Ethical Culture has an extensive history of Social Action. What follows is a sketch of the Society’s major social justice initiatives, listed by decade. Between these actions has been an ongoing history of social justice activities in the form of panels, educational seminars and more transient programs.
- The Bergen Society founded the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey. Members such as Jean Strickholm, the late Phyllis Dumont and others were active in this venture. In subsequent years, members served as screeners to help break down discriminatory policies in home purchases and apartment rentals.
- Society members who were Teaneck residents were very active in desegregating the Teaneck Public Schools, making Teaneck the first municipality in the nation to do so voluntarily and without a court order.
- The Society founded Camp Elliott, a multi-racial summer camp for high school youth. The Camp lasted for about eight years. Leader Howard Radest, and others, were instrumental in its founding.
- The Society conducted a study that led to separate living arrangements for juveniles at the then Bergen Pines Hospital. Late members, Peter and Lily Jacobsohn led the study.
- The Society was active in initiating and sustaining the Teaneck Peace Center, which was a spearhead of organizing against the Vietnam War.
- The Society founded Amnesty Adoption Group 111, only the second of such groups in New Jersey at the time. The group persevered for more than 15 years working to win the freedom of prisoners of conscience and engaging in other human rights campaigns.
- The Society was named an official “Peace Site,” as it became very active in the “nuclear freeze” and other related movements.
- The Society created a model “peace studies” curriculum that was appropriated by Bergen Community College and factored into its course of study.
- After two years of study and organizing meetings, the Society voted to engage collectively in civil disobedience and create The Sanctuary for Central American Refugees. This led to the sheltering of a young Salvadoran man for two years and continuing public education on the civil war in that country.
- The Society engaged in a multi-faceted commitment to housing justice and sheltering the homeless. This led to sheltering work as a founding congregation of the soon-to-become 240-congregation Inter-Religious Fellowship for the Homeless (today’s “Family Promise”). At one time, approximately 40 members were mobilized to do this work. Members also served on the Teaneck Affordable Housing Commission. Dozens of panels and public meetings on housing justice issues were held. Peter Jacobsohn, as treasurer of the Inter-Religious Fellowship, pushed for the creation of Peter’s Place, a shelter open to all the homeless, based on need and without official vetting.
- The Society, working with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, promoted the enrollment of two refugees from the Bosnian War, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, free of charge.
- The Society created Bergen Rainbow Youth (B-Ray), a weekly program lasting for several years, to serve LGBT youth of high school age.
- The Society founded the The Northern New Jersey Sanctuary Coalition. The Sanctuary became a coalition of seven congregations and other organizations that provides a comprehensive range of humanitarian services for political asylum seekers. The following is a message from Dr. Joe Chuman about this ongoing effort:
The Sanctuary Committee
We are at a xenophobic moment in American history. Americans pride themselves on being a nation of immigrants, yet it is ironic — and tragic — that we go through periods of contempt for the immigrant.
The major beneficiaries of the early Ethical Culture movement’s social justice and social service efforts were overwhelmingly immigrants. Ethical Culture’s tradition as well as the challenges that asylum seekers coming to the United States currently face prompted the creation of The Sanctuary Committee.
The Sanctuary Committee is a coalition of six religious congregations, human rights organizations and affiliated groups who have joined together to provide humanitarian support and advocacy for political asylum seekers.
Since 2005 the group has provided homes, educational assistance, medical care and other support to those seeking asylum and those recently granted asylum who are still in need of help in getting their lives started in a new country.
President & Founding Member, Sanctuary Committee
- The Society founded the Bergen County Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre.
As mentioned, this list is partial. The Sanctuary for Central American Refugees, B-Ray and the current Sanctuary Committee were distinctive efforts in that their establishment was preceded by years of study and education that led to their creation.
As the Society approaches its 70th anniversary this year, we can be proud regarding how much we have done together — and yet aware of how much there is yet to do!