Some 50 years ago, during the height of the civil rights movement, leaders of the Reform movement came together to create what is now one of the country’s leading social justice organizations.
“We thought we could be a hub of justice,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who will talk about his movement’s Religious Action Center at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth on October 28.
As guest speaker at the congregation’s Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture, Rabbi Pesner, the center’s director, will talk about “Prophetic Power and Politics: How Reform Jews Can Bring Healing and Justice to Our World.”
Rabbi Pesner, whose office is in Washington D.C., said, “You just have to look at the plaque across the hall” to recall the movement’s leadership in the field of civil rights. Why? “The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were written in our conference room.”
Rabbi Pesner explained that a trustee of the movement, the late social activist and philanthropist Kivie Kaplan, donated a building on Dupont Circle to the Reform movement. As it happened, that building, which now houses the RAC, was also the headquarters of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Hence, “The lawyers did it in our conference room.”
According to Rabbi Pesner, Mr. Kaplan was deeply affected by a sign he saw in a country club during his honeymoon. The sign read, “No Jews or dogs.” He turned to his black cab driver, who said, “They don’t even bother with us.”
Mr. Kaplan joined the NAACP in 1932 and was elected to the national board in 1954. He was elected its president in 1966 and held that position for the rest of his life — he died in 1975. “He was their last Jewish president,” Rabbi Pesner said.
Rabbi Pesner, who has headed the RAC for the last two years, paid tribute to his predecessor, Rabbi David Saperstein, who held the position for some 40 years. His organization always seeks partners in its work, “crossing lines of race and faith,” he added. These partners have included the NAACP, PICO National Network (a national network of progressive faith-based community organizations in the United States), and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, as well as partners in the movement’s many local communities.
Today, working with the NAACP, the Religious Action Center still is tackling the ongoing issue of racial inequality. Citing Shelby v. Holder, a 2013 United States Supreme Court case that “eviscerated the Voting Rights Act,” Rabbi Pesner pointed out that this is the first presidential election to follow that decision. “Nine million votes may not count because of voter ID and suppression laws in North Carolina and other states,” he said. “We’re working hard on an election protection campaign,” engaging in voter registration and preparing for poll monitoring efforts.
In addition to speaking about these efforts, on October 28 Rabbi Pesner will address the issues raised in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” While one in 17 white men will go to jail at some point in their lives, he said, the number is one in 3 for black men. “While Jim Crow has been eliminated, there is racism in the system of criminal justice,” he said.
When it comes to speaking out in this contentious electoral climate, Rabbi Pesner said that the RAC provides training to help rabbis “stay on the ethical and legal side of the 501(c) (3) line.” [The designation means that the nonprofit organization that carries it has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt charitable body.] Nevertheless, Rabbi Pesner added, “it is critical that our congregations speak out on the issues and values” — and of course, “private citizens can do whatever they want.”
He pointed out that while he cannot endorse or reject any candidate, he did take issue with AIPAC inviting Donald Trump to speak, “giving him a free pass” on views denigrating Muslims, women, and Mexicans. “You have to stay on issue,” he said. “I also issued a statement calling [the candidate] out for comments in Iowa asking non-Christian conservatives to raise their hands.”
Rabbi Pesner pointed out that bipartisan majorities passed both the Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act, and both major political parties reauthorized them. Similarly, he said, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Religious Freedom Restoration Act were bipartisan measures. Arguing that the mass incarceration of minorities is not only racist but “not a good use of taxpayer money,” he said that after the presidential election, he hopes that Congress will pass a bipartisan Criminal Justice Act.
Jewish teachings are never far from Rabbi Pesner’s mind as he plans and implements the RAC’s programs. “When you look at our strategic plan, the issues are deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition,” he said. “We engage the movement in the issues we pick, and begin with the study of Torah and rabbinic wisdom. We had Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, dean of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, spend a day here in Washington with 40 rabbis from all over the country to study race and inequality, looking at what the Talmud has to say.
“We also create rabbinic resources on the issues, asking that boards should start by studying text,” he continued. In RAC’s current campaign, Nitzavim, which seeks to “stand up for an inclusive electorate,” Reform Jews are reminded of the words in the parashah of that name: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem — You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God — you tribal heads, you elders, and you officials, all of the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11.)
“It is clear from Moses’ words that the covenant with the Divine does not discriminate — the whole community has a share in this holy relationship,” Rabbi Pesner said. “It is this central idea that animates our movement’s work to protect and promote the right to vote this election season.”
In addition, “Moses envisions a community in which all are counted and everyone matters. He names many of those who may risk exclusion and marginalization to emphasize the importance of including all people. Today as well, we stand up for a body politic that values the voices of people of color, young people, seniors, people with disabilities, and members of all groups that face increased risk of discrimination at the ballot box.”
Rabbi Pesner said that we now are facing a variety of threats, both as a community and as a nation. “One of the great underappreciated threats is the catastrophe that confronts our planet,” he said. “The looming threat of climate change will be indiscriminate to faith groups,” although poorer nations will be the first to suffer. He also said that he worries about the security of the State of Israel. “During Yom Kippur, I prayed not just for security but for more of a will from this prime minister to seek justice for the Palestinians as a security issue,” he said. “The two-state solution is the best guarantor” of that security, he added.
Finally, Rabbi Pesner said, “I believe tikkun olam begins in local communities and synagogues. I hope there will be more of a will in the whole Jewish community to reach across boundaries,” engaging with communities of Jews who observe differently as well as working across lines of faith and race.
Who: RAC director Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
What: Will deliver the Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture on “Prophetic Power and Politics: How Reform Jews Can Bring Healing and Justice to Our World.”
When: October 28. A Shabbat dinner will begin at 6 p.m. Shabbat services and the annual Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg Memorial Lecture will follow at 8.
Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
Cost: $25 per person for a kosher Shabbat dinner.
For more information and to make your reservation, call Temple Emeth at (201) 833-1322 or go to www.emeth.org.