Washington confab highlights Reform movement’s activism

Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Though the Reform movement’s social action arm has a new leader, the goals of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism remain the same.

Close to 400 clergy and Reform movement activists packed the DoubleTree hotel in Arlington on Sunday afternoon during the RAC’s three-day Consultation on Conscience to thank Rabbi David Saperstein for his 40 years of service to the organization. Saperstein was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to become ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the State Department.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright paid tribute to Saperstein, calling him “a leader who has not only been true to America, but who has kept America true to itself for 40 years.”

The following afternoon, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner was installed as the RAC’s new director. During the ceremony, Torah scrolls were passed around the room among the clergy and ended in the arms of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who passed one scroll to Saperstein by way of symbolically handing over the reins to his successor.


Pesner, at times getting choked up, said that he hopes under his leadership, the organization will become “more impactful in states and congregations. The fight for social justice today is [not just in Washington] but neighborhood by neighborhood.”

He noted that the RAC has more than 70 issues for which it advocates, including overcoming economic inequality, racial injustice, LGBT rights and nondiscrimination, in addition to religious freedom.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, spoke ahead of Tuesday’s Supreme Court arguments on whether gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. Pointing to the 37 states in which gay marriage is legal, 65 cases ruled in favor of gay marriage and the bulk of Americans in favor of legalizing gay marriage, Wolfson predicted that the court’s decision, which likely will be handed down in June, would affirm that right.

But he cautioned, “The number one thing to remember is it’s not done until it’s done and then it’s still not done. This [would be] a huge step forward, but there is still more work to do. We must remain engaged, harness the power of activists” to secure other legal protections.

Wolfson was joined in a panel discussion by Rabbis Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C. Their discussion signaled that the RAC will become more engaged in transgender activism.

RAC members were urged to lobby their congressional representatives and senators in favor of the Healthy Families Act, which would require employers with 15 or more daily employees to allow them to earn up to seven job-protected paid sick days every year, funding for the U.N. Green Climate Fund and the Democracy Restoration Act, which ties into the RAC’s landmark legislative accomplishment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a staple of Jewish communal conferences, were addressed by Wendy Sherman, deputy secretary of state and undersecretary of state for political affairs. The Baltimore native reiterated the administration’s desire to resolve issues with Iran through negotiations.

“[We] can’t bomb away knowledge,” she said, referencing the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that a military option would only delay Iran by two years.

Conference attendees journeyed Tuesday morning to Capitol Hill, where a final plenary session was held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building auditorium, with scheduled remarks from Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

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