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Passover

The right to vote is fundamental to American democracy and has been a key part of the Religious Action Center’s work since our founding in 1961. As you may know, the RAC and Reform Jews have a proud legacy of support for the Civil Rights Movement and portions of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were even drafted right in our conference room! It is for this reason that we were so disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder in June 2013, which invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act and eliminated crucial protections for voters. In the wake of Shelby, we have pushed for a Congressional fix through the Voting Rights Amendment Act, but we know that there are many aspects of our voting system that needs reform.

As we approach the holiday of Passover, I’m starting to think of the commandment in the Haggadah: "in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt." The commandment has always stuck with me as a call for empathy with our Jewish ancestors, yet after working on immigration reform for the past year, I see the commandment as a way of forming a connection to our immigrant history. For what is “coming forth from Egypt” but immigrating to another land?

As we prepare for Passover in only a few weeks, we know that celebrating Passover connects us as Jews – to our families, to our communities and the broader Jewish people. Passover also unites us with humanity. Many people across our country and our world have experienced oppression and persecution. Although we were once slaves, avadim hayinu, we now are free—but too many in the world are not. Modern-day slavery is one of the most profoundly troubling plagues of our time. The innumerable people who are trafficked for sex work or domestic work all have one thing in common: their freedom has been taken from them.

Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), and a lot has changed in the past five years. Thanks to the ACA, the 129 million non-elderly Americans with pre-existing health conditions can no longer be denied coverage or charged more because of their pre-existing condition. Also, millions of low-income individuals are now eligible for Medicaid thanks to ACA expansion of the program. And, a March 16, 2016 Department of Health and Human Services report states that 16.4 million uninsured people have gained health insurance coverage since 2010 under the Affordable Care Act. These improvements, among many others, on the five year anniversary of the ACA are a cause to celebrate and rededicate our commitment to affordable and accessible care for all.

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. While only having 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, making us the world’s largest jailer. Between 1980 and 2012, the U.S. federal prison population rose from about 25,000 inmates to 219,000 inmates, an increase of more than 790 percent. In fact, at the end of 2013, an estimated 6,899,000 persons were under the supervision of adult correctional systems, which includes those incarcerated in prison or local jail in addition to those supervised in the community on parole or probation.

On Passover, Jews around the world eat matzah instead of leavened bread to remember how the Jewish people did not have time to wait for their bread to rise before they were escaping slavery in Egypt. While matzah can be delicious in certain forms – there is nothing like Grandma Fineman’s matzah meal pancakes, her chocolate covered matzah, or her matzah brei recipes – after eating the umpteenth peanut butter and jelly sandwich on matzah, the unleavened staple can start to seem old or tiresome. When seeing boxes upon boxes in grocery stores, I am among the first to groan. Yet even though we may not enjoy eating matzah, we have to remember that we are lucky to have food on our tables and in our bellies, unlike far too many people in our country.

One of my favorite things about Reform Judaism is how much the Reform Movement accepts multicultural families and celebrates diversity. The Reform Movement has always stood for inclusion and acceptance of all types and ways of being Jewish, and our wholehearted embrace of interfaith families is a demonstration of our commitment to pluralism even within Reform Judaism.

We often talk about climate change and environmental initiatives to combat the human-made disruption of our earth’s systems and exhaustion of its resources. However, while climate change is a threat that affects us all as sea levels rise and we experience more frequent extreme weather events, people of color and low-income people across the United States and the world will be disproportionately burdened by the most damaging impacts of a changing and less habitable climate. Less economically stable communities are unable to bounce back from the devastation to infrastructure caused by extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Similarly, communities of color are significantly more likely to live near toxic waste facilities and to unequally come into contact with polluted air and water.

When we sit down for the retelling of the Exodus story at our Passover Seder each year, we are both retelling and reliving that experience. As Jews, we are taught that “in every generation, all of us are obliged to regard ourselves as if we had personally gone forth from the Land of Egypt.” Victoria Levi, who we met in Selma while commemorating Bloody Sunday and hearing from inspiring Jewish activists like Peter Yarrow, inspired me with her story.

As we sit at our Passover Seders, we relive the story of how our ancestors were slaves in the land of Egypt, and how they were freed. Our history of slavery and redemption calls on us to speak up against injustice in our world today, especially when it comes to workers’ rights.

Modern-day slavery continues to be a scourge on humanity worldwide, and it is imperative that we take action to end it. We also should not lose sight of the national policies we can enact to ensure that workers who are employed in the open marketplace are treated with justice.