Grantee Profile: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Tell us about your work. What do you do?
For over 60 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) has been the social justice hub of the Reform Movement, working to educate, inspire, and mobilize our communities to advocate for social justice. The RAC advocates for change on the federal, state and local levels that corrects systemic injustices, especially in marginalized communities. We work in concert with diverse communities and coalitions, across lines of faith, race and economic backgrounds, and all of our work is rooted in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and the fight for racial justice.
We organize around national campaigns – in 2021, it was our Racial Justice Campaign, and in 2022 it was our nonpartisan voter engagement campaign, Every Voice, Every Vote. In addition, we have nine organized state projects, led by clergy and lay leadership teams overseen and advised by a RAC staff member, in CA, FL, IL, MA, NJ, NY, OH, PA, and TX. Each state project choses a campaign or a legislative priority to organize around, while also providing support to the national RAC campaign. Current campaigns include three multi-year campaigns – a new model for the RAC state projects and focused on not just legislative wins, but also cultural and attitudinal change: climate justice campaigns in California and New York and school integration in New Jersey. We provide leadership opportunities for our lay and clergy participants, trainings, and actions for members to take part in.
The RAC is dedicated to nurturing the next generation of social justice advocates and Jewish communal leaders. We have two particularly robust programs for teens: the Bernard and Audre Rapoport L’Taken Social Justice Seminars and our Teen Social Justice Fellowship. The first is a series of long weekends in Washington, DC where teens learn about issues through a Jewish lens and gain skills to make a presentation to their congressional representatives on Capitol Hill. The latter is a six-week online seminar for high school students and L’Taken alumni who want to grow their organizing skills; each teen then conducts a final project in their home community, engaging at least 10 or more of their peers.
We are also engaged in a partnership with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to provide our congregations with the tools they need to fight the rising surge of antisemitism, including the new Kulanu program in which congregations create both internal and external events in their communities to promote dialogue and understanding.
What is your approach to the work?
The RAC believes that when the Jewish community is organized, mobilized, and working with partners and as allies, the American social justice movement is more effective. Every community, including Reform Judaism, has unique relationships and power that it can leverage and contribute to a broad social movement. Today’s injustices demand audacious partnerships, and Jewish activism matters. As part of these wider movements for social change, we can dismantle oppression, achieve racial equity, diversity, and inclusion, protect the planet, and create just communities, powered by leaders who are inspired by Jewish wisdom and work with allies across lines of difference.
As one of our state project organizers said recently, our work allows us to identify leaders from our community and lets them live Judaism in a way that feels relevant and vibrant to them, creating the building blocks of a strong Reform Jewry. We are blessed to be able to lead in the Jewish social justice sphere and contribute to so many coalitions, partnerships and ongoing campaigns to make the world a more compassionate, just and equitable place.
What are you most proud of at your organization?
We are particular proud of our nine organized state projects, led by clergy and lay leadership teams overseen and advised by a RAC staff member, in CA, FL, IL, MA, NJ, NY, OH, PA, and TX. Through the grassroots organizing and advocacy of our state projects, we have been a part of coalitions achieving notable successes, including the abolition of cash bail in Illinois, garment worker protections in California, the ability to apply for driver licenses for undocumented immigrants in New York and New Jersey, and fairer electoral maps in Pennsylvania. In addition, our national Every Voice, Every Vote campaign, which focuses on non-partisan voter education and engagement and fights voter suppression has consistently exceeded our goals for participation and outreach; in the 2022 midterm election cycle alone, we contacted 700,000+ voters via postcards, texts, phone banks, and canvassing, alongside numerous educational panels.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center, responds personally to these questions:
What – if anything – is giving you joy or hope?
The number of courageous and dedicated leaders at the grassroots level across the country. They refuse to give up, refuse to give in, and will never stop fighting for what’s right and protecting the hope of American democracy. I believe in the promise of an inclusive America that will make space for everybody. I believe in faith leaders who work across lines, partner to create sacred spaces of inclusion and dialogue, and who are building American community.
What is something that folks might not know about your work that you think they should know?-
What we do is not some innovation in Jewish history: Jews have been organizing for justice throughout our entire existence: we reached out to the daughter of Pharoah. What we are doing right now is just doing Jewish practice.
What are you reading?
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
What do you think everyone should read?
The CCAR Social Justice Torah Commentary