The History of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
The History of 2027 Massachusetts Avenue (RAC's building)
The earliest reference to the lot now known as 2027 Massachusetts Avenue was in 1858. In 1869, its owners, Bowie and Snowdon, sold the lot to B.D. Carpenter as part of a subdivision named “Brothers Joint Interest” or “Nonesuch.” At this time, there were prohibitions attached to the property, including no manufacturing, no mechanical purposes, and no sale of liquors. Over the following twenty years, there were at least three other owners of the land. By 1892, a brick structure stood on the land.
In 1887, the owner was James G. Blaine, a politician from Maine who in his career served as a U.S. Representative from Maine, Speaker of the House, a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State (under two separate Presidents), and Republican nominee for President in 1884 (losing the election when he lost New York by just over a thousand votes). Interestingly, Blaine’s name lives on in the “Blaine Amendments,” provisions in many state constitutions that prohibit the use of state funds to support "sectarian" schools.
The building’s history becomes muddled in the early 1900s when a fire destroyed many local records. One reference mentions that the 1892 building still stood in 1903, and in 1911 the current 10,000-square-foot building was built as a one-family house. The current building was sold at least four more times between 1929 and 1956. In the early 1950s, it became an art school, and later, an embassy. In 1961 Robert and Charlotte Patterson sold the building to “a religious Ohio corporation,” or more specifically to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and a year later the building was dedicated as the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The History of the Religious Action Center
Since moving into its home at 2027 Massachusetts Avenue, the Center has become a voice of conscience in our nation’s capital. From its historic building on Washington’s Embassy Row, the RAC has educated and mobilized the American Jewish community on legislative and social concerns as an advocate in Congress on issues ranging from Israel and Soviet Jewry to economic justice; from civil rights to international peace and religious liberty. Since it was established in 1961, the RAC has been an integral part of some of the most important political and social developments in recent history.
Here are a few snapshots from the RAC’s first forty years:
October 1959: Rabbi Eugene Lipman, Director, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA), announces that Kivie Kaplan – President of the NAACP, an active member of the CSA, and Honorary Vice-Chair of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations – and his wife Emily have offered funds to the UAHC for the purchase of a building to house a center for social action in Washington, DC.
November 13, 1961: The RAC is saluted in a special tribute at the White House Rose Garden. President John F. Kennedy is presented with historic Torah by the Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, symbolizing the lasting contribution of Jews to the moral fabric of American society. President Kennedy notes at the ceremony, “I think this symbolizes the happy relations which exist between all religious groups and must continue to exist in this country if we are to be worthy of our heritage.”
December 1, 1962: The RAC’s building is officially dedicated at 2027 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. Among the guests at the dedication are Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, UAHC President Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, NAACP Board of Directors Chairman Bishop Stephen Spottswood, (soon-to-be Senator) Howard Metzenbaum, and Kivie and Emily Kaplan. A number of civil rights and public interest organizations were housed at the Center.
1963-1965: The landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act are drafted in the RAC's conference room by Jewish, African-American, and other civil rights leaders.
1966: The RAC sponsors the Washington Seminar for Theological Students with the Divinity School at Harvard University. The month-long summer program includes sessions on “Implementation of Civil Rights Legislation,” “Interreligious Relations and Their Impact on Public Policy,” and “Radical Groups and their Impact on American Life.”
1968: The UAHC and CCAR become the first national Jewish organizations to oppose the war in Vietnam. The RAC becomes a hub for Vietnam War protesters and the RAC staff leads strategy sessions to strengthen Jewish involvement in the anti-war efforts, discussions on the war and Jewish tradition, and even serves as an emergency first-aid station when protesters are tear-gassed.
1975: The Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Program is established, bringing college graduates to the Center for periods of 3-12 months to monitor and analyze federal legislation, perform grassroots and coalition advocacy work, and more. To date, more than 225 people have participated in this program, and many have gone on to become rabbis, professionals in the Jewish community, lawyers, public interest lobbyists, and staff members on Capitol Hill.
1976: The Kivie Kaplan Seminar (now called Machon Kaplan) is created as a summer work/study program in social action for college students.
1976: The RAC holds a presidential seminar, inviting leaders of major Jewish organizations to enter a closed-door conversation with all the U.S. presidential candidates. (It is then-presidential candidate Governor Jimmy Carter’s first meeting with national Jewish leadership.) Governor George Wallace, the symbol of resistance to integration, unexpectedly chooses this opportunity to apologize for some of his positions and to compliment the Jewish community, especially for the creation of Israel, which he saw as a bastion against Soviet expansion.
1977: The first Consultation on Conscience takes place. The Consultation on Conscience has become the flagship public policy conference for the Reform Jewish Movement; it is held every two years in Washington shortly after the new Congress takes office and presents high-level briefings on current issues and critical legislation. Speakers at the Consultation have included President Bill Clinton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Dalai Lama, future Vice-President Al Gore, and scores of Senators and Representatives.
1981: The RAC building is renovated to improve working conditions.
1987: For the two months prior to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s first trip to Washington, the RAC, led by its tenant the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, becomes the operational headquarters for the national March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, which – with more than 200,000 supporters – becomes one of the largest demonstrations in American history. The RAC’s conference room is packed with desks, computers, phone lines, and scores of volunteers as the RAC’s staff helps mobilize congregations throughout the country and helps coordinate the efforts of other Jewish organizations to make the march a huge success.
1995: Nobel Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu addresses the RAC’s Consultation on Conscience and thanks the Reform Jewish Movement for its role in the battle to end apartheid.
1996: The RAC expands beyond its building – entering the cyber-world with the launch of its Internet site, now found at www.rac.org
1997: A long-time supporter of freedom for the Tibetan people, the RAC hosts a Passover Seder in honor of the Dalai Lama. Surrounded by prominent Jewish leaders and public officials, the Dalai Lama thanks the RAC for the invitation. Now, he said, he understands even more deeply the sources of Jewish survival – and he loves the matzah.
1999: In honor of Rabbi David Saperstein's 25th anniversary with the RAC, President Bill Clinton gives the keynote address at a tribute to Saperstein during the RAC's Consultation on Conscience.
2003: The RAC is completely renovated. The RAC building is renamed The Arthur and Sara Jo Kobacker Building. At the same time, the section of 21st Street next to the RAC is formally named “Kivie Kaplan Way,” and the new Conference Center is named for Emily and Kivie Kaplan.
2027: Today and Tomorrow
The “top to bottom” renovation we celebrate today was undertaken with six main goals:
Making our facilities accessible to all;
Building better facilities for seminars and other meetings;
Creating a friendlier, more efficient, working environment for our staff;
Integrating new technologies to enhance the RAC’s ability to serve and support congregations and coalitional allies;
Making the renovated building as “green” as possible, reducing our energy consumption and taking other steps to create an environmentally friendly building; and
Significantly upgrading the building’s security systems.
The primary reason the RAC undertook this renovation is to ensure access to every area of the building for those with disabilities. Given the building’s limited space configuration, our architects determined that the most effective and efficient placement for the elevator is on the outside rear of the building. All restroom facilities and work areas have been reconfigured and made accessible to those with disabilities.
We are excited about the new Kivie and Emily Kaplan Conference Center. Most of the basement has been converted into a 90-seat conference center, eliminating the continuing need for the RAC to rent meeting space for many of its smaller conferences and meetings. Not only will the RAC be able to accommodate more people, but also it will be able to do so in a comfortable, efficient, and modern facility. The RAC always has been proud of the role our building has played in providing a meeting place for many in the public interest community. In recent years, however, two factors have reduced the number of such meetings at the RAC: a conference room that could seat only 60 people, and lack of disability accessibility. The renovations will eliminate both of these restrictions. Further, a new kitchen designed for food preparation, storage, and catering will minimize the need for conference attendees to leave the building for meals, thus lowering the RAC’s costs for food service during meetings and conferences.
The staff workspace has been dramatically improved. Prior to the renovation, the majority of the RAC staff were housed in the building’s basement. Now, most of the staff will be on the second floor, which is filled with natural light. Staff will have easy access to files, and will enjoy far more efficient and comfortable desks and work areas.
The RAC building has been redesigned and refitted to maximize use of new audiovisual and Internet technologies. The RAC has a large and geographically dispersed constituency, and the ability to communicate with them effectively is a critical challenge. By equipping the building, for example, with the necessary infrastructure for video-conferencing, the RAC will be able to provide enhanced leadership to the Reform Movement, the Jewish community, and our coalitional allies across North America. Effective communications require a physical infrastructure that can support state-of-the-art technological equipment – and the new building is designed to do just that. The building’s computer system includes two wireless gateways, and the conference rooms are equipped with video projectors, screens, teleconferencing equipment, and entirely new audio systems.
The Reform Jewish Movement has been committed to protecting the environment for more than thirty years. In December 2001, Aspen Systems Corporation on behalf of ENERGY STAR for Congregations (a program sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency) conducted an audit of the building specifically aimed at planning for renovation. Recommendations for improvements to the renovated RAC building have resulted in the saving of thousands of dollars in energy costs even as it sets an example for Union for Reform Judaism congregations to incorporate energy-saving improvements in their own buildings. Specifically:
the building has all new, efficient windows with insulated glazing;
we have purchased all new, high-efficiency mechanical systems, which are “zoned” to allow specific areas to be heated or cooled at specific times;
we have chosen compact fluorescent lighting throughout the building and have installed motion detectors to turn off lights when rooms are unoccupied;
we have selected “low volume” toilets rather than flush valve toilets to save water, and “Energy Star” rated appliances to save energy.
In addition we have, wherever possible, used “green materials,” such as linoleum rather than vinyl tile and natural brick.