Rabbi David Saperstein, the longtime head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Committee — who resigned that position to become President Barack Obama’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom — will talk about many aspects of social justice as the Rabbi Louis J. Sigel scholar in residence at Temple Emeth in Teaneck next weekend. (See box.)
His is a macro vision.
Jackie Guttman of Englewood, a longtime member of Temple Emeth, remembers being at a New York airport with her husband, Howard; they had just left their wedding for their honeymoon. She was 21, and it was 1964. The bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, had just been found in Mississippi. “I was talking to some man in the airport, some man from Florida, about how horrible it was,” she said. “And his response was, well, if they’d only minded their own business…
“My jaw dropped,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t forget it. I didn’t forget it. I remember it now.”
That is a micro insight into the larger phenomena that Rabbi Saperstein will talk about, and it was evoked by a six-day trip to civil rights sites in the Deep South that a Temple Emeth group took in February.
On both the macro and micro levels, the passion for civil rights and social justice is embedded in Temple Emeth’s DNA, a combination of the guiding values of the Reform movement to which it belongs and the passion of Rabbi Sigel, its rabbi emeritus, who was vitally important in Teaneck’s own struggle for integration in the 1960s. (Again, macro and micro, intertwined.)
Temple Emeth’s trip grew out a discussion that Lynn and Steve Chaiken of Teaneck had with its rabbi, Steven Sirbu. “The temple takes a trip every two or three years, generally to Israel,” Ms. Chaiken said. That stoked members’ interest not only in the regular trips there, and at times to eastern Europe as well, but also in shorter, more affordable ones. Given the shul’s historic — and ongoing — interest in civil rights, and given also that the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration had opened in Montgomery, it seemed likely that a trip to that and other civil rights landmarks would be interesting to the handful of synagogue members necessary for a trip.
“I’m also the chair of the social action committee,” Ms. Chaiken said. “This year, we looked at three huge areas — racism, the environment, and immigration.” All those issues are connected. “Teaneck is a very integrated town, it tries to be diverse — and it all made sense.”
So they started planning the trip, working with the Jackson, Mississippi-based nonprofit Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
“We announced it on Rosh Hashanah,” Ms. Chaiken said. “We thought eventually we’d hear from 25 people. Thirty at most.” In three days, 50 people signed up — more than they thought they could manage, and the number at which they drew a line. The participants ranged in age from the woman who celebrated her 80th birthday on the trip to two women in their 30s, but most were retirees, the Chaikens said.
The group flew to Atlanta, and then took a bus to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Their itinerary included both museums and synagogues. “We went to the last temple in Selma, Temple Mishkan Israel,” Ms. Chaiken said. “It’s a beautiful building. If we understood it properly, there are only four Jews there. They’re trying to maintain the building.” They were in Birmingham on Shabbat, and had dinner and went to services at Temple Emanu-El there.
“Emanu-El in Birmingham is where Milton Grafman was the rabbi in the 1960s,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “He was one of the eight clergymen who wrote to Martin Luther King, asking him not to come to Birmingham. They told him that they had their own plan. Of course, King did go to Birmingham, and his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ is explicitly addressed to them.”
Both Chaikens found the trip profoundly moving. “I never really understood the comparisons between the Holocaust and the history of slavery in our country until I saw all this together,” Ms. Chaiken said. “It made me understand more about how comparable it is. We are talking about more than four million people sold into slavery, not allowed to have any kind of freedom, who died of slavery. I also started looking not as much at reparations as at reconciliations.
“We don’t own up to our past in America,” Mr. Chaiken said. “Everyone just blows it off. They say, ‘It’s been 100 years. Just get over yourselves.’ One of the focuses of the Legacy Museum is the subtitle, ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration.’ The slavery is gone, but the oppression is not.
“In Berlin, there is a Holocaust museum in the middle of the city. That doesn’t mean that everyone supports it, but it is there. Here, in America, we don’t talk about our sins.”
“We don’t teach enough about what happened in the United States,” Ms. Chaiken said. Still, she continued, “We didn’t go any place that was terribly preachy. You just absorb all the information, and you put it together.
Ms. Guttman went on the trip, she said, because she wanted to learn more about the civil rights movement than she had known when she was living through it. She’d gone to college in the early 1960s in Pottsdam, way up in northernmost New York State; in that way-pre-internet and even-more-pre-social-media time, she could learn about current events, as they then were called, only on “the one television set in the lounge in the dorm.
“When I look back at it now, it is amazing how poorly informed we were.” Then, later, as a young married woman, “we were activist types, and we sent donations, but we didn’t go to demonstrations. We were too wrapped up in our babies.” But now, looking at these museums and streets where terrible history had happened, “I think that all of us on the trip were to one degree or another overwhelmed with what we were seeing and learning.”
Ms. Guttman found that although the bigger museums are powerful, at times the smaller, more intimate ones could penetrate her soul even more deeply. She talked about the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice; she found the garden where a coffin-like shape hanging from rafters overhead and sticking starkly up from the ground represented victims of lynching or other kinds of racially-tinged murder breathtaking and terrifying. There are more than 4,400 names, she said, an almost unbearable number of names. But still she was if possible even more moved by the smaller spaces. She talked about the Freedom Riders Bus Museum in Montgomery, a “former Greyhound station,” she said. “It’s one room, and it is so powerful that I was crying. All the headlines started coming back to me.”
She saw “a picture of John Lewis as a young man.” He’d been a civil rights worker then, beaten and jailed, getting up and doing it again anyway. “I remembered that at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, he was on the platform, and the camera caught him, and he was crying. I was so moved by the picture of him as a young man, thinking about how far he has come. He’s been a representative for 17 terms” — Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, has represented Georgia’s fifth district in Congress since 1987.
“The times haven’t changed enough — but they have changed a lot,” she said.
She also has thought a great deal about how “we can sit here smugly, thinking that the South has to keep making apologies, but it’s only by virtue of the fact that the North has a different climate that we didn’t have slavery here too. If the climate were like the South’s, we could have.
“Also, New Jersey was the last Northern state to outlaw slavery,” she added. (Slavery was abolished in the state in 1804 but was phased out very gradually; the last 13 slaves in New Jersey were freed in 1865.) “We as a nation can’t just keep thinking of it as a Southern issue,” she said. “I would like to see historical markers throughout the country.” They’d show where historical events connected to slavery happened. “It would be a modest way of acknowledging what happened here,” she said.
“As we came back with a renewed commitment to carrying on the unfinished work of the civil rights movement, criminal justice reform is at the top of the list,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
This leads logically to Rabbi Saperstein’s weekend at Temple Emeth.
David Saperstein is a lawyer as well as a rabbi; “for 40 years, he has been the face of the Reform movement’s social justice initiative,” Rabbi Sirbu said. Because of Temple Emeth’s longstanding interest in social justice, “it seemed like a perfect fit to invite him in 2015.” He did, and “Rabbi Saperstein accepted the invitation — but then he had to step away, when he was appointed to the position of ambassador for religion by the Obama administration.
“But we kept him in mind all this time, because he is such a talented teacher, and now we are an even better fit for him, because our politics have become so fractured, and even though the RAC” — that’s the Reform movement’s Religious Action Committee — “has a liberal bent, it is committed to a nonpartisan mission.
“And even though Rabbi Saperstein is no longer its director, he still speaks passionately about this message that Temple Emeth members really take to heart.
“When it comes to issues like anti-Semitism and religious freedom, his expertise has only grown in the last four years since his ambassadorship,” a position that ended when Donald J. Trump replaced Barack Obama in the White House.
The overall title of Rabbi Saperstein’s four talks, which will be delivered from Friday night through Sunday morning, is the formidable if hopeful “Being in the Hands of God: Jewish Social Justice at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity.”
“They asked me to cover a broad range of issues of concern to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Saperstein said. “I am going to give an overview of a number of issues that we confront both domestically and internationally, and I will try to place them in the context of the values of the Jewish tradition.
“I will address issues such as global climate change, the battle over voting rights, some of the tensions in the civil rights arena, particularly between civil rights and religious freedom. I’ll go into depth on some economic issues, and on how one might use the Jewish tradition to shape what our public policy positions ought to be. The Reform movement derives its positions from our tradition and applies it to some of the issues in front of us,” he continued. Specifically? “In the health care realm and in terms of unemployment and of a minimum versus a living wage,” he said.
One of his talks is about economic justice. “Look at the fundamental distinction between conservative and liberal economic thought in the last 100 years,” he said, previewing his discussion, which will be in much greater depth. “A lot has to do with the role of the public sector. Conservatives believe that there is an inherent justice at work in the capitalist free market, and that governmental intervention invariably causes more harm than good. You intervene only as a last resort. Liberals tend to believe that there is no inherent justice in the capitalist system, and that wealth will function in a way to protect its own interests, and therefore it is not only the right but also the responsibility of government to force the system to be more fair and equal.
“If you look at the question of the role of the public sector in the era of the Talmud, you see that the rabbis developed perhaps the first social welfare system,” he continued. “When a town developed to a certain size, it had to develop funds to help the poor and maintain schools, at least for all the boys, and the local government regulated the marketplace. It is more akin to the liberals’ view.”
In another talk, he’ll consider climate change, an issue that is hugely resonant with young people, Rabbi Saperstein said. “We’ll explore what the Jewish tradition has to say about the obligation to protect the world, to protect the poor and the vulnerable, and we’ll look at the rules for protection that go back to biblical times, in terms of air and water.
“There are a range of examples in our tradition that talk to our responsibility to protect God’s creation,” he continued. “We will look at the concept of bal tashchit, the mandate not to waste, and we’ll look at some of the facts on climate change. The implications of that will be particularly important for the younger generation.”
Then there’s religious freedom. “The issue is the clash between religious freedom and civil rights claims,” Rabbi Saperstein said. “The bakeshop case.” (He’s talking about the recent case in Colorado where a baker did not want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, claiming that he’d have to exercise his artistic talent and therefore seem to approve of an action he found unacceptable according to the tenets of his religion. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the baker on technical grounds, leaving the issue alive.) “I don’t know that there is a distinctive Jewish understanding because Jewish law protects the civil rights and fundamental dignity and equality of all people, and supports the structure of law in our society, which ensures that people may not be discriminated against because of protected categories, which include ethnic identity,” Rabbi Saperstein said. “There also is a deep concern with the concept of religious freedom in Jewish law. So this is not resolved by the tradition.” His discussion, therefore, “will be more about helping people understand the legal issues and what implications they have in terms of the Jewish community.”
Different parts of the Jewish community are likely to have different opinions on the question, he added. “The Orthodox tend to say that if you have to balance the two” — that’s religious freedom and civil rights — “they’d come out in favor of religious freedom, and we” — that’s liberal Jews — “tend to say that protecting civil rights is compelling.”
Does he look at these questions as a rabbi or as a lawyer? “I don’t see any bifurcation,” he said. “If you think about the positions that the Jewish movements and organizations take, we all take public policy positions, and each decides in our own way how to apply law and history lessons we draw from the Jewish tradition to contemporary issues.” It’s an integrated process, he suggested.
He’ll also talk about how religion has been used in American political campaigns since the turn of this century. It’s certainly a target-rich subject. “I’ll look at how religion has been used, how candidates use it, what is and is not permitted, what is and is not appropriate, what is and is not wise,” he said. “I’ll look at a range of examples, and then I’ll open it up to discussion.
“And finally, I’ll look at religious freedom around the world; at anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and the persecution of particularly vulnerable groups, minority Syrian populations, the Rohingya, the Uighurs, and I’ll talk about how we can be effective in responding to it.” In that talk in particular, Rabbi Saperstein will be able to draw on the experience he had as ambassador.
Who: Rabbi David Saperstein
What: Will be the Louis J. Sigel Scholar in Residence
Where: At Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
When: From April 12 to April 14
To be specific:
The whole program is called “Being in the Hands of God: Jewish Social Justice at a Time of Crisis and Opportunity”
At Shabbat evening services at 8, Rabbi Saperstein will talk about “Tough Choices: Jewish Perspectives on America’s Social Justice Challenge.”
On Saturday morning, at Torah study at 9, he will address “The Jewish Response: Economic Justice: Testing the Morality of Our Nation.”
On Saturday afternoon, at 1, he’ll look at “Religious Persecution and Religious Freedom Across the Globe.
On Sunday morning, he’ll take on “Racing with God: The Use and Abuse of Religion in American Elections.”
For more information, go to the synagogue’s website, www.emeth.org.