Perspectives on Theory and Practice:  A Collection

Rabbi Moshe ben Asher, Ph.D.

Conflict & Cooperation in Macro Theory & Practice

Relationship-Building and Congregational Organizing

Writing Daily Macro Practice Notes: A Primer for Community Organizers & Developers 


When I began community organizing it was without the benefit of any education or training for the work. I started in the late 1960s, co-organizing the Southern California Council of Free Clinics during my tenure as Drug Abuse Coordinator for Los Angeles County. My mistakes were frequent and occasionally like shooting myself in the foot. But over the years I found that I could learn a great deal from the work of every other community organizer I encountered. Invariably I would find myself listening intently as another organizer related his or her work and the lessons gained from it. And inevitably the experience prodded in me a sense of obligation to teach others what I was learning. So I became a full-time community organizer and a part-time teacher of community organizing--doing, learning, and teaching.

Over the next decade and a half I was a neighborhood organizer for a number of organizations, including ACORN and the Citizens Action League of California. I had the privilege to be a founding Co-Editor of The Organizer, a journal for organizers, published by the ACORN Institute for Social Justice. I was also Statewide Training Director and Director of Neighborhood Organizing for Citizens Action League. I became a staff organizer for the Orange County Congregation Community Organizations, part of the nationwide PICO network of interfaith congregational organizing projects. I subsequently became Assistant Director of Organize Training Center in San Francisco.

With an MSW in community organizing from UCLA, I began my teaching at San Bernardino Valley College, California State College at San Bernardino, and California State University at Hayward. After getting my Ph.D. in community organizing and social development at Cal Berkeley, I taught community organizing courses at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work and Community Planning, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the School of Social Work at the State University of New York in Albany, and California State University at Los Angeles. I currently teach community organizing in the Department of Social Work at California State University at Long Beach and the Sociology Department at California State University at Dominguez Hills.

I haven't always had a religious or spiritual life. One night in San Francisco in the early 1980s, I was riding in a car with another organizer and two middle-aged African-American women who were leaders in Citizens Action League. One woman consistently punctuated her comments with the phrase, "Praise God"--which struck me as inane at the time. Within six months I had come to reflect on the fact that, overwhelmingly, the lives of the people with whom I had been working--virtually all low- to moderate-income people of color and working class ethnic whites--revolved around their religious and spiritual beliefs. Their first organizational loyalty was to their church, whether for religious, spiritual, social, cultural, educational, political, or economic reasons. What was inane was that I, along with the majority of my colleagues, was ignorant not only of what religion and spirituality meant to them but in my own family's tradition as well. How in the world, I asked myself, could I be useful to them in making long-extended life changes? Of course, I couldn't--which was the impetus to my becoming a rabbi and significantly increasing my understanding of spirituality and religion. Subsequently I came to work in the field of interfaith congregational community organizing, which since then has evolved into one of the most noteworthy arenas of grassroots community organizing. In the last four years my wife and I have served as a "rabbi team" for Congregation Beth Israel of Chico, California, working actively with other congregations in the community to combat intolerance of all kinds, and Kehillat Kharakim of Los Angeles. We also co-direct Gather the People, a nonprofit organization that offers training and education resources on our web site at, which are aimed primarily but not exclusively at Jewish congregational community organizing.

Throughout the years I have tried to avoid two pitfalls that dogged my life as a community organizer. I found that when doing the work there was little time or energy for systematic reflection, which I came to regard as the sine qua non of the continuous self-criticism and strategic thinking demanded by the best kind of professionalism. The antidote for me has been brief stints in the academy, which gave me the opportunity to think and write about my practice, share my learning with another generation of organizers-in-training, and, maybe most important, subject myself to their questions and criticisms. But the lures of university teaching have never been a snare for me; the disease of the academy, the "academyopia" that for some of us accompanies teaching without practice, has always driven me back to a regimen of full-time community organizing.

The following three papers reflect my double life as organizer and teacher.

Conflict & Cooperation in Macro Theory & Practice

My time in the university, both as a student and a teacher, gave me the opportunity to think about and develop a unified practice theory for community organizing. The challenge was to develop a theory that accounts for the most important aspects of organizer's field of action--to wit: the behavior of individuals and the social actions of collectivities (groups, organizations, institutions, and communities), and the dynamics of resources (power) and realities (valued meanings) in the action field. "Conflict and Cooperation in Macro Theory and Practice" presents the psychosocial (but not the political and economic) dimensions of the action field theory--unifying theories of social learning, social exchange, and the social construction of reality (but excluding social development theory)--in the context of relations between a tenants union and housing authority. The article demonstrates the theoretical basis for the cycle of cooperation, competition, conflict, and negotiation leading to renewed cooperation.

Relationship-Building and Congregational Organizing

In this paper, I have focused on one of the most important methodological fundamentals of community organizing: building relationships. I long ago concluded for myself, teaching students ever since, that nothing is more fundamental, literally the keystone of practice, than building relationships--it's importance extends from the micro to the macro dimensions of the work. My view is that community organizing involves four major tasks: community-building, organization-building, mobilization-building, and institution-building. On the front end, one-to-one building of empathetic and empowering relationships is at the heart of community-building; on the back end, groups of members and leaders working together to build relationships of mutual respect with powerful organizational and institutional decision-makers is at the heart of institution-building (and rebuilding).

Writing Daily Macro Practice Notes: A Primer for Community Organizers & Developers 

My mentor and teacher 30 years ago at the UCLA School of Social Welfare was Warren Haggstrom, an experienced farm-labor organizer, brilliant thinker, and prolific writer whose articles are still useful for students. Among other lessons, Warren taught me two seemingly contradictory principles. On the one hand, our job as organizers, unlike virtually all other professionals, is to mentor large numbers of leaders and to pass on to them virtually all our knowledge and skill. On the other hand, at any particular moment in time, among ourselves as professionals we use a technical language to reflect on and examine our experience. It was when I was well into my organizing career that I came to appreciate the importance of writing daily practice notes if I wanted this reflection and examination to be consistently disciplined and involve colleagues. In retrospect, I can see that four organizers in a project, each writing daily practice notes and delivering them to the project director on a weekly basis, had a profound effect on the depth of our day-to-day discussions and the usefulness of our weekly staff meetings and occasional training sessions.

After three decades of community organizing, I've come to the conclusion that action without learning is mindless and learning without action is meaningless.

Feedback on any or all of these papers or about any of my experience that I have shared here would be more than welcome at .