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 www.rac.org.