Jews, politicians taking action to ‘heal the world’

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-28-2023 6:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Solar development, pregnancy care and the return of Indigenous lands were some of the many topics discussed by legislators representing the Pioneer Valley as part of Congregation B’Nai Israel’s 11th annual Tikkun Olam event on Monday.

More than 100 participants, including 11 area legislators, convened virtually as part of the event, held as a way for members of the congregation and the larger Jewish community of western Massachusetts to meet with state senators and representatives and discuss legislation that aligns with the synagogue’s teachings of social justice.

The gathering has been held virtually over Zoom rather than in person since the start of the pandemic, which enables more people to participate in the event, organizers said.

The Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for “heal the world”) Committee divides its legislative priorities into nine different categories: climate action, criminal justice reform, education, food security, health care, housing justice, Indigenous peoples, Fair Share Amendment and Ukrainian refugees.

“We are continuing to move with our agenda, with our unity as a Jewish community, with our legislators,” said Pamela Schwartz, who chairs the Tikkun Olam Committee. “We know that is going to be a journey, and we’re going to stay in it through our community connections.”

The congregation listed several introduced bills that will help meet those priorities, including some sponsored by the legislators in attendance.

In the Indigenous peoples category, the committee highlighted two bills sponsored by state Sen. Jo Comerford. One would prohibit use of Native American mascots — there are currently 25 public high schools in the state that use such mascots — and establish Indigenous Peoples Day, which would replace Columbus Day on the second Monday in October.

The congregation’s outline also included calls for legislation to return the state-owned Lampson Brook property in Belchertown to the Nipmuc tribe.

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In the category of food security, the committee highlighted state Rep. Mindy Domb’s hunger-free campus initiative bill. This proposal calls for a roadmap to support two- and four-year public colleges and minority-serving institutions in bringing hunger relief to campuses around the state.

The congregation’s outline also included two climate action bills. One, co-sponsored by state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Paul Mark, would promote solar development on buildings and disturbed land while ensuring preservation of undevelopment land. The other bill calls for a Zero Carbon Renovation Fund that would include a $300 million investment to serve as the down payment to advance building decarbonization efforts.

The committee also calls on the Legislature to extend humanitarian parole for refugees from Ukraine. Many Ukrainian refugees in western Massachusetts who are served by Jewish Family Services are at risk of losing their legal status, including critical benefits, due to certain immigration protection programs ending in April.

These are just a few of the examples of proposed legislation that reflects B’nai Israel’s social justice vision, said Jen Wenz, a member of the Tikkun Olam Committee.

“We work together (with other advocacy groups) to figure out which bills are the ones that really encompass our vision for the commonwealth that we want to live in, and which bills are worth our energy and our strategic effort to try to get passed,” she said. “Our vision as Jews working for justice is multi-issue, is intersectional, is broad and encompasses this vision that the dignity of all people might be recognized.”

In addition to Comerford, Domb, Sabadosa and Mark, legislators who attended the event were state Sens. Jacob Oliveira and John Velis, along with Reps. Natalie Blais, Dan Carey, Patricia Duffy, Aaron Saunders and Susannah Whipps.

Each politician shared a part of their backstory and why they answered the call to public service.

“My parents were active in local government, and they talked to me  about how imperfect government is, but people power is the thing that makes government work for everyone,” said Comerford.

The Northampton Democrat said one of her earliest political mentors was Joan Shanley, an activist nun of the Sisters of St. Joseph in New York.

“Our job is to bend government to recognize the needs and opportunities of the greatest diversity of people,” she said.

Mark, who represents towns in Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Berkshire counties, said he was motivated by his family’s economic situation growing up, after the warehouse his father worked at closed down.

“There was a barrier, and for me that barrier was financial,” he said. “For other people, it might be what you look like, where your parents were born, what language you speak at home, who you love.”

After each lawmaker spoke, attendants were split into breakout rooms where they could ask questions to a legislator of their choice. In Sabadosa’s breakout room, she discussed several of her proposed bills, including one that would require health insurance plans to cover all pregnancy care, including abortion, childbirth and postpartum care.

“When you look at the number of people who give birth and go into medical debt by giving birth, those numbers are increasingly larger and larger,” Sabadosa said. “In our initial conversations with insurance companies, they are starting to see this is a health equity bill, which is really encouraging, because of course people who are less well off struggle the most with these costs.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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