‘A 32-year journey’

Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner was a 10th-grader and president of his synagogue youth group in New York when he first visited the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism (RAC) office in Washington, D.C. in 1984 to learn about social justice and how to lobby Congress.

As of Jan. 8, Pesner became director of the RAC, taking over the reins from Rabbi David Saperstein, who after 40 years moved on to become envoy for religious freedom in the U.S. State Department.

“I met David Saperstein in this conference room. It sent me on a 32-year journey,” Pesner said on his second day as director. Soon after his morning interview with Washington Jewish Week, Pesner already was off and running, meeting with Matt Nosanchuk, White House Jewish liaison.

Pesner is best known at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) for founding its Just Congregations program that mobilizes social justice advocates. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997 and has been a congregational rabbi in Boston and Connecticut.
Pesner’s entire career has intertwined Judaism and social justice. Since 2011, he has been senior vice president of URJ, a  position he is not actually vacating. Pesner will maintain his senior veep role with URJ, but his entire focus now will be social justice.


This 46-year-old father of four girls has an impressive – and lengthy – list of goals, starting with working to end racial and economic disparity. His agenda also includes targeting underfunded schools, hunger, the homeless and climate change.

While acknowledging the breadth of his list, Pesner appears eager to take it all on, but not by himself. He wants to continue RAC’s faith-based ways, building coalitions at the grassroots level with anyone and everyone who willingly carries the social justice flag and wants to “make their voices heard loud and clear.”

His new job is a political one, and Pesner is no stranger to that world. In Massachusetts, he worked closely with then-Gov. Mitt Romney on affordable health care. Pesner cites that experience as proof he will work with both Democrats and Republicans.

He acknowledged that Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, is more closely associated with the Democratic Party but said there are “smart-thinking Jews” in both political parties. “I think they may just express themselves differently” while still caring for both Israel and social justice, he said.

Reform Judaism comes with “a big tent” that can accommodate many, he said. “We are multi-issue here. Judaism has much to say about everything.”

When Pesner speaks of working with political figures, he includes everyone from mayors and police chiefs all the way up to President Barack Obama, whom Pesner first met when Obama was an Illinois senator, and both were involved in community organizing.

The America Pesner envisions is the one “Dr. [Martin Luther] King had in mind where everybody has a seat at the table.” His vision stretches to the rest of the world, where he is concerned with anti-Semitism.

Speaking Friday morning as two separate hostage situations were unfolding in France, including one in a kosher supermarket, Pesner said, “Blood should never be shed in the name of religion,” adding what happened was horrible but even “more horrific for us as Jews.”

Stepping into Saperstein’s huge footprints doesn’t worry Pesner. “For me, it’s about the work, God’s calling” to work with everyone who wants to “walk humbly together for a more just world.”

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