This past week, in a joint letter published in The Lafayette Journal & Courier, the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette stood together to condemn the racist and violent ideology put forth by the “Unite the Right” demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a Reform Jew, I was proud to sign my name to this statement and was reminded, as I did so, that social justice and advocacy are among the central tenets of our movement. Growing up in the Reform movement and, now, serving as a Reform Rabbi, signing this statement was, as they say, a “no-brainer.” I also realize, however, that for some of our congregants and community members, it can be uncomfortable when they see their clergy enter into arenas they may consider “political.” It is therefore important to distinguish entering the political arena from taking a stand on issues that may become politicized.
As Reform Jews, we have a long history of taking a strong stand wherever human rights and freedoms are threatened. Indeed, there are powerful and wonderful statements reinforcing our movement’s positions on important subjects in today’s world, and I encourage all of you to read them and learn about the history of our movement’s contributions to the world, whether they be from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Religious Action Center (which is the advocacy and activism branch of the URJ), or the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Most recently, in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations, each of these organizations issued statements that can serve as signposts for where we as Reform Jews should stand. For example, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, head for the RAC, reminded us that “It is in these moments of darkness that Jewish tradition compels us to be brave, to seek the light.” And Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, likewise stated “The vile presence and rhetoric of the neo-Nazis who marched this weekend in Charlottesville is a reminder of the ever-present need for people of good will to stand strong, to speak loudly against hate, and act both to delegitimize those who spread such messages and to mitigate the harm done to the commonwealth of our nation and to those that are the targets of hate messages.” In other words, taking a stand against racism, xenophobia, and hatred is not a political issue (though there are those in our midst who would try and argue it is). Rather, it is a human rights issue. And we cannot afford to allow human rights issues to become politicized. When issues become politicized, they lose sight of the fundamental difference between right and wrong, and scare people into the inaction that accompanies the perception of a “grey area.”
Temple Israel is a founding member of the Union for Reform Judaism, and we have a responsibility to carry the values set forth by the Reform Movement. I therefore implore all of you not to shy away from our movement’s values because of any issue’s perceived political nature. It is true that many of the positions that our movement holds, such as support for civil rights, LGBTQ equality, access to health care, and immigrant rights have been politicized; however, there is nothing political about fighting for every human to be treated equally and with respect. Politicians may politicize these subjects and the media may sometimes embellish their political polarization, but we Reform Jews know that when we write statements in the paper, march along with protesters or support groups, or wave banners of freedom, that our motivations for support and advocacy run deeper than just the political surface. They are rooted in the traditions of our ancestors and in our holy texts.
Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, once wrote: “Reform Jews are committed to social justice. Even as Reform Jews embrace ritual, prayer, and ceremony more than ever, we continue to see social justice as the jewel in the Reform Jewish crown. Like the prophets, we never forget that God is concerned about the everyday and that the blights of society take precedence over the mysteries of heaven.” Rabbi Yoffie refers to the words of the prophets that inspired Reform Judaism’s focus on social action and tikkun olam, such as those from Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3, hoping for a world wherein “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.” These words are echoed by those of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, such as Hillel who stated in Pirkei Avot: “In a place where nobody is human, strive for humanity.” These principles helped build Reform Judaism’s focus on the world outside the schtetl, outside of the small Jewish community, and helped us become the movement that places the needs of all humans on equal footing.
In previous communities where I have served, the Reform Jewish voice has been a significant one, both through my participation with interfaith councils, boards of directors, talks with government officials, through the voices of various congregants, and working through community organizations and in grassroot movements. I hope that together we can continue this work here in the Greater Lafayette area. The recent events in Charlottesville are an important reminder that our work is not yet complete, and that our voices are needed as much now as they were when we joined our brothers and sisters in the South to protest segregation, and when we marched with rainbow flags to support marriage equality.
Finally, in light of these most recent events, as always, please know that my door is open to each and every one of you, both for life’s joyous moments, and in times of uncertainty, fear, or confusion in light of world events.