Social action at the forefront
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Social action at the forefront

Rabbi Saperstein assess the battles won and those yet to come

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Rabbi Alex Schindler, Ben Hooks, and Saperstein at an affirmative action rally in the 1960s. photo courtesy rac

What does it take to top Newsweek’s list of most influential rabbis?

For Rabbi David Saperstein, 65, who headed the list in 2009 (this year he ranked number 2), the answer is: A solid institution.

Saperstein, who heads the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, will be in Wayne Friday night. He will deliver the Rabbi Israel Dresner Tikkun Olam lecture at Temple Beth Tikvah, honoring the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus.

Saperstein said that unlike those rabbis who were on the Newsweek list “because of personal attributes and individual personal accomplishments, some of us are on simply because we are associated with significant influential institutions.” His consistently high ranking on the list, he said, “is a real validation of the Reform movement’s efforts in social justice.”

That may be. But as the list – now posted at the Daily Beast website, and this year written by former Forward writer Gabrielle Birkner – sees it, Saperstein has been dubbed “Obama’s rabbi” and serves as “de facto liaison” between the Obama White House and the American Jewish community.

“In 2009 and again this year, President Obama invited him to participate in a private prayer service on Inauguration Day,” Birkner noted. “Saperstein is a powerful progressive voice on a range of legislative issues – gun control, labor relations, curbing carbon emissions, and gay marriage among them.”

Saperstein’s own story is one of institutional continuity and growth.

He is the son of a Reform rabbi – Harold Saperstein, who built a congregation in Lynbrook, Long Island, from 50 to 1,000 members over a nearly 50-year tenure; who served as president of the New York Board of Rabbis; and who was commencement speaker at the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary the year it ordained Sally Preisand, the first female Reform rabbi.

“He was a great role model to have,” Saperstein said. Both his father and mother, Marcia Saperstein, shared “this deep passion for social justice in a Jewish context. They had a love of the Jewish people, a love of social justice, a love of America.”

Saperstein’s rabbinical roots run even deeper; two great-grandfathers were Orthodox rabbis and two great uncles were Reform rabbis. So was an uncle. And his brother, Marc Saperstein, is a Reform rabbi who is a professor of a Jewish studies at George Washington University and principal of the Leo Baeck College-Center for Jewish Education in London.

(As for his children, both college students: “You never know. One is minoring in religion. But they’re more focused on the arts.” His wife, Ellen Weiss, has made her own career choices; she is a former vice president for news at National Public Radio.)

For David Saperstein, too, academic life had its pull. He considered becoming an English professor before deciding on twin graduate degrees as a rabbi and an attorney.

“They are the two great institutions able to help people in need and help society address problems,” he said.

The role of rabbis and lawyers in fixing society was clear in the early 1960s, when Saperstein was growing up and the civil rights movement topped the social justice agenda. Rabbis such as Israel “Sy” Dresner played a leading role in civil rights protests (see sidebar). Although the Religious Action Center, founded in 1961, was a small two-man organization at that time, it earned prominence as the site where Jewish lawyers drafted key civil rights bills.

After his ordination, Saperstein served as rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan before joining the Religious Action Center in Washington.

That was in 1974. Saperstein has been at the RAC ever since.

Perhaps appropriately for someone whose career reflects continuity with his father’s, Saperstein is most proud of making social action an integral part of what it means to be a young Reform Jew. Lobbying in Washington through the Religious Action Center has become an integral part of the Reform movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth organization, and a program he created his second year on the job brings college graduates to work at the center for a year.

“All over Washington, I see graduates of our high school and college and post college programs, as full-time staff on Capitol Hill, working in public interest groups, as Supreme Court clerks,” he said. “I’ve seen the people who have come through these programs go on to become rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community.

“Now I’m getting the children of people who were legislative assistants in my early years. All of that is immensely satisfying.”

This cultivation of future leaders only redounds to the Reform movement’s influence in Washington.

He recalled with pride “the day when I got a call from the legislative director of the office of a California senator who said, ‘Stop your people from calling. We can’t get any work done. You’ll get the vote you wanted.'”

None of the issues that Saperstein has tackled since the Ford Administration have had the clarity – or the decisiveness – of his predecessors’ work as they battled to end segregation in America. In some ways, though, that work is never ending.

“The civil rights agenda has expanded to include broader ethnic and gay rights,” he said. “The way that hunger presents itself now – that has changed.

“Sometimes these things cycle,” he said, citing increasing threats to abortion rights in recent years. “It’s particularly sad when you think you’ve made progress and there are setbacks.”

But some successes stand out.

They include the Senate’s ratification of the Genocide Treaty in 1986, culminating a 37-year battle that began when the Polish-born Jewish lawyer and human rights advocate Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” drafted the treaty in the Reform movement’s offices.

Saperstein similarly recalls “the passage of nonproliferation legislation for chemical and biological weapons that we helped write, and that we led the effort to get passed in Congress in 1990, with our troops on the ground in the Gulf.”

And he is proud of the RAC’s role in the 1987 Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, which was coordinated out of the group’s offices.

While the issues on the social justice agenda may change, Saperstein believes the principals to be eternal.

“The fundamental dignity, the fundamental rights, of all human beings, based on the notion that we are created in the Divine image, has to be fully implemented in the legal, social, and political realities of the world,” he said.

“We can’t go on with the structural inequality that has left two billion of our brothers and sisters living on two dollars a day or less, where preventable diseases ravish areas of our planet, where there are still hundreds of millions of people who suffer from severe malnutrition and millions dying of starvation.

“We have the ability to do things our ancestors could only dream about. The failure to do that is our failure,” he said.

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