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entries tagged with: Religious Action Center


‘America deserves better’: A call for health-care reform


Jewish environmental group increasing efforts as climate debate heats up

Sybil Sanchez, the new COEJL director, says the group’s focus will be on its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign seeking increased activism on environmental issues. Courtesy Sybil Sanchez

WASHINGTON – As the debate over how to combat climate change heats up in Copenhagen, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is ramping up its efforts to help make the Jewish community a key player in the discussion.

Without a full-time director since early 2006, COEJL has secured a half-million dollars in funding for the next two years and hired Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, to be its new director.

Sanchez said she sees COEJL helping the Jewish environmental movement transition into a new phase.

For a long time, she said, the goal was to get people to understand such things like “climate change is real” and the negative impact of carbon emissions. But now that “all but the hard core” in the Jewish community are convinced of that, Sanchez said, the question is “how do we integrate that into action as Jewish individuals and activists — move it to the next level and start to be the change we want to see in the world.”

“It’s a challenging and inspiring time,” she said.

Sanchez, who was officially to take over at COEJL on Wednesday, said that while specific plans for the future are still being discussed, the group would likely be hiring a representative in Washington. But the primary focus of the environmental organization’s efforts right now is the Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The initiative asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media.

She also sees COEJL becoming a clearinghouse of information for synagogues and Jewish organizations, providing best practices and products to help sustainability, providing advice, and making connections between groups working on similar issues. COEJL sponsored a “sustainability” conference earlier this year for representatives of Jewish organizations.

Sanchez said the environment sparks multi-generational interest among Jews because it encompasses a number of different issues — from concern about dependence on foreign oil to protection of nature to worries about the state of the planet for future generations. And Sanchez argues that Judaism is connected to the environment in a number of ways. Major Jewish holidays are timed to the seasons of Israel, she points out, and working “in community and collectively are part of the Jewish and environmental lifestyle.” For example, the requirement to pray in a minyan, she notes, is one example of the “idea that we need each other” in Judaism.

In the absence of a full-time leader in the last few years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have stepped in to help out with COEJL, which is a project of JCPA. The Reform center worked on legislative advocacy in Washington, while JCPA — an advocacy umbrella organization bringing together the synagogue movements, national organizations, and local Jewish ommunities — organized grass-roots support and activism throughout the country.

The Reform center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, said it was good to have both organizations “more engaged than they might have been otherwise” in the issue and he hopes that intensity continues, but added that COEJL’s re-emergence will help to mobilize further the consciousness of the Jewish community.

“It is crucially important at this moment in history to play a role in the climate change debate,” he said.

“I feel it’s back in the nick of time,” said JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who hopes to see COEJL become successful enough to eventually spin off into an independent group.

Gutow said the Jewish community has been a “very important leader” on a number of other issues in recent years — from Darfur to Iran to anti-discrimination issues — but has not done the same on energy and the environment.

“I think people look to us for leadership on certain issues,” he said, and “if we decide to lead, I do think we have a particular niche that we are able to help move it forward.”



Poll: Jews more conflicted on immigration than leadership


WASHINGTON – A new poll suggests that American Jews are more conflicted about the challenges of immigration than their communal leaders — but that’s to be expected, the Jewish leaders say.

The poll, commissioned by the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies, shows that Jews who support “enforcing the law and causing (illegal immigrants) to return home over time” are statistically tied with Jews who favor “granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship to most illegal immigrants.”

That virtually dead heat — 43 percent for enforcement and 40 percent for the “legal” path — reflects conventional wisdom about Jews trending more liberal than other Americans. Among Roman Catholics and Protestants, substantial majorities favored the enforcement option.

Still, the figure — along with other answers in the poll — also suggests that rank-and-file Jews are not as monolithic as their leaders in supporting immigration reform that encompasses a path to legal immigration.

Another question outlining proposed conditions for the “legal path,” including fines, learning the English language, and background checks, had 60 percent of Jews supporting and 35 percent opposing.

“It captures division in the community,” said Steven Camarota, the CIS director of research. “Yet that diversity of opinion is in no way reflected in what the leadership is pushing.”

The leaders do not disagree.

“We know that the Jewish community is not monolithic on this subject,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director and counsel. “To the extent that it’s a fair representation, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done in the community.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said the leadership and the rank and file occasionally outpace one another on issues.

“It’s not unusual for leadership to take a more assertive position on the issues than the amcha,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the rank and file. “Sometimes the leadership is ahead, sometimes the grass roots is ahead — it usually averages out.”

Stephen Steinlight, a senior analyst with CIS who for six years has preached enforcement to Jewish audiences, said he couldn’t help experiencing a degree of Schadenfreude at the results.

“I feel vindicated,” he said. “The survey signals a massive rejection against the worldview of the American Jewish establishment, which is monolithic. There’s not a single organization represented in the JCPA,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy groups, “that reflects these views.”

The poll, carried out by Zogby International in December, was conducted through online panels. Such panels are controversial because respondents are self-selected, but as “cold calling” has become more expensive and more and more Americans are making themselves available online, pollsters have increasingly used the method, particularly in assessing the views of small demographic subgroups.

Zogby reached 1,647 Jewish respondents, which it said represented a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Saperstein said that he was reassured to see that Jewish respondents were more likely than members of other religious communities to embrace the “legal path” option.

“I’m not surprised the difference is smaller than in the general community,” he said. “We’re the immigrant community, the quintessential community of those fleeing deprivation and seeking freedom.”

That model no longer held, Steinlight said.

Jews “want an immigration policy based on not ‘what was good for my grandparents’ but ‘what’s good for my grandchildren,’” he said. “This country is the safest country for Jews outside of Israel, and anything that threatens to change the nature of this country is a risk.”

Steinlight said he expected Jewish percentages of those favoring enforcement and opposed to a “legal path” to catch up with non-Jewish percentages over time. The lower numbers, he said, were a result of pressures from Jewish leaders.

Jews “need permission to say, ‘You know, I don’t like this very much’” when it comes to current immigration policy, he said.

Saperstein and Foltin rejected notions that the leadership was dictating policy; longstanding positions in both organizations were the result of extensive consultations with the grass roots, they said. Current Reform policy on a legal path to immigration passed by a 9-1 margin in a poll of the movement’s 2,000 leaders on the grass-roots level, Saperstein said.

The Jewish groups backing comprehensive immigration reform also questioned how the questions were calibrated. For instance, the first question cited “38 million legal and illegal immigrants” living in the country, conflating both groups into a huge number. That question, asking whether immigration was too high, had a plurality of Jews answering yes: 50 percent against 5 percent who thought it was too low and 22 percent who answered “just right.” The next question notes that the number of illegal immigrants is estimated at 11 million to 12 million.

The survey also asks respondents to endorse one of two propositions: “Past efforts to enforce immigration have been grossly inadequate and the government has never made a real effort to enforce the law” and “We have made a real effort to enforce our immigration laws, but we have failed because we are not allowing in enough immigrants legally.”

Jews favored the first statement over the second, 60 percent to 21 percent. However, missing from such a formulation were two options: one combining both propositions, and one that did not frame U.S. policy as necessarily a failure.

Past polls, by Benenson and Pew Research, showed that voters favor enforcement combined with a path to legal immigrant status.

“It sets up false choices about legalization vs. enforcing the law,” said Melanie Nezer, who heads the Washington office of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society. “It doesn’t make distinctions among people who are here. There’s no distinction made between someone who came over the border yesterday and someone who’s married to someone who’s fighting with our soldiers in Iraq.”



Questioning of Women of Wall leader sparks protests

A haredi boy throws garbage at Jewish women as they come to pray at the Western Wall on Dec. 18, 2009. Women of the Wall organizes a monthly prayer session. Miriam Alster/Flash 90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The Conservative synagogue movement is launching a campaign to protest the recent questioning and possible prosecution of a leader of the group Women of the Wall.

For more than two decades, the group has been organizing regular women’s prayer services at the Western Wall and pressing for expanded worship rights at Judaism’s holiest pilgrimage site. Last week its chairwoman, Anat Hoffman, was summoned to a Jerusalem police station for questioning.

According to Hoffman, also director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a former member of the Jerusalem City Council, she was questioned by police about her role in Women of the Wall, fingerprinted, and told that her case was being referred to the attorney general for prosecution.

“I think it was a meeting of intimidation,” Hoffman told JTA.

Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, confirmed the basics of Hoffman’s account. But Shmulik Ben-Ruby, a spokesman for the Jerusalem police, denied that the matter has been referred to prosecutors. He said that Hoffman and her group are suspected of having acted to “hurt the feelings” of worshippers at the wall. “We are still checking and will see what will be the end in the investigation,” Ben-Ruby added.

Hoffman’s questioning threatens to further exacerbate tensions between American Jewish groups and more conservative elements within Israel’s Orthodox-controlled religious establishment.

She told JTA that she hopes to “wake the American Jewish giant” in an effort to prevent the attorney general from moving ahead with prosecution. If convicted, Hoffman said, she faces prison time or a fine of about $3,000.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, issued a statement declaring that Hoffman’s arrest and fingerprinting, “opens a new and ominous chapter in intra-Jewish relations in Israel.”

The group urged members to send a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, to inform him of “the gravity of this issue” and press his government to “take immediate steps to end the harassment of women seeking to pray with dignity at the Western Wall, Judaism’s most holy place.” (See the open letter to Oren, facing page, from Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter.)

Hoffman’s questioning comes nearly two months after another Women of the Wall member, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she and other women began reading from a Torah scroll in the course of the group’s regular prayer session at the wall, timed to coincide with the start of the new Hebrew month.

Frenkel and Hoffman were informed that they were in violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that, citing concerns about public safety, denied women the right to read from the Torah in the regular women’s section of the wall. The ruling resulted in the designation of a nearby site, known as Robinson’s Arch, as the place for women to pray as a group with a Torah scroll.

Hoffman scoffs at the solution, calling it “separate, but it’s not equal.” A Torah scroll the group uses was damaged by rain at the site, which lacks a covered space like the men’s section at the wall.

“It is not a place of prayer,” she said. “It is a place where we are praying, and a tour guide is walking with a tour, showing them the different archeological artifacts. And most important, we can’t read Torah there in safety because it rains on our head.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, defended the limitations on women’s prayer groups.

“People of all faiths, after all, are welcome at the Kotel — as they should be,” he wrote in an essay distributed via e-mail. “Out of respect, though, for the Jewish historical and spiritual connection to the place, public services there should respect a single standard of decorum. And that standard should be, as it has been, millennia-old Jewish religious tradition.”

Promoting a “particular view of feminism,” Shafran added, “should not compel them to act in ways that they know will offend others, to seek to turn a holy place into a political arena.”



Campaign finance decision may hurt Jewish influence

In the rarefied arena of ideas, the American Jewish community has done quite well over the years in making the case for Israel, civil rights, and the environment, among other issues.

These ideas may now be tested in the blood sport of politics.

Last week, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upended a ban of more than a century on direct corporate involvement in elections. Politics watchers are still trying to understand the implications of the 5-4 ruling by the court’s conservative majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The decision could have a profound effect on how Jewish groups operate in the public sphere.

Most pro-Israel and Jewish civil liberties groups still operate under the tax code as 501(c)3 organizations — religious, educational, and charitable groups. This classification allows donors to write off contributions as a tax deduction but bans direct participation in the political process.

Groups with this classification are limited to pronouncements on issues and ideas: They may, for instance, speak generally about care for the environment or about energy conservations, but they cannot endorse or oppose specific candidates.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling opens the way for corporations to directly attack candidates.

“It does shift the balance of power in the free marketplace of ideas, said Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Reform movement’s activist arm, the Religious Action Center — itself a 501(c)3. “It shifts it dramatically towards corporations, which can now get involved in debate around elections.”

The question for 501(c)3 groups is whether it becomes worthwhile to forego the tax exemption to enter the political fray more forcefully. They could do so as 501(c)4 organizations — the classification for lobbying groups.

Reform leader Rabbi David Saperstein, shown being arrested outside the Sudanese Embassy in April 2009, is concerned that the issues-based advocacy he practices will be diminished by the Supreme Court decision allowing direct corporate involvement in political campaigns. Save Darfur Coalition

“People will say, why should I give to a Jewish agency that has abstract policy positions when I can give to a 501(c)4 and have a direct role?” said Marc Stern, the legal counsel and acting director of the American Jewish Congress.

JTA contacted an array of groups to discuss the decision, but most declined to comment, saying they were waiting to see how the decision would bear out.

Some major pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, already have 501(c)4 status. Under the new ruling, they now have the freedom to weigh in on political battles; the question is whether it’s in their best interests to do so.

One reason they might want to hold back from explicitly backing particular candidates, Stern said, is because “they know their prediction might be wrong, and then there’s a disadvantage if the other guy wins.”

That would place groups such as AIPAC, which values its bipartisan reach, at a disadvantage against 501(c)4 groups that are partisan and do not care about alienating one side or the other.

Another collection of pro-Israel groups facing key questions is political action committees, or PACs, which may have been rendered superfluous by the ruling.

Corporations are still prohibited from directly funding campaigns, while PACs may directly contribute. However, under the new rules, corporations may spend as much as they want running attack ads against candidates they don’t like, while donors may contribute only up to $5,000 to PACs.

Also, PACs can contribute only $5,000 to a candidate, although there are loopholes that allow PACs to funnel bundles of the maximum individual donation of $2,500 to a candidate.

In the 1970s, support for candidates by individual pro-Israel donors helped protect Israel from Ford administration threats of estrangement backed by the oil industry. In the 1990s, these donors and pro-Israel groups helped the push for Iran sanctions against the interests of big oil.

Were those battles to be replicated under the new rules, oil companies could marshal astronomical funds well out of the reach of pro-Israel donors to depict candidates as harming U.S. interests overseas.

Some observers believe the anxieties are overstated.

“It’s very clear that the majority of voters are very supportive of Israel,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a founder of The Israel Project, a pro-Israel group that also tracks public opinion on Israel. “While there were times in history when that might have been a problem, this is not one of those times.”

Some Conservatives have shrugged off concerns about the new ruling. Just because corporations are now able to weigh in directly on elections does not mean they will do so, Marc Ambinder wrote on his Atlantic Monthly blog.

“Corporate boards are risk averse,” Ambinder wrote. “Smart CEOs don’t want to risk internal conflict on boards when deciding which political candidates to back directly.”

“It dramatizes the need for the Jewish community to get involved in [Supreme Court] nomination fights,” Saperstein said, “to make sure that people who don’t abandon 100 years of precedent that served the common good, as happened in this case, are appointed to the court.”



Still a problem


Elena Kagan seen as brilliant and affable — and a mystery

WASHINGTON – Rabbi David Saperstein runs through a shopping list of superlatives on Elena Kagan — “self-evidently brilliant” and “steady, strategic, and tactical” — before acknowledging that he doesn’t have much of a handle on what President Obama’s choice to fill a U.S. Supreme Court seat actually believes.

In the Jewish community Saperstein, the head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, apparently is not alone.

Community reaction to Obama’s selection of Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general, is enthusiastic until officials consider what it is, exactly, she stands for.

Kagan, 50, has never been a judge — she would be the first Supreme Court justice without bench experience since 1974. It’s a biography the White House touts as refreshing, but also has the convenience of lacking a paper trail of opinions that could embarrass a nominee in Senate hearings.

President Barack Obama meets with Solicitor General Elena Kagan in the Oval Office last month. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“When someone’s a solicitor general, it is really difficult to know what is their own position and what is the position of the state they are charged to represent,” Saperstein said.

A similar murkiness haunts how Kagan handles her Jewishness — she has alluded to it, but has not explicitly stated it since her nomination.

Her interlocutors in the Jewish community say Kagan is Jewish-savvy, but they are hard pressed to come up with her own beliefs.

The White House strategy going into Senate hearings appears to be blame whatever controversy trails her on her employer, on her client — on anyone but Kagan herself.

The first such controversy to emerge since Obama announced the nomination Monday was Kagan’s defense, as dean of Harvard University’s Law School, of the campus practice of banning military recruitment through the main career office (veterans were allowed to recruit independently) because of the military’s discriminatory hiring policies on gays.

Kagan inherited the policy when she became dean in 2003, but she was not shy about agreeing with it. When the Bush administration in 2004 threatened to withdraw funding, she rescinded the ban, but wrote to the student body, according to the authoritative SCOTUS Blog, of “how much I regret making this exception to our anti-discrimination policy. I believe the military’s discriminatory employment policy is deeply wrong — both unwise and unjust. And this wrong tears at the fabric of our own community by denying an opportunity to some of our students that other of our students have.”

Such stirring defenses are absent from White House materials that have emerged on the matter. Instead, the Obama administration is distributing an opinion piece that appeared Tuesday in the conservative Wall Street Journal by her predecessor at Harvard Law, Robert Clark.

“As dean, Ms. Kagan basically followed a strategy toward military recruiting that was already in place,” Clark wrote, not mentioning her stated ideological investment in the matter.

Another debate pertains more closely to an issue that divides the Jewish community: federal funding for faith-based initiatives.

Kagan clerked for Thurgood Marshall in the late 1980s, and in a memorandum to the Supreme Court justice, she said there was no place for such funding.

In her Senate hearings last year for the solicitor general post, Kagan outright repudiated the position she had forcefully advanced in 1987.

It was “the dumbest thing I ever read,” she said. “I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who — let us be frank — had very strong jurisprudential and legal views.”

Her defense was convenient — Marshall, of course, is long dead and unable to defend himself — and troubling to Saperstein, whose group joins the majority of Jewish organizations in opposing such funding.

“People aren’t quite sure what to make of that,” he said.

The Orthodox Union’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, on the other hand, knows just what to make of it — hay.

“As strong proponents of the ‘faith-based initiative,’ and appropriate government support for the work of religious organizations, we at the Orthodox Union find Ms. Kagan’s review and revision of her views encouraging,” he wrote on his blog Tuesday.

Saperstein noted that the Religious Action Center — along with other Jewish civil liberties groups, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — is preparing questions for Kagan to be submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. RAC is soliciting questions from the public as well at a Website,

These groups have welcomed the nomination; the National Council of Jewish Women has endorsed it. NCJW President Nancy Ratzan cited Kagan’s affirmation during her solicitor general confirmation hearings of Roe v. Wade as established law protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, and her defense of federal campaign funding restrictions as solicitor general before the Supreme Court — a case the government lost.

“She gave us clarity as a champion for civil rights,” Ratzan said of Kagan. “We think she’s going to be a stellar justice.”

Other groups say that whatever she argued as solicitor general — or whatever she said in seeking the job representing the U.S. government before the high court — might be seen more as reflecting the will of her boss, Obama, and is not necessarily a sign of how she would function as one of the nine most unfettered deciders in the land.

“There’s a lot we have to learn,” said Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of national and legislative affairs, even after 15 years of interacting with Kagan dating to her days as a Clinton White House counsel on domestic policy.

Foltin and others who have dealt with Kagan say she is affable and easy to get along with, simultaneously self-deprecating and brimming with confidence. She accepts with equanimity the nickname “Shorty” that Marshall conferred upon her, and charmed her Senate interlocutors at her solicitor general confirmation hearings when she said that her strengths include “the communications skills that have made me — I’m just going to say it — a famously excellent teacher.”

In addition to his interactions with Kagan during her Clinton years, Foltin — a Harvard Law alumnus — was impressed as well by her ability as dean of the school to bring conservatives and liberals together.

“This is an incredibly smart attorney who is able to reach out to people, take in diverse perspectives, and bring people together,” he said.

Obama cited Kagan’s outreach in announcing her nomination.

“At a time when many believed that the Harvard faculty had gotten a little one-sided in its viewpoint, she sought to recruit prominent conservative scholars and spur a healthy debate on campus,” he said.

Saperstein, who also recalls Kagan from her Clinton White House days, says she brings the same deep understanding of all sides of a debate to the Jewish community.

“She was quite aware of where there were differences — aid to education, government funding of religious institutions,” he said.

Kagan, whose nomination is believed to be secure — Republicans have said they are not likely to filibuster over it — would bring the number of Jews and women on the highest bench in the United States to three. That’s unprecedented in both cases. She would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer as Jewish justices. Sonia Sotomayor, like Kagan a native New Yorker, is the third female justice.

Stephen Pease, whose book “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement” chronicles disproportionate Jewish representation in the law, in academe, and in the arts, said a third Jewish justice was not remarkable. Kagan would be seen as getting the job on her merits: clerking to two famous judges, teaching at the University of Chicago, advising the Clinton White House, heading Harvard Law, and then as the administration’s second most important lawyer, all by the age of 50.

“She’s done some pretty incredible stuff fairly quickly in her career,” Pease said.

Despite Kagan’s familiarity with the Jewish community, there are few clues as to her Jewish preferences. Her late father was on the board of West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist shul in Manhattan, where she grew up on the Upper West Side. She had a bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, according to a New York Times profile, argued with the rabbi — over what it’s not clear.

Like Obama, she is close to Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and a law professor at the University of Chicago. It’s not clear, however, whether she shared Mikva’s deep involvement in the Jewish community. During her years as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, from 1991 to 1995, she was not involved with the local federation.

The White House did not shy away from Kagan’s Jewishness in making the announcement, nor did it make her faith explicit. Invitees to the announcement included the usual array of representatives from Washington offices of national Jewish groups: the AJC, ADL, NCJW, and RAC, along with the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Elena is the granddaughter of immigrants whose mother was, for 20 years, a beloved public schoolteacher — as are her two brothers, who are here today,” Obama said.

Kagan added that “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”



Asking the right questions


L’Taken makes students part of the legislative process

Some 250 high school students from across the country will gather at the Religious Action Center’s Washington headquarters this weekend for the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminar for High School Students.

Students are scheduled to arrive in Washington this afternoon and will spend the weekend learning about domestic issues like poverty and separation of church and state and global issues like genocide and climate change. The teens will then spend Monday lobbying their representatives on Capitol Hill.

“Students really do make a connection between their Jewish values and their responsibilities as citizens and understanding that Judaism isn’t something that just happens in synagogue or religious school,” said Barbara Weinstein, RAC legislative director. “Its values can be applied in all aspects of their lives. From the most basic choice, from ‘Do I leave the water on when I brush my teeth?’ to stopping genocide in Darfur, each of these things are things Jewish values can guide us on.”

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, took the L’Taken seminar when he was in high school. About 16 10th-and 11th-graders from Temple Sinai will join with about 15 students from the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism for this weekend’s L’Taken.

“I would argue it is the premier Jewish leadership development program in the country,” said Millstein, who will join the group. “The kids get to experience being part of a larger Jewish community, getting energized, and to actually have their own voices heard.”

“By Monday morning this group of ragtag teenagers [will] end up looking so mature and have gained so much self-confidence because they’re able to present in a strong way where they stand on any particular issue,” said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township.

“It’s inspiring to be a part of the democratic process,” she added. “On the individual level they feel their voices do count, and it’s a real experience.”

For more information on the RAC’s L’Taken weekends, visit


Area Reform synagogues to mark 50th anniversary of RAC

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has become one of the pre-eminent Jewish political organizations in the country, at the forefront of issues such as ending the genocide in Darfur, promoting human rights, and fighting poverty.

On Jan. 14 and 15, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Reform movement will celebrate Shabbat Tzedek, marking the RAC’s 50th anniversary.

Its founding in 1961 reflected a belief among its founders that as Jews who care about tikkun olam, repairing the world, they had to care about more than issues that affected them as Jews, said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director of the RAC.

“The center became a hub of social justice in Washington, not just for the Reform Jewish movement,” she said, noting that several congressional civil rights bills were drafted in the RAC conference room. “Our goal is to bring Washington to the Reform movement and the Reform movement to Washington.”

Several area Reform synagogues will mark the anniversary next week, using it as an opportunity to encourage congregants to perform acts of tikkun olam. Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter will use a Shabbat Tzedek liturgy provided by the RAC and Closter’s Mayor Sophie Heymann, a temple member, will speak. Instead of the weekly Torah portion, the temple’s Saturday morning Torah study will focus on readings with an emphasis on social justice.

“The Reform movement has such a long history of social justice and advocacy,” Beth El’s Rabbi Debra Hachen said. “Today many people think of tikkun olam in local ways — for example, helping a local food bank or the wonderful work Bonim does.” (Bonim, a group of volunteers from UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, renovates homes for the needy.) “There’s a very important dimension to social justice that’s connected to the prophetic vision,” she continued. “A key part of Reform Judaism is the notion of transforming society, not just reaching out to the needy.”

Paul Kaufman, a member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, will speak there during Shabbat Tzedek about a recent RAC mission to the Gulf Coast he took part in. The synagogue will also launch a six-month initiative to serve fair-trade coffee.

“It’s a chance to celebrate all [the RAC has] accomplished and really move forward in terms of advancing what separates Reform Jews from other Jews, which is a concerted commitment to social justice,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who interned with the RAC in 1994 and spoke at the 40th anniversary celebration 10 years ago.

“[The internship] really helped me understand the intersection of Jewish values and public policy,” the rabbi said.

Temple Beth Or in Washington Township will focus on King’s legacy, said Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick. Members will be asked to bring poems, pictures, song lyrics, or other items that symbolize the Reform commitment to social justice, which will be used throughout the service.

“One of the reasons I am proud to be a Reform Jew,” Zlotnick said, “is because I feel the Religious Action Center has done a marvelous job of transforming freedom for all into advocacy across the spectrum to make sure we live up to our American ideals of democracy and freedom.”

Hachen is hopeful the celebratory weekend will encourage others to get involved in global tikkun olam, and she will hand out information about joining the RAC Social Justice Network. The RAC leadership has recruited about 15,000 to the network so far and hopes to reach 50,000.

“Part of our mandate is to create a just society, not just within our synagogues but within the nations in which we live,” Hachen said. “That’s what the RAC tries to do — help us understand that Judaism has something to say on these [social justice] issues.”

To watch a video highlighting the past 50 years of the Religious Action Center, visit

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