deeply embed social justice into their culture and increase their social justice impact.

Should Nathan emulate the lengthy tenures of Temple Beth-El’s past senior rabbis, she could well be an equally influential religious leader – and an advocate of tikkun olam – in San Antonio until 2040 and beyond, keeping the Temple Beth-El’s congregation at the forefront of social justice in San Antonio.

Tikkun olam is not simply a noble ideal,” Nathan said. “Tikkun olam, our call to repair the world, is an imperative for us. It’s not an option.”

Edward Speed

Edward Speed holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. Mary's University. He reports on religion and spirituality for the Rivard Report.