RAC Social Action Blog
Today, Rabbi David Saperstein enters his second week of fasting for immigration reform – a core faster, joined by dozens of “solidarity fasters,” – in the broader hunger strike designed to urge Congress to take action.
The fast began on November 12, when Eliseo Medina (SEIU), Dae Joong Yoon (NAKASEC), Cristian Avila (Mi Familia Vota) and Lisa Sharon Harper (Sojourners) began 22 days of fasting, to bring attention to immigration reform and urge Congress to make comprehensive reform a reality. Rabbi Saperstein, along with other faith leaders, took over the fast last Tuesday in a transition ceremony on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
After 22 days of fasting, Rabbi Saperstein and other major religious and civic leaders stepped in to assume the “core fasting” role from those activists who could no longer safely fast. He was joined by Reverend Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Philip Agnew of Dream Defenders, Reverend Eun-sang Lee of the First United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, Stephan Bauman of World Relief, Ciara Taylor of Dream Defenders, Reverend Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and Representative Joe Kennedy; all of them were visited by dignitaries and other supporters at a tent near the Capitol. The Fast for Families Tent on the Mall, which has served as the epicenter of immigration reform activism this autumn, receives visits daily from elected officials and other prominent supporters of immigration reform who are expressing solidarity with the fasters.
Over the course of this fast, the immigration debate has shifted in Washington. This week, House Speaker John Boehner stated through a spokesman that he “remains hopeful” about the passage of immigration legislation, and hired a well-respected new staffer to advance the issue. Meanwhile, 190 members of the House of Representatives are co-sponsors of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). The bill is based on a similar one passed by the Senate this summer by a vote of 68-32. The bill, while imperfect, contains numerous reforms, including a path to citizenship, border security and interior enforcement, workplace protections, family unification, reforms to the asylum system and other key provisions.
Leviticus commands, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34]. This principle permeates Jewish tradition and is echoed 35 times in the Torah – the most repeated of any commandment. Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.
Rabbi Saperstein’s fast is consistent with the Reform Movement’s longtime advocacy for immigration reform. Jewish tradition is clear on the treatment of immigrants, and our faith demands of us concern for the stranger in our midst. Have you sent a letter to your officials urging them to act? Now is certainly the time – it only takes a minute. You can learn more at our immigration portal, or contact me directly.
Looking out onto the landscape of reproductive rights, there are great challenges and obstacles. However, they cannot be allowed to overshadow the victories and hard work pro-choice activists are doing across the country.
Late last month in Albuquerque New Mexico, an extreme municipal ban on abortions after 20-weeks of gestation was voted down by a wide margin. Albuquerque is the only city in New Mexico where with facilities that perform abortions later in pregnancy; if the ballot measure had passed, it would have effectively ended access across the state. It was truly an immense success!
Around the same time in November, the Women’s Health Protection Act was introduced in both the House (H.R. 3471) and the Senate (S. 1696). This wide-reaching bill aims to protect basic components of women’s health, particularly concerning abortion. Should this legislation pass, any prohibition or ban of abortion prior to fetal viability will be illegal, as would restrictions that limit a woman’s ability to obtain an immediate abortion when a health care professional believes, based on good-faith medical judgment, that a delay would pose a risk to the woman’s health.
Unfortunately, challenges to full enjoyment of reproductive rights exist on both the state and federal level—a staggering 88% of counties in the United States do not have abortion clinics. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 15 states have near-total criminal bans on abortion and 20 states have banned abortions after 12 weeks, with only an exception for the health of the mother. Another nine states have banned abortion after 20 weeks without a full health exception for the mother. Pro-choice women and men must continue to be active participants in local political discussions and in the political process so that access to abortion is not defined by where a woman lives.
On the federal level, there are two important bills that need your action!
In early November, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. An identical bill passed the House earlier this year. Tell your Senators to oppose this bill, which will severely limit basic reproductive rights.
Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX-1) introduced the Parental Notification and Intervention Act of 2013 (S. 3601), a bill that would require that all minors obtain written consent from a parent or legal guardian before requesting an abortion, followed by a 96-hour waiting period. Not only does this bill contain exceptionally stringent rules for parental notification, it also defines narrow exceptions around this requirement: only in the case of a medical emergency that threatens the life of the mother or in the case of strong evidence of physical abuse of the young woman by the parent can she be exempted. Urge your representatives to vote against this highly restrictive bill!
As Americans and as Reform Jews, it is important that we speak up to defend the reproductive rights of women across the country. Take action on these restrictive measures being considered in Congress, which have the potential to significantly diminish the rights that Roe v. Wade established nearly 41 years ago.
Next week at the URJ Biennial, we’ll be live-streaming all plenary sessions and Shabbat worship (watch at www.urj.org/biennial or live on JLTV) – and some of the best social action material will be available! It promises to excite and inspire Reform Jews from coast to coast to pursue justice and tikkun olam.
We also hope you join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #Biennial13; follow us @TheRAC and our partners @URJ and @ReformRabbis. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook for highlights, photos, and more.
We’ll kick off the Biennial with a grand opening event on Wednesday December 11th, at 12:30p.m. with the Candle Blessing Project lead and musician Stacy Beyer. The Social Action Skills and Thrills intensive session will take place that afternoon, while all week there will be some great social justice Learning Sessions, check out our list below.
We will also remember the Civil Rights Movement and Jewish social justice leadership with a forum featuring Rabbi David Saperstein, URJ Vice President emeritus Al Vorspan, and former NAACP President Julian Bond.
Some of the great social justice Learning Sessions will include:
- Conservative and Liberal Views in Our Movement: Can Common Ground Be Found?
- Communities at Risk: Persepectives and Action on the Global Jewish Experience
- Food, Faith and Activism
- Service Learning: A Meaningful Tool for Engagement and Justice
- Exploring Biennial Resolutions
- Energy, the Environment and Our Judaism
- The Jewish Obligation to Comprehensive Immigration Reform
- Beyond Tikkun Olam: Jewish Articulations of Social Justice
- Jewish Values and the Workplace
- RAC Campaign: LGBT Equality and Workplace Protection
- Reform CA and the Californian Dream
- Disability Rights in Our World
- Inclusion Efforts in Our Synagogues, featuring Rabbi David Saperstein
- Challenges in the Advancement of Women Around the World
- Great Social Action Programs for Your Congregation
Plenary sessions will feature presentations from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, NY Times’ columnist Mark Bittman, and we’ll honor Jay Feinberg, founder and CEO of Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, with the Maurice N. Eisendrath “Bearer of Light” Award. Rabbi David Saperstein and Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation will discuss accessibility and inclusion in the Jewish community.
We’ll also honor Women of Reform Judaism as they celebrate their 100th anniversary. This session, “Extraordinary Women Shaping Reform Judaism,” will include the presentation of URJ Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award to Women of Reform Judaism & presentation of the WRJ Jane Evans Award to Anat Hoffman, director of our Israel Religious Action Center. And, we’ll also kick off the World Zionist Congress Election Campaign, hear from ARZA president Rabbi Josh Weinberg, and so much more.
Tune in and follow the conversation and energy all week long!
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) is multifaceted and complex—in addition to its goal of containing costs, one of the ACA’s primary mandates is to increase the number of Americans with health insurance. The bill does so through a number of provisions:
- Creating the new Health Insurance Marketplace, exchanges where Americans can purchase health insurance;
- Establishing subsidies and tax credits that encourage both individuals and employees to purchase insurance;
- Prohibiting insurance companies from denying those with pre-existing conditions from insurance plans;
- Expanding Medicaid to cover a larger number of Americans.
Surprisingly to many of the law’s proponents, this last component has become particularly controversial. Medicaid has always been run by each state with guidance and funding from the federal government, and in June 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that each state has the option of opting out of the expansion contained in the ACA. Many states have taken advantage of that ruling and are refusing to expand Medicaid.
What does the Medicaid expansion do?
Prior to the passage of the ACA, Medicaid provided health insurance for some, but not all, low-income Americans. In addition to having to fall below an income-threshold set by each state, Medicaid recipients were required to meet a number of other conditions, which varied from state to state. As a result, many of the most impoverished Americans were excluded from the program.
Under the ACA, however, Medicaid eligibility was expanded to include all Americans with an annual income up to 133% of the federal poverty level. The federal government will pay for 100% of the expansion in each state for the first three years, and then reduce its share of the cost to 90% by 2020.
Why is that a good thing?
It means that more Americans will be covered by health insurance—and, in particular, the neediest among us will have critical access to care. The Medicaid expansion facilitates the moral obligation of doctors, patients and society to provide and obtain healthcare for all.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us that human life is of infinite value and that the preservation of life supersedes almost all other considerations. Our communities have always provided healing to all their citizens and over the course of history, our communities have been set up to ensure that all citizens had access to health care–doctors reduced rates for poor patients and communal subsidies were established. Unfortunately, not every state has accepted the Medicaid expansion—in fact 21 states have chosen not to expand the program. These states are effectively turning away federal funding and at the same time keeping the number of uninsured in their states unconscionably high.
The decision to expand Medicaid is one made by governors and state legislators. Work to expand Medicaid in your state here!
The National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1197), is an annual bill that oversees spending by the Department of Defense. Many different military-related items are included that provide for the safety and security of the nation and the soldiers who defend it, making it a “must-pass” bill.
Similar to past years, related non-spending provisions are often added to the NDAA and this year, sections 1031, 1032 and 1033, pertain to the transfer of detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay:
- Section 1031 streamlines the process of transferring detainees if they have been deemed no longer a threat to the United States, or if transfer is in the national security interest of the US;
- Section 1032 allows for temporary transfer of a detainee for medical treatment when that treatment is required to prevent substantial injury or damage or death, and it would be extremely costly to treat the individual at Guantanamo;
- Section 1033 reinvigorates the right to trial and permits the transfer of a detainee to US soil for trial in a federal court if it is in the national security interest of the United States.
These are important provisions that reflect our strong belief in striking a balance between national security and civil liberties. The Commission of Social Action has strong policy that calls for the closure of the detention center and the Union for Reform Judaism has long been a voice against the use of torture.
The Senate debated amendments on the NDAA late last month, with intense discussion on the Guantanamo provisions. Ultimately, two amendments that would have either fully nullified the language in the NDAA, or would have weakened them were both voted down. Barring any surprises when the Senate is back in session, the Guantanamo provisions outlined above will be in the bill the Senate will hopefully pass before the end of the year.
The Senate is also expected to consider amendments to the NDAA regarding military sexual assault, an issue that gained new momentum since a Pentagon report was issued earlier this year stating that at least 26,000 sexual assaults had occurred in the military from 2011 to 2012. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has been advocating that her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, be added to the NDAA as an amendment. For any amendment to be incorporated into the bill, it needs the support of sixty senators, a challenge for Gillibrand. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was considering adding her own bill, the Victim Protection Act, to the NDAA, but has decided to introduce it as a standalone bill when the Senate goes back into session on December 9.
Both Senator Gillibrand’s bill, which takes reporting responsibility out of the chain of command, and Senator McCaskill’s bill, which reforms the sentencing structure of sexual assault convictions, constitute serious and considerable changes to the way military sexual assault is dealt with.
The fundamental Jewish notion of b’tzelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of God, instructs us to look on all human beings with dignity and respect. In passing the NDAA with provisions regarding the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other provisions reflecting the inherent dignity to which every person is entitled, we will be one step closer to ensuring that our nation lives up to its highest aspirations and values.
Urge your Senators to support the Guantanamo provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act. Take action here.
You might have hoped Congress was done with different cliffs to send us over—sadly this is not the case. Without an agreement on the Farm Bill by the end of the year, Congress and the nation will go over the “dairy cliff” on January 1st.
The federal government heavily subsidizes the production of American dairy products to keep their prices down through various programs including the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which sends milk producers payments when the price of liquid milk falls below a certain rate in Boston. (Yes, milk prices in Boston determine a huge nationwide agricultural subsidy.) The so-called “dairy cliff” involves a different program that mandates the government buy dairy products at a certain price. These prices are determined in each reauthorization of the Farm Bill, but without a new Farm Bill, the prices revert to those in the 1949 Agricultural Act. This expiration would set milk prices at 1949 prices, which happen to be double the current price of milk. Additionally, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack has stated he would be legally obligated to enforce the law. If we go over this cliff, there are no legal tricks to avoid a doubling in the price of milk.
While a price increase of any product inherently hurts the poor, going over the “dairy cliff” would be especially devastating to low-income women and children receiving WIC benefits. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assists low-income pregnant women, new mothers, children and infants. It gives food aid to mothers and their children, but limits their purchases to certain products that are deemed nutritious, including milk and cheese. If the price of milk and cheese doubled it would become prohibitively expensive and the 53% of America’s infants who rely on WIC will not be able to obtain a balanced diet—over half of America’s infants!
The congressional committee working on a deal is currently far away from a final agreement, with only a few weeks left until the current Farm Bill expires. Please stand up for the most vulnerable and ask Congress to pass a just Farm Bill.
Image courtesy of Z6mag
Prime Minister Netanyahu is only one of a wide variety of Israel-related programmatic and experiential opportunities at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial next week in San Diego. From the exhibit hall to the plenary stage, the URJ invites you to a wide variety of Israel-centered features:
Israel Engagement Intensive – Forging a New Relationship with Israel
Join Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, to discuss the Jewish State through the lens of Jewish values, exploring what concepts such as peoplehood, sovereignty, and democracy mean to us, to Israel, and to Jewish thinkers from across our tradition. Dr. Kurtzer will be joined by a number of Reform Movement leaders who are Senior Rabbinic Fellows of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Israel Forum – The Torah of Pluralism
For 65 years, Israel has been the nation state of the Jewish people. But does today’s Israel reflect and celebrate the diversity of Jewish life and practice? Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism will moderate Member of Knesset Ruth Calderon and Rabbi Donniel Harman, President, Shalom Hartman Institute, in a discussion about the fight for religious pluralism in Israel and the quest to build a Jewish community that values many equally authentic paths to Jewish commitment and love of Israel.
Israel in the Gaslamp District
- Joel Chasnoff and Bob Alper will lead an engaging and interactive, stand-up comedy performance.
- Beit Tefilah Israeli and Mattan Klein invite you to experience a night of contemporary Israeli music that blends multiple musical genres with a celebration of Israel.
Tribute to Rabbi Professor David Hartman z”l
Rabbi Rick Jacobs will open the conference with an acknowledgement of the extraordinary contributions of Shalom Hartman Institute founder Rabbi David Hartman and how he influenced Rabbi Jacobs’ own rabbinic outlook. Rabbi Hartman, z”l, will be posthumously honored with the Alexander M. Schindler Award to World Jewry.
Honoring Anat Hoffman
The Women of Reform Judaism will present the Jane Evans award to Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, for her extensive and passionate work on behalf of religious liberties in Israel.
Unique Israeli Worship Experience with Beit Tefilah Israeli
Experience the vitality of contemporary Israeli culture with Rabbis Lisa Tzur and Esteban Gottfried and the Beit Tefilah Israeli musicians. This Thursday morning service will integrate Israeli and pop music, poetry, and the ancient words of our people.
Israel on Stage: The Big Blue Tent
MAKOM, a division of the Jewish Agency for Israel, will present an original piece of theater, written especially for the Biennial. The piece explores a community in crisis over Israel. The community leader struggles between silencing public debate about Israel and losing the support of a major donor. After the 30 minute play, the audience will be invited to give their opinion to the actors, who will replay the scenes according to the audience’s advice. Can you unite the community around Israel in a healthy way? Be part of the solution!
Learning Sessions About Israel
- Engaging Israelis in our Communities
- Addressing Anti-Israel Bias Across the Globe: Moving Beyond Advocacy and Forging a New Conversation
- IRAC- Advocating for Religious Rights in Israel
- A Jewish Mash-Up: Meaning and Inspiration in Israeli Arts and Culture
- ARZA, Zionism & The WZO: Meaningful Routes to Involvement with Israel?
- Beyond the Bus: The Potential of Birthright
- Engaging with Israel: Ideas and Strategies for Jewish Education
- Cultivating Relationships Between Our Youth and Israel
On November 24, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran announced an interim agreement between the parties. The six-month deal reached in Geneva between the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Iran rolls back some of the sanctions against the Iranian government in exchange for limitations on Iran’s nuclear program. Another crucial part of the deal is that Iran agreed to freeze construction on its heavy-water reactor, Arak.
The Reform Jewish Movement has a long history of advocating for a peaceful world. Our commitment to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15) inspires us to work towards building a world without nuclear weapons. In 2009, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution addressing the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Here’s a round-up of recent coverage:
- Check out this CNN article that answers some basic questions about the deal.
- Watch President Obama deliver remarks on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
- Read several Members of Congress’ responses to the announcement of the deal with Iran.
- Read about different Israeli leaders’ opinions on the deal, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response.
- Read a New York Times op-ed about the positive effects of the agreement.
Image courtesy of Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“We must show by our behavior that we believe in equality and justice and that our religion teaches faith and love and charity to our fellow men. Here is where each of us has a job to do that must be done at home, because we can lose the battle on the soil of the United States just as surely as we can lose it in any one of the countries of the world.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Human Rights Day was first commemorated on December 10, 1950, to celebrate the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on that day in 1948. To me, one person who symbolizes that hopeful and crucial moment in world history is Eleanor Roosevelt, the first United States Ambassador to the UN. I connect sincerely with her words: during my first few months at the Religious Action Center, I have learned about translating my faith into action, and the depth of the impact of those actions.
As the community working on these issues grows, the term “human rights” seems more and more nebulous to me. Is everything we work on “human rights?” I guess so; I hope so. Looking at the whole picture, it’s easy to feel disheartened, but as Eleanor Roosevelt said, our behavior must demonstrate our dedication to equality, justice, love and charity to humankind.
On this Human Rights Day – December 10, 2013 – I am encouraging you to take a look at the many social justice issues we work on at the RAC and reflect on how you can deepen your actions to improve the status quo. As the Eisendrath Legislative Assistant working on civil liberties, I am taking this opportunity, my bully pulpit, to suggest lending your voice to the call to end torture.
Of the RAC’s valued partners, the National Religious Campaign to End Torture (NRCAT), has prepared many resources in advance of Human Rights Day. NRCAT organizes the faith community to speak out against torture, adding a strong moral voice to the discussion.
- NRCAT’s Human Rights Day guide
- Human Rights Day toolkit
- No Doubt, It Was Torture (film)
- There’s Nothing…. About Torture (video series)
Torture, at any time, at any place, against any individual, is a travesty. From solitary confinement in prisons to the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, these important questions of civil liberties and human rights require the attention of the faith community to permanently end these practices. We must take hold of our responsibilities at home, and have our beliefs take to a place of higher justice and equality for all.
Imagine a world where summers are warm but not scorching and winters are cold enough to double up on socks. Imagine a world where extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels are largely a thing of the past and where the skies are clear and the air, fresh. Imagine a world where climate change is neither a threat nor a reality.
On September 20th, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced federal limitations on carbon emissions from new power plants after receiving comments on a proposed rule in the spring of 2012. These standards would prevent any new, large natural gas-fired plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of CO2, small natural gas-fired plants from emitting more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 and coal-fired units from emitting more than 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. These limits are a fairly significant reduction, considering conventional coal plants currently emit more than 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.
Carbon pollution is a threat to the health and well-being of communities across the United States and the world, leading to increased levels of respiratory illness, heart conditions and severe heat waves. Additionally, these impacts disproportionally affect communities of color, children, the elderly and those living in poverty despite the fact that these communities are the least responsible for the increased level of carbon dioxide emissions. In June, President Obama spoke about the urgent need to curb climate change at Georgetown University and encouraged everyone to make themselves heard on the issue.
As Jews, we are told, “Take care, lest you spoil and destroy my world, because if you do, there is no one after you to make it right again” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13). In exemplifying this principle of preserving and protecting the world for the benefit of future generations, we must raise our voice in support of the EPA’s Carbon Pollution Standards and defend limits on carbon emissions in the face of those who try to weaken and override them.
When we speak about future generations, we have to imagine a time in the not so distant future when the world is not devastated by climate change. When we take action on the environment and urge our leaders to reduce our nation’s carbon pollution, we have to imagine our children and our children’s children. We have to imagine the future generations that will benefit from the changes we make today. Submit your comments to the EPA today.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have signed a vast number of treaties with the federal government, which broadly exchanged American Indian land for the promises of healthcare and education from the federal government. While these two contractually obligated services are underfunded in good years, the impact of sequestration on these programs is devastating, unfairly putting the burden of the deficit on American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The federally-funded Indian Health Service (IHS) is the primary source of medical care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. However, because of the sequester, IHS funding has been cut by $220 million and according to the White House, this has resulted in an estimated 3,000 fewer inpatient admissions and 804,000 fewer outpatient visits. In 2003, a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the federal government spends half as much on healthcare for one American Indian as it does on each federal prisoners’ healthcare, even without the sequester cutbacks.
While public schools in the United States are primarily state funded, schools on American Indian reservations are almost exclusively federally funded. The sequester cut over $80 million from multiple tribal education programs including cuts to Impact Aid and Head Start. These cuts have negatively affected 115,000 K-12 American Indian and Alaska Native students, 25,000 children in Head Start and the 88,000 students in tribal colleges according to the National Congress of American Indians. All people deserve a good education, but these unjust cuts are hampering American Indians and Alaska Natives ability to get any education at all.
In addition to these draconian cuts to American Indian and Alaska Native health and education programs, numerous other programs are seeing reductions. These cuts include $34 million from housing programs funded by the Native American Housing Block Grant, $2.4 million cut from heating assistance programs, $6 million from construction projects, and a massive $119 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which helps administer all programs benefiting American Indians and Alaska Natives.
American Indians and Alaska Natives already face poverty at a rate almost twice the national average and significantly worse health outcomes than the average American. These harsh cuts to vital programs violate numerous treaty obligations and are deeply unjust. Please stand up for the rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives and urge your members of Congress to end the sequester.
Since November 12, at a tent on the National Mall just steps from the Capitol, community leaders have fasted, abstaining from all food, and drinking only water, as part of their advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform. This “Fast for Families” has attracted national attention and has kept immigration reform in the spotlight. The Tent has been visited by the President and First Lady, the Vice President, members of Congress, Cabinet members, and faith and community leaders.
Members of the Jewish community are actively participating in the effort. Today, as members of Congress and civil rights leaders looked on, Rabbi David Saperstein joined with other immigrant advocates in a solidarity fast, calling on Congress to pass just and comprehensive immigration reform by the end of the year. This week is Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Tomorrow evening, representatives from a variety of Jewish organizations will light the Hanukkah candles at the tent, to honor those participating in the campaign and help move it forward.
As we reflect on the memories of our own persecution and our victory against all odds that the Festival of Lights commemorates, so must we work, against the odds, to advocate for a more just society, one that welcomes the stranger. Jewish tradition is clear on the treatment of immigrants, and our faith demands of us concern for the stranger in our midst. Leviticus commands, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [19:33-34]. This principle permeates Jewish tradition and is echoed 35 times in the Torah – the most repeated of any commandment. Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.
190 members of the House of Representatives are co-sponsors of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). The bill is based on a similar one passed by the Senate this summer by a vote of 68-32. The bill, while imperfect, contains numerous reforms, including a path to citizenship, border security and interior enforcement, workplace protections, family unification, reforms to the asylum system and other key provisions.
Urge your Representative to support immigration reform that is truly comprehensive and reflects our values as Americans and as Reform Jews, by co-sponsoring the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (H.R. 15). The Capitol Switchboard can be reached at 202.224.3121, or you can send an email. For more information, please contact Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Charlie Arnowitz at 202.387.2800.
“They searched and found only a single cruse of pure oil…enough to light the menorah for a single day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the menorah with this oil for eight days. On the following year, they established these as days of festivities and praise and thanksgiving to God.” – Talmud, Shabbat 21b
Each year during Hanukkah, we recall the miracle of light: the oil was only supposed to last for a single night, and miraculously, it lasted for eight nights! In celebrating this holiday and reflecting on the oil that lasted beyond its expected lifespan, we are reminded of our responsibility as Jews to renew the miracle of Hanukkah in our own lifetime by reducing our oil consumption and extending the longevity of our finite supply. The miracle of Hanukkah should inspire and strengthen our commitment to sustainability and energy efficiency.
In the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans generate 25% more waste than usual. With the large parties, spikes in consumerism, wrapping paper and decorations, travel and more, our increased environmental impact during the holiday season further obliges us to consider the ways in which we can be most efficient in our use of resources. To off-set energy intensive activities during the holidays, consider retrofitting your home and congregation, purchasing energy-conserving appliances and investing in clean, renewable sources; walk, bike or carpool to your job or congregation and commit to living well within your means.
Take a moment to consider how we can best use our energy sources and what we can do to reduce our consumption and decrease our personal impact. We must urge our political leaders to support and move forward policies that will reduce our country’s carbon footprint by establishing modes for greater industrial and commercial energy saving and efficiency standards.
Let us rededicate ourselves to the work of healing the world and reducing our impact on it. Let this Hanukkah remind us to not waste our resources, but to use only that which is necessary– let one day’s oil meet eight days’ needs.
On November 30, 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act into law, requiring a five day waiting period for the purchase of a handgun and after 1998, also requiring a background check for any firearm purchased from a federally licensed dealer. In honor of the Brady Bill’s 20th anniversary last week, here are 20 facts about the Brady Bill, the state of new gun violence prevention measures and what you can do to help curb gun violence in the United States:
- The Brady Bill was named for Jim Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who was shot and severely injured in an assassination attempt on the president in March 1981.
- Jim Brady and his wife Sarah were instrumental in lobbying for the passage of the Brady Bill. In 1996, Jim Brady was honored by President Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2000, President Clinton named the White House Press Briefing room “The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.”
- In the two decades since the Brady Bill became law, background checks have stopped more than two million gun purchases.
- In 1991, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) honored Jim and Sarah’s work on gun violence prevention and presented them with the Maurice Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award.
- Also in 1991, President Reagan expressed support for the Brady Bill in the New York Times.
- Jewish activists are inspired to work on curbing gun violence prevention because the Talmud teaches us that “he who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe, and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
- On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
- Today, Brady background checks are done through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). NICS was launched by the FBI on November 30, 1998 (the five year anniversary of the signing of the Brady Bill) and is used by Federal Firearms Licensees (FFLs) to instantly determine whether the prospective purchaser is eligible to purchase firearms
- NICS has processed more than 177 million background check requests from FFLs.
- No records are kept on those who request a background check for a gun purchase. All background checks are deleted within 24 hours.
- Unfortunately, Brady background checks only cover 60% of gun purchases. Online sales and purchases at gun shows are excluded from the Brady background check requirements.
- This video by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, shows how “easy peasy” it is for a criminal to obtain a gun.
- More than 11,000 Americans have been murdered with guns since the tragedy in Newtown, CT nearly one year ago.
- Firearm homicide is the second-leading cause of death (after motor vehicle crashes) for young people ages 1-19 in the U.S.
- More than 60,000 Americans suffer non-fatal gun injuries each year.
- 65% of Americans say that the Senate should have passed legislation last April that would have expanded background checks.
- One week after the shooting in Newtown last year, religious leaders gathered at the Washington National Cathedral to remember the victims of Newtown and call for a united religious response to senseless gun violence.
- Hillel asked, “If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). This question is at the heart of the gun violence prevention movement—now is the time to finish the job and close dangerous loopholes in background check laws.
- We can let our legislators know that we support background checks by filling out this action alert.
- We can also tell our legislators that we support background checks by participating in Faiths Calling on December 13th, an interfaith call-in day to prevent gun violence. We can make our voices heard as a part of a chorus of other voices from a diverse array of religious traditions that is speaking out to end gun violence.
As we look back on 20 years of gun violence prevention measures and public debate about the role of guns in our society, we also look forward and commit ourselves to continuing to work to curb the effects of gun violence in the United States.
Image courtesy of Time Magazine.
Join us this Wednesday, December 4, at 1:00 PM EST for “Down to the Wire: Final Farm Bill and Budget Negotiations.”
As Congress enters its final weeks before adjournment, the faith community needs to raise our collective voice to protect vulnerable populations now more than ever! What are the likely outcomes of of the budget negotiations? Will Congress cut SNAP, and by how much? How can you prevent Congress from balancing the budget on the backs of the poor?
Join the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs (DHN) for a special update on what is at stake in final Farm Bill and budget decisions – and why the time to act is now. Register here.
The holiday of Chanukah begins this Wednesday night. In Israel, interactive billboards in Jerusalem light up chanukiot, adding another candle every night of the holiday. The marketplace smells of sufganiyot, doughnuts filled with jelly, and children gather to spin dreidels and eat chocolate gelt. Also, this week the Israel Religious Action Center, against all odds, won a case in the Supreme Court fighting the incitement of racism in Israel.
IRAC has been monitoring racist incitement in Israel for over a decade. When we saw the racist contents of the book The King’s Torah, we knew we had to take action. The book cites Jewish texts to allow the killing of gentiles-men, women, and children- whenever their presence endangers Jewish life, “even if the person is a Righteous Gentile and bears no guilt for the situation that has emerged” (page 164). It was endorsed by four well known Rabbis, including Dov Lior, who is employed by the state. We asked the Attorney General to stop the publication, but as we have seen in the past regarding decisions against racist incitement by Rabbis, the process took a long time and did not conclude in our favor.
Discontent with the outcome, we took our fight to the Supreme Court. On the eve of the decision, after more than three years of arguing this case, we were worried that conservative Chief Justice Asher Grunis would throw our case out of court. The dreidel spun in our favor. The State now has two months to either provide better reasoning for why they are not prosecuting the authors, or to take disciplinary action against the state-employed Rabbis who were involved with this book.
Rabbis who would use Jewish text to justify hate should be challenged at every turn. In order to truly realize the message of Chanukah and to be an or l’goyim, light unto other nations, we must continue to fight institutionalized racism in the name of all minorities that have no place else to turn. This Chanukah, join me in celebrating the little bit of light that can shine through a lot of darkness.
When I was little, my sister and I would ask our rabbi why Hanukkah was so late (or so early, depending on when the holiday fell!) and he would answer us by saying, “It’s not late—Hanukkah is always on the 25th of Kislev!” We would laugh at his answer, but after many years of hearing the same response, we had gained an understanding of how the Jewish calendar works. This year, Hanukkah comes especially early on the Gregorian calendar and coincides with Thanksgiving.
Hanukkah is never mentioned in the Bible; the story comes from Maccabees I and II. In the year 168 B.C.E., the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes sent his soldiers to Jerusalem where they desecrated the temple. The Syrians forbid practicing Judaism (and some of the cornerstone practices that go with it, including the observance of Shabbat and holidays, as well as circumcision) and offered Jews the choice of conversion or death. The Maccabees led a resistance movement against the Syrians. Judah Maccabee, the son of the elderly leader Mattathias, become the leader of the resistance movement and on the 25th of Kislev, defeated the Syrians in battle. The legend of the jar of oil that burned for eight days after the Jews went back in to the Temple comes from the Babylonian Talmud. Our practice of lighting Hanukkah candles comes from this story of the Maccabees rededicating the Temple and relighting the ner tamid (eternal flame).
In a different time and place, another group fought for their freedom by leaving England and settling in a colony in the ‘New World’. This group of English Protestants wanted to separate from the Church of England and practice their religion freely. In 1621, the pilgrims and a group of Native Americans called the Wampanoag celebrated the harvest and their agreement to protect each other from other tribes. Thanksgiving did not become an official holiday until President Lincoln declared that the fourth Thursday of every November would be an official day of Thanksgiving. While the United States’ history of treatment of the Native Americans is one of the darkest moments in our history, the spirit of Thanksgiving today is one of reflection and gratitude. We are lucky to live in a country that allows us to practice our religion freely.
In many places around the world, that freedom is not guaranteed. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, targets religious institutions and leaders. In Pakistan and Egypt, churches are bombed. In Iran, more than 100 Baha’is are currently being held in prison solely for their religious beliefs. In China, Christians cannot practice their religion without fear of retaliation. In Hungary, anti-Semitism is on the rise.
This list is certainly not comprehensive—the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom monitors international religious freedom and recommends policies to the President, the State Department and Congress in order to protect this fundamental right.
My family has a tradition called Kids’ Thanksgiving, started by mom nearly 20 years ago because she thought that kids needed their own celebration to truly understand the Thanksgiving holiday. It takes place on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving and includes reading Thanksgiving stories, sharing what we’re thankful for, eating a full Thanksgiving meal and doing a service project; this year, we will also light Hanukkah candles. Growing up in my house, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah were both holidays in which it was important to celebrate, but also important to give back; at Thanksgiving, to show how thankful we were for the opportunities given to us and at Hanukkah, to be inspired by the candles to bring more light into the world. This year, I feel so lucky to celebrate both holidays together and to do so in country where the freedom to practice my religion is the right of everyone and not the privilege of a few.
This post is the third in a series highlighting the effects of sequestration cuts and potential funding cuts that could come out of congressional conferences in the next few weeks. Read about the effects of these cuts on women here and on seniors here.
Children are arguably the most vulnerable population in the United States; legally unable to work, vote or travel independently, they are completely reliant on others for their basic needs. While we have touched on how sequestration has affected the individuals that children rely on, many programs impacted by sequestration will directly target our nations’ children.
The Head Start program provides free preschool classes and services to children from low-income families. The aim of the program is to make sure students are ready for school by offering comprehensive services such as medical checkups, cognitive enrichment and mental health screenings. Studies show that the program has had a tremendous impact on participating children but despite the success, sequestration has significantly cut the program. Thus, in spite of an already extensive waiting list, 57,000 children already in the program were pushed out of Head Start classrooms. This cut will deprive thousands of children developmental benefits that will impact their entire life.
In addition to the impact of the sequester on Head Start, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has also seen benefits reduced. Congress thankfully continued a long-standing tradition of funding all eligible applicants to the WIC program, despite the sequestration; however WIC clinics, where women apply to WIC on behalf of themselves and their children, have had their hours and staff reduced; many have even closed.
Some think the changes and uncertainty surrounding WIC funding during the sequester has lowered applications to the program, and thus, the number of eligible womenusing the program. Additionally, these eligible women and children who did not apply likely also use SNAP (food stamps) which was cut on November 1st and might see further cuts pass through committee in the next few weeks.
Today’s children represent our nations’ future and it is our responsibility to provide for them. Please urge your Members of Congress to protect our children by ending the sequester and preserving SNAP funding.
Image courtesy of Chattanooga Area Food Bank.
This week, we will be celebrating the holiday of Thanks-giving, a time to come together with family and friends and express gratitude for the blessings in our lives. The observance of Thanks-giving commemorates the harvest festival and the holiday is centered on a meal that typically includes seasonal dishes.
In this day and age, you can get whatever food you want whenever you want it. If you’re craving a peach in the middle of a northeastern February, you can likely find one in the supermarket shipped from China or Georgia. In our ever-globalizing world, the produce section of a typical grocery store does not vary much from season to season. However, being able to eat a peach in February, while convenient, is not necessarily great for the environment or even for you as a consumer looking for the highest quality at the lowest cost.
Food Miles – The shipment of food around the world uses a lot of energy and therefore, accounts for a great deal of carbon emissions. For instance, the hypothetical peach you crave from China has likely traveled approximately 6,926 miles, which would produce approximately 2,493 kg of carbon dioxide. While that may seem like an extreme, American food travels an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table. “Food miles,” are among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Additionally, keeping produce fresh and cold requires the energy intensive processes of refrigeration and packaging.
Question of Quality – When food is being transported a long distance, it needs to be harvested early so that it doesn’t rot on the journey. Generally, harvesting produce early effects the development of nutrients and taste. Have you ever eaten a tomato in the winter and found it to be pale and flavorless? When you eat in season, you’re more likely to enjoy fresher, more delicious produce.
Easy on the Wallet – If you have ever tried to buy raspberries in the dead of winter, you may have experienced some sticker shock. This is because when you buy a food item out of season, you’re covering the cost of travel and storage – these expenses can add up.
While eating in season is thought by many to be a recent trend among “foodies,” 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides recommends in the Mishneh Torah, “in regard to cold climates and hot climates, [choose the food] appropriate to each and every one of them” (4:8). Each Thanksgiving, we heed these wise words and nosh on traditional American harvest foods. Let this Thanksgiving also remind us of the benefits of eating seasonally all year round, for our health, our livelihood and our environment.
Picture Courtesy of Cuesa.org
On November 11, 1620, 41 men aboard the Mayflower signed their names to the Mayflower Compact, setting the stage for modern democracy in the United States. As the Pilgrims prepared to settle at Plymouth, these signers of the Compact pledged to “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
The language is long-winded but the concepts are incredibly important. This idea of a “body politic” coming together in order to pass laws for the good of all is heavily echoed in the Preamble of the Constitution, written a century and a half later. The United States is founded on this understanding that in coming together and passing laws for the good of all, we “form a more perfect union.”
The signing of the Mayflower Compact was the first time early America formally recognized the notion of rule deriving from and for the people. This wasn’t a new or original idea; from the Magna Carta four hundred years earlier to John Locke’s Treatises on Government later in the century, the evolution of the rule of law is complex. In fact, the Talmud tells us that governance is derived from the people: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (B’rachot 55a). The self-government enshrined in the Mayflower Compact evolved into the town meetings and early democratic institutions of New England—and ultimately the country—making this document foundational to our modern democracy.
Contrary to popular belief, the Constitution, while predicated on the idea of governance deriving from the people and the states, did not specify any right to vote when ratified in 1789. Only as various Constitutional amendments prohibited denying the ability to vote on the basis of race, sex and age did it come to actually protect voting rights. Still, our modern understanding of democracy is inextricably linked to this fundamental right. It is sacrosanct, and the slow expansion of the right to vote from the Mayflower Compact to today is representative of our broader evolution as a society and as a nation.
Today, the right to vote is threatened by a spate of restrictive state laws and by the Supreme Court’s decision this year in Shelby v. Holder. Dozens of proposed and passed state laws are making it more difficult or impossible to vote, through more complex requirements, especially with regard to identification, shorter voting periods and challenged ballots. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will make it more difficult to curtail discriminatory and harmful policies that restrict the right to vote.
As we think about our blessings at Thanksgiving this year, many of us will say that we are thankful to live in a democracy. As we ponder the evolution of voting rights from the Mayflower Compact to today, it is important to remember that the battle for voting rights is ongoing. This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for the right to vote and promise to protect it for all Americans.