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American Rabbis Trained in Political Advocacy and Organizing at Inaugural Social Justice Seminar

WASHINGTON, January 21, 1998 - 65 rabbis and rabbinic students from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jewish Movements last week reaffirmed the Jewish people's historic commitment to social and economic justice as they concluded a national training program in social action programming, political advocacy, and coalition building at the inaugural Rabbinic Social Action Seminar, hosted by Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center (RAC) and Commission on Social Action (CSA) in Washington, D.C., from January 11-14.

Throughout the three-day seminar, which was designed to assist the clergy in mobilizing their congregations and communities for social justice activity, the rabbis: engaged in a dynamic discourse on effective methods for addressing the challenges and opportunities of mobilizing congregations and communities for social justice; participated in intensive skill-building workshops; and explored matters of public policy with Clinton administration officials, including Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., and Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross.

Laying valuable groundwork for the sessions which would follow, RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein at the outset of the conference presented several approaches to applying the Jewish tradition to contemporary policy issues within a pluralistic society. Saperstein suggested that to each policy concern, the Jewish community should ask itself the follow question: "Does the policy in question advance or impede those Jewish values that are universally applicable to Jewish and non-Jewish societies, to all people for all time?"

Saperstein affirmed that an understanding of which Jewish values and ethics are binding upon a non-Jewish society is central to this discussion and referred his colleagues to the lessons which can be drawn from Judaism's aggadic, midrashic, as well as halachic, literature.

In a concluding session on Wednesday afternoon, Vice President Gore spoke of the profound "spiritual connection" he felt to justice concerns, particularly the environment. The population boom of the last century coupled with new technology has altered humankind's relation to the earth, he said, as he called on the rabbis to join him in bringing their voices and their faith to this cause.

New Connections, New Energy

Many of the participants cited the seminar for its help in providing a much-needed boost to their social justice energies. "I've been conscious of the need to do more social action with my synagogue, and now I have ideas on how to proceed," said Rabbi Paul Tuchman of Terre Haute, Ind.

Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard of Easton, Pa., remarked: "The seminar caused me to reevaluate how I understand the importance of social action in my rabbinate. . .This was one of the very best conferences I've ever attended" Indeed, most rabbis lauded the fellowship they experienced during the conference and welcomed the opportunity to exchange programming ideas with their colleagues from across the nation.

The seminar was "a wonderful opportunity to hear from others in synagogue leadership what works," said Rabbi Meryl Crean of West Chester, Pa.

"I have never found a conference so well-organized, complete and inspiring," said Rabbi Amy Scheinerman of Blacksburg, Va, calling it "infused with idealism, enthusiasm, and yes, spirituality."

Saperstein observed: "Of the 2,000-3,000 attendees to our conferences each year, none have been more enthusiastic about translating what they have learned into local social action programs than these rabbinic leaders."


RAC Associate Director Mark J. Pelavin called on the seminar participants to "be both students and teachers" as they together studied how to be effective advocates for social justice. A critical component of the rabbis' training occurred during skill-building workshops and lectures which taught them how to effectively work with elected officials, implement media strategies, build interfaith coalitions, and serve as policy advocates in order to advance their agendas.

Rabbi Lynne F. Landsberg, executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregation's Mid-Atlantic Council, explained to the clergy how to avoid the pitfalls of interfaith coalition building and how to use coalitions to advance specific public policy positions. "As issues of national importance emerge, the relationships formed in local coalitions will become invaluable," she said.

During a session on media relations, Steve Rabinowitz, a media consultant who works closely with several American Jewish organizations, urged the rabbis to get to know their local newspaper editors and religion reporters, and implement long-term media strategies. Also, during the workshop on working with elected officials, Michael Bloomfield of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee emphasized the need for clergy to develop ongoing relationships with elected leaders, sometimes even before they reach elected office.

According to Diana Aviv, who heads the Council of Jewish Federations' Washington Action Office, the keys to successful legislative advocacy work are: clearly defined goals, consistent knowledge of the issues, and persistence. During her presentation, she suggested that the rabbis be "students of politics as well as policy," if they really hoped to affect the political process.

Learning the Issues

Conference attendees explored three major policy areas during the seminar: religious liberty, economic justice, and the environment. The section on religious freedom, which included both a historical overview and legislative briefing on the topic, resonated strongly with the participants, many of whom serve in regions of the U.S. where religious conservatives have taken aim at school boards and local electoral races. In these instances and others, rabbis around the U.S. have increasingly become deeply involved in divisive community debates over the role of religion in the public sphere.

Religious Liberty

In a fascinating debate on the history of religion and state affairs in the American Jewish experience, Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University emphasized that both historic and current attitudes of America's Jewish community towards religion and state are considerably more complex than generally recognized. He challenged the prevailing view of a static Jewish position favoring a Jeffersonian "wall of separation" between religion and state.

Marc D. Stern, co-director of American Jewish Congress' Commission on Law and Social Action, countered Sarna's conclusions questioning the value of anecdotal evidence of the Jewish community's positions on religion and state. For instance, he said, knowing that Jewish leadership on a specific occasion supported a particular position doesn't explain its rationale. According to Stern, principle may have yielded to pragmatism as they made the decision to support their best interest and "not rock the boat." Regardless, he stated, today's views reflect a new consensus on matters of religious liberty, including the Jewish community's full support for public education as the "glue of society."

Regarding recent school voucher initiatives (which would channel public funds to sectarian parochial schools), Rev. Barry W. Lynn said, "faith communities don't need the help of government to promulgate the faith in which we believe." Rev. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, added that the rabbis should not be "ashamed of a moral vision" where government and religion are not in "bed together."

He further implored them to "complain whenever we can at [the] first intrusion into the liberties we hold dear." Citing recent impingements of U.S. law by religious institutions engaging in partisan political activity, Lynn explained that the rabbis can be helpful in holding religious organizations accountable by reporting similar abuses in their own communities.

Economic Justice

Despite the good economic news widely reported in both the media and political circles, a growing number of Americans live in poverty, according to Ellen Nissenbaum of the Washington- based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Even as talk of a budget surplus grows, America's income gap between its wealthiest and poorest citizens looms wider than any other industrialized nation. It is for these reasons, said Nissenbaum, that significant "rearguard defensive work" remains for 1998. She identified social security, the tobacco settlement, food stamps for legal immigrants, the earned-income tax credit, and child care as critical policy arenas deserving attention in the coming year.

The Rev. Donald Robinson, executive director of the Church Association for Community Services (CACS), told the rabbis of the numerous community-based efforts CACS has sponsored within the district to "bring relief to those who are hurting." Included in this inner-city outreach effort are after-school counseling and tutoring programs, a family crisis center, and an evening basketball league. Intended to empower both youth and families, Rev. Robinson explained how CACS' programs can be emulated in communities around the country. He called on the Jewish spiritual leaders to join him as "ambassadors of love and compassion."


On the environment, conference participants were briefed by Deborah Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, and Mark X. Jacobs, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Callahan, a leading environmental lobbyist, identified the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act, Senate ratification of the recent Kyoto climate change accord, and "takings" legislation as key areas of the environmental community's legislative agenda for the second session of the 105th Congress.

Jacobs, who had just returned from a COEJL Jewish environmental activists' retreat in Ojai, Calif., called upon the rabbis to become personally involved in the battles to preserve God's earth. "We need your spiritual leadership," he said. In addition, he asked each congregational rabbi to host a synagogue holiday event featuring an environmental education curriculum. During his session with the rabbis, Vice President Gore also spoke of "[our] obligation as stewards to take good care of what has been loaned to us [by God]."

The rabbis also attended off-the-record briefings with White House officials Elena Kagan of the Domestic Policy Council, Jack Lew of the Office of Management and Budget, Bill Marshall of the office of the White House counsel, and Eric Schwartz of the National Security Council.

What Next?

In his summation of the seminar, CSA Director Leonard Fein characterized the program as an "extraordinary encounter for all involved." He added that our new challenge is "to figure out how to make this same intensive experience available to vastly larger numbers of rabbis around the country."

Fein concluded, that while it will be several months before the conference's lasting value to the participants will be known, "the initial response was so enthusiastic that we are confident its effects will indeed be long-lasting."

The seminar was made possible in part by a generous grant from the Robert Sillins Family Foundation.

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