The Urgency of Now

One of the crown jewels of the Reform Jewish movement is the Religious Action Center (“the RAC,” http://www.rac.org). Based in Washington, DC, the RAC serves to mobilize Reform congregations and congregants on legislative and social justice actions. Additionally, it trains teens, college students, and adults on how to be active citizens in the public sphere.

I have had many wonderful experiences with the RAC over the past 20+ years, including a dinner in the late-90’s at which then-President Bill Clinton roasted Rabbi David Saperstein, who then headed the organization. (Rabbi Saperstein went on to be appointed by President Obama to be United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a position that President Trump has since eliminated.)

The RAC’s Consultation on Conscience takes place every two years, and though I haven’t attended in years, it was clear to me that with the threats post-election to many of the moral values we as Jews hold dear and to democracy itself that this president represents, this was the year to go! And indeed, I clearly wasn’t the only person to feel that way: registration was double what it has ever been in the past. Better yet, unlike the wonderfully energizing Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights conference I attended in February at which I got to share and strategize and protest with my rabbinic colleagues, I could bring Chaim along to this one, appropriately entitled “The Urgency of Now.”

Highlights included a plenary on today’s struggle for civil and human rights, featuring Vanita Gupta who served as chief civil rights prosecutor in the Department of Justice under President Obama; a conversation on race, rights and justice featuring NAACP president Cornell Brooks, Piper Kerman (activist and author of “Orange is the New Black”), and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice; two enlightening presentations about civil rights issues in Israel today from Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center), the RAC’s sister agency in Israel; and a plenary today with members of the 115th Congress, including Senator Sherrod Brown, Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts (what a strong moral voice!), Congressman Jerry Nadler of NY (and our former beloved Congressman and fellow congregant at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun when we lived in Manhattan), Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and newcomer Congresswoman Jacky Rosen of Nevada who brought the house down with her humor about how having been president of her synagogue had prepared her for being in Congress.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III of MA

Panel (left to right) of Michael Waldman, Piper Kerman and Cornell Brooks being interviewed by Rabbi Sharon Mars from Columbus, OH

Though Chaim and I did not participate in the lobbying that followed on Capitol Hill, many participants then went to lobby their elected representatives on issues of immigration and criminal justice reform. All of these plenaries were supplemented by many other workshops on a large variety of issues and topics, from reproductive rights and employment rights issues affecting women to bringing a racial justice campaign to your congregation, to transgender rights, to refugee issues, to climate change issues, and on and on, all with the goal of engaging congregations in morally-based, very Jewish social action work.

Our time in DC was preceded by a very special Shabbat visit in Charlottesville, VA with my dear friend Tom. I also loved bringing Chaim to see Monticello on Friday, which I had just visited for the first time in September when I went to Charlottesville to install Tom as senior rabbi. What I found so interesting about visiting Jefferson’s tomb, which is also on the property, is that the gravestone (per Jefferson’s own instructions) does not mention any of his political achievements (U.S. President, Vice-President, Minister to France, Secretary of State, or Governor of Virginia), but only what he wanted most to be remembered for. It reads “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Who wouldn’t like to see that kind of humility in a president?

Reconstructed slave home at Monticello. The “slave tour” was a scathing indictment of Jefferson’s many hypocrisies in his personal life and in his writings about “all men are created equal.”

Chaim and Jefferson

Jefferson’s gravestone

Monticello: Check it against the picture on your nickel!

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