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Social justice work helps inspire growth of Reform Judaism, says Saperstein
March 1st, 2013
The American Jewish community for the most part participates in the trends that affect religion in the U.S. generally. Yet there appears to be one tendency where the Jewish and general populations differ.
Rabbi David Saperstein
As Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, proudly said during his talk at Congregation Sinai on Feb. 15, and further explained in a telephone interview on Feb. 18, U.S. Reform Judaism is “the only theologically liberal denomination growing in the last 40 years” in the United States.
The liberal Christian denominations and mainline Protestant groups have all been shrinking, and so has Judaism’s Conservative movement, he said. But the Reform movement is “more than 50 percent larger than it was 40 years ago,” he told The Chronicle. “We’ve seen enormous growth.”
Why? “I think it’s spurred by our openness to diverse families within Jewish life, [including] interfaith families [and] same-sex families,” he said on Feb. 18.
In addition, he said, the movement is growing because of “the constancy of our passion for tikkun olam [repair of the world] and social justice work. We’re seen as standing for something that many Jews are attracted to.”
According to the RAC website, the organization operates “under the auspices” of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, “a joint instrumentality of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union for Reform Judaism with its affiliates.”
The website further states, “As the D.C. office of the Union for Reform Judaism, the RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel, and more.”
Saperstein was in Milwaukee on Feb. 15 to speak at Milwaukee’s Metropolitan Council of Reform Congregations Shabbat. The Chronicle attended but did not take notes on Saperstein’s remarks then; he agreed to be interviewed during the week after.
In his talk and during the interview, Saperstein said the issue priorities of the RAC include concern about how the coming federal government budget decisions will affect the poor, children, elderly, and other vulnerable populations; global warming; immigration reform; gun control; reproductive rights; and the Middle East peace process.
Many of these resemble standard politically liberal and Democratic Party concerns. Saperstein during the interviews acknowledged that “Most of the Jewish community is politically liberal, and it’s even more so with the Reform movement.”
He further pointed out that the positions the RAC takes on political issues are determined at the biennial conventions of the URJ and the national conventions of the CCAR.
“And the resolutions there pass overwhelmingly,” he said. “It is very rare to have a closely contested resolution… There’s a clear consensus on views.”
Even so, Saperstein said, “we have gone out of our way to find common ground with conservatives and to speak to issues on which we have agreement, where other liberal groups really haven’t been involved.”
The RAC, he continued, has “helped put together these ‘strange bedfellows’ coalitions” with Evangelical Christian groups, Catholic bishops, and socially conservative Republican members of both houses of Congress.
These coalitions have successfully passed such legislation as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Sudan Peace Act of 2002, laws on human trafficking that among other things created a State Department office that issues an annual report on the problem, and others, Saperstein said.
“I ended up being at the White House for [bill] signings and things as much in the first term of the [Republican] Bush administration as I’d been in the [Democratic] Clinton administration,” said Saperstein, who has headed the RAC for more than 30 years.
While the RAC is based in Washington and focuses most of its work there, Saperstein said in a telephone interview on Feb. 19 that “more and more decisions are being made at the state and local levels.”
Therefore, the RAC over the past five years has been “doing more in terms of organizing efforts with our congregations and our rabbis to address issues on the state level,” he said. “So in California, New York, New Jersey, and other states, we have a fairly active coordinated effort to address state legislative activity, and that is now expanding across the country.”
Saperstein said that every year he speaks at 20 to 25 synagogues across the country and “maybe at another 10 or 15 other institutions, religious or academic” in the country and across the world.
In his travels through the U.S. Jewish community, Saperstein said he is “deeply impressed by the strength of our synagogues and the richness of their programming and spiritual life. The innovation that you see in local communities is really impressive.”
Moreover, “in all the streams — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox — there’s really been a resurgence of social justice activity” that has been “transformative in many synagogues in the various streams.”