I never thought we would find someone whose social justice bonafides could match those of Rabbi David Saperstein, who forcefully spoke truth to power as the leader of the RAC for 40 years.
Well, we have. He is Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner. A passionate advocate and experienced community organizer, Jonah founded Just Congregations, a congregation-based community organizing initiative that allows Reform synagogues to act powerfully and successfully across lines of faith, class and race to address the root causes of economic and social injustice.
As the rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, Jonah was a primary leader in “Affordable Care Today!”, the successful Massachusetts campaign for health care access that provided coverage to hundreds of thousands and became a model for reform. He also has led and supported campaigns for economic justice, marriage equality, human rights, and a variety of other causes.
Among his top priorities are economic inequality, racial justice and climate change. And he already has engaged in this important work. He was a forceful keynote speaker during America’s Journey for Justice’s rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In his remarks during “Coming Together in Faith on Climate” at the Washington National Cathedral, Jonah stated that if we wish to “celebrate the gift God gave us – the gift of existence, of living, and breathing, of seeing and tasting – then we must acknowledge the responsibility that human existence carries in the face of the climate crisis of our age….”
Rabbi Saperstein, who was was confirmed last year as U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, said Jonah is a respected voice among government leaders as well as faith leaders both inside of and beyond the Jewish community…. I am heartened to know that Jonah will be here to continue moving our work forward.”
I, too, have worked with Jonah and know he will be an effective advocate for social justice for us for years to come.
Paid family leave is important not only for the immediate health of the individual, but also to relieve the stress of the caretaker and to sustain the worker’s economic security during leave. Thirteen percent of families with a new infant enter into poverty within the first month because of the combined effects of a need for increased income and a reduced number of working hours. Three resolutions focusing on weighty current issues will be debated and voted on during next month’s North American Biennial in Orlando. They are all likely to draw considerable debate.
The first focuses on the Reform movement’s continuing fight against discrimination and efforts to bring equality to all. Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People affirms its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions, urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression and that require individuals to be treated equally under the law as the gender by which they identify.
In the second, we pay attention to mandatory immunization laws. One of our most sacred commandments is that of pikuah nefesh, the idea that the preservation of life takes precedence over almost all other Jewish laws. This resolution supports mandatory immunization laws, with the only acceptable exemptions being: medical exemptions and religious exemptions, which must be suspended if community immunity is deemed at risk by public health officials.
The third is gaining traction as a matter of economic justice and the maintenance of healthy families: Paid Family Leave. Paid family leave is important not only for the immediate health of the individual, but also to relieve the stress of the caretaker and to sustain the worker’s economic security during leave. Thirteen percent of families with a new infant enter into poverty within the first month because of the combined effects of a need for increased income and a reduced number of working hours. Out of 185 countries reviewed by the International Labour Organization, the United States is one of just two that does not guarantee paid maternity leave, the other being Papua New Guinea. The resolution calls for, among other things, for us to support and advocate for legislation that provides paid family and medical leave, while recognizing that we must also assess the feasibility and impact of any specific proposal. We also call upon our congregations to help build coalitions and advocate for the passage of paid family and medical leave laws. Currently only three states – California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – offer paid family leave. Nine others even have defined family-leave laws.
The Commission on Social Action is not the only URJ organization that weighs in on critical issues of the day. I want to share with you the work of the North American Board of Trustees, URJ’s governing body.
Last month in San Antonio, the Board adopted a resolution that concentrated on the role of the police in the wake of the shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and similar incidents. In many ways, it is a follow-up to a resolution adopted in at the North American Biennial in Orlando in 1999, “Race and the Criminal Justice System.” The text of which is available here.
The resolution supports law enforcement and the arduous tasks it performs every day to strengthen our communities. But it goes much farther than that. It calls for the return to basic community policing and advocates for reforms in the grand jury system. It also encourages synagogues to set up and sustain relationships with diverse racial, ethnic and economic sectors of their communities, participate in community-based dialogues pertaining to race and community-police relations, and work to enhance violence prevention and conflict resolution procedures.
The full text of this important resolution is attached here.
We took a critical step in fulfilling part of this by participating in the recent “Black Lives Matter” rally in Scoville Park. But the work doesn’t end there. As we enter 2015, let us continue to strive to nurture relationships with other local clergy and activists to visibly and meaningfully address inequality and racism.