RAC Social Action Blog
This was first posted on The New York Jewish Week’s blog, The New Normal, on June 19, 2013.
Our sage, Hillel, asks, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)
This summer’s U.S. legislative season will give us Jews with disabilities, in fact all Americans with disabilities, the opportunity to respond fully to the last two of Hillel’s three questions.
What seems like yesterday to some of us and a world ago to others, the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law of the land. Prior to that, we people with disabilities were literally considered second-class citizens.
We, and only we, (with some family members or loved ones) were “for ourselves” when we wrote letters, made phone calls, marched, protested, sat-in, or climbed out of our wheelchairs and dragged ourselves, hand over hand, up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. We did all this to be heard. We did not rest until we were recognized and were given the full rights we U.S. citizens deserved.
No one was “for us” had we not been for ourselves. How dare we now sit back and enjoy our “curb cuts” or bask in our lawful, if not fully implemented, access to opportunity without looking outside of ourselves, beyond our borders.
We need not look far to see that many in this modern era still live in the dark ages. Worldwide, not only are basic rights denied to people with disabilities but punishment is incurred simply for being born with or acquiring a disability.
In our 21st century world it is incredible that 90 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries cannot attend school. It is alarming that in many countries people with intellectual disabilities or emotional disorders are chained to beds or confined to cages. It is stunning that even in many industrialized nations people with disabilities are relegated to lives of isolation simply because the public sphere outside their door is not accessible in many basic ways.
It is tragic that throughout the world people with disabilities are the poorest of the poor because employment discrimination is epidemic. Even in our own country, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities who can work and are eager to ply their trade is twice as high as the national average.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which gives international affirmation to the rights of people with disabilities to equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency, was signed by President Barack Obama on July 30, 2009. The United States Senate is about to consider it for ratification – again – after rejecting it last year.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to hold hearings on the CRPD in July. Should the committee pass the treaty with a simple majority, the treaty will likely come to Senate floor for a vote on ratification. But it will pass only if there are at least 67 senators who vote yes, as it takes a two-thirds majority vote to ratify an international treaty.
We people with disabilities must define “what we are” by once again speaking loudly for our larger selves. We must organize, write letters, make calls or sit in the halls of the Senate. Now, we can use the elevators in the Capitol Building to actually visit our senators and tell them, “You must vote YES to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities!”
We have many Americans who are “for us” now – Americans with and without disabilities. Take their hands. Lead them to do what’s right. Urge the leaders of your synagogues and Jewish institutions to encourage their members to speak out and be counted in their senator’s vote.
We all watched the “Shanda Show” last year when a number of Republican senators reached out to greet former Senator Bob Dole sitting in his wheelchair as they proceeded to vote against the ratification of this UN Convention — the very issue he was there to support.
The irony is that the UN CRPD is based on U.S. law. The U.S. needs to continue to lead this effort on a global scale. We cannot take a place at the table if we do not ratify the Convention.
We people with disabilities and our allies must visit the U.S. Senate with our mobility devices, with our interpreters, with our canes, with our guide dogs, and with pictures of our children in special education classes to tell our elected officials that if it hadn’t been for our U.S. laws like the ADA we would never have been able to reach their offices in the first place. In fact, before our U.S. laws, we and those we love could not study, work, feed our families, live in our homes, travel, shop or even vote for our senators in accessible locations.
Those forces that oppose the convention are small but mighty. They not only use misrepresentation but lies to persuade.
The “home school” lobby leads the “Anti” effort, alleging that ratification of the convention will dilute their parental rights.
Yet, Angela Webster, a home school parent says the following:
“…The Home School Legal Defense Association and its affiliate Parental Rights made all kinds of outrageous claims: that the treaty would ban spanking, change home-schooling laws, and worst of all take American children with disabilities away from their parents. As a home-schooler, I am usually proud of the community’s attention to the facts and understanding of the law. I am outraged at how manipulated and misused the voice of the community was in this debate. Supporting the rights of home-schooling families and supporting the disability treaty are not mutually exclusive.” (The Tennessean, May 22, 2013)
Many home school their children for religious reasons. And so, we need to use our religious voices when we urge our senators to vote “Yes.” We must help our senators understand what we believe.
As Jews, we are taught that every human is created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. All religions believe that every person is imbued with the divine spark, infinite in value and unique.
But last year, in the failed ratification vote, the Senate showed us they do not all believe that we are, all of us, created in the divine image. They sent a message to the world that the rights of some are greater than the rights of others.
We Jews should be additionally inspired to action by this season of Tisha B’Av. As we fast on Tisha B’Av, we remember the many catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people. I have learned from Edmon J. Rodman (July 23, 2009, Washington Jewish Week,) to “think of fasting as a tzedakah stimulus plan.” As we deprive ourselves, let us remember worldwide deprivation on so many levels.
In the words of the prophet, Isaiah, we fast in order “To unlock the fetters of wickedness and to untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke…Then shall your light burst through like the dawn.”
As we hunger on Tisha B’Av, please let us all work hard to make our senators hunger for justice.
Make your voice heard: click here to send your own letter automatically to your senators. Also available is a UN CRPD RAC action alert that includes background and a letter that you can customize as you wish.
“If not now, when?”
Rabbi Lynne Landsberg is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s senior adviser on disability issues, co-chair of the Jewish Disability Network and co-chair of the Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Over the last week I and my colleagues have brought you some of the highlights from the debate on the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 in the House. For my final post on the matter (for now) I want to talk about an issue that has long been pillar of the Reform Movement’s advocacy, but which rarely gets much play in the press these days – nuclear disarmament.
The debate in both the House Armed Services Committee and on the House Floor had several flashpoints on nuclear weapons issues. Advocating for both a decrease in the number of nuclear weapons in the military’s arsenal and an approach to our fiscal issues that looks to cut military spending, Representatives Garamendi (D-CA) and Sanchez (D-CA) both offered amendments against proposed new nuclear weapons programs. Both of these amendments failed in committee. At the same time other members of the committee were able to pass funding for massive new programs including the building of a new fleet of B-61 bombers and the developments of an East Coast Missile Defense Shield. Perhaps most concerning was an amendment proposed by Representative Lamborn (R-CO) , which would prevent any U.S. funding for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization until the U.S. can certify that Russia and China are not planning to conduct nuclear tests.
As usual this debate on nuclear weapons flew generally under the radar, receiving very little national coverage. However attention to nuclear weapons blew up this morning when President Obama featured the issue prominently in his speech at the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s famous “ich bin ein Berliner” speech, President Obama addressed a wide range of political, social, economic and security issues but gave particular weight to the question of nuclear disarmament. “We may no longer live in a — in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” President Obama declared. “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be.” The President went on to outline a number of policy goals including continued negotiations with the Russians, increased efforts to dismantle U.S. nuclear arms and prevent the development of arms in Iran and North Korea, and a renewed determination to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT, which prohibits the testing of any new nuclear weapons, was signed by President Clinton in the 1990s and though it has been ratified by 159 countries the U.S. Senate has yet to vote on it.
The Reform Movement has long been an avid supporter for the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. As early as 1957 the leaders of our movement understand that nuclear weapons incompatible with Jewish ideology writing, “One of the most sacred of our Jewish religious teachings is the messianic vision of universal peace. In this nuclear age, this vision has become a sheer necessity if total world suicide is to be averted. With undimmed faith in man’s capacity to establish God’s Kingdom on earth, we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of lasting peace with justice.“ That vision for peace and that commitment to disarmament remains as relevant and pressing today as it did nearly sixty years ago.
In the summer of 2005, I interned at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. That summer was a particularly difficult one for us, as it felt that we in the gun violence prevention community struggled with one defeat after another. At the time, the most difficult loss of all was the dissolution of the D.C. handgun ban, allowing for handgun possession in the district for the first time in 29 years. However, it seems that one piece of legislation from the state of Florida that was also passed that summer has not only grabbed the headlines, but has had a host of unintended and devastating consequences. With the “Stand Your Ground” legislation, Florida became the first of now almost two-dozen states to expand the definition of ‘castle doctrine’ from one’s personal household or property, to one’s person. Put bluntly, according to this legislation, if you feel threatened at any time by any one person, in any location, you are given full agency to use full force without being required to retreat first, and still claim self-defense. In fact, in Florida, a pre-trial hearing can substitute for a full trial if a “stand your ground” defense is heard and accepted by a judge. Since its inception and final passage in October 2005, the “stand your ground” legislation and these cases rarely made national news, but as our nation remembers the murder of Travon Martin as the trial for George Zimmerman begins, the legislation has finally come under significant national scrutiny.
While ostensibly intended as self-defense legislation, these laws have actually precipitated upticks in violence, including homicides, in the states in which they have been enacted, as the case of Jordan Davis – another victim of the “Stand Your Ground” legislation – so heartbreakingly reveals. According to Mark Hoekstra, an economist from Texas A&M University, a study calculating rates of murder and violence in states with and without such legislation, found that “that homicides go up by 7 to 9 percent in states that pass the laws, relative to states that didn’t pass the laws over the same time period.” In Florida specifically, according to a study done by the St. Petersburg Times, the “Stand Your Ground” defense has been invoked at least 93 times, with 65 homicides since the law passed in 2005, and according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, in 2009, a homicide was considered warranted on the grounds of “Stand Your Ground” almost twice a week. This legislation has contributed to settling gang violence, increased intimate-partner violence and harmed or killed countless innocent men, women and children. And with Florida’s already lax gun laws, the prospect of innocents being targeted by such disgraceful “defense” is only increased.
The texts dictating our Jewish traditions may seem a bit muddy on the issues both of self-defense and of armament. On the one hand, as laid out in Exodus 24:21, due punishment follows a crime committed, as it states, “If any harm follows…an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” However, as Rabbi Marc Katz described in an article in Tablet magazine recently, the sages of our tradition were extraordinarily reticent to proclaim violence – especially excessive violence – as justified, and while our sages could not have fathomed the extent of weaponry of our time, their reticence is no less prescient, and no less pertinent. According to Rabbi Katz, the Talmud tells of the six cities in which, according to the Torah, a person who has committed manslaughter can flee for safe haven. As such, those six cities were to severely restrict and limit the amount and kinds of weaponry available so that a ‘blood avenger’ could not utilize any of them against someone seeking refuge. Thus, where “Stand Your Ground” legislation seeks to justify pre-emptive, vigilante-esque violence, this text in the Talmud demonstrates a rabbinic attempt to contain violence by preventing those who seek vengeance, those who may not be thinking straight, and those who actively seek harm from seeking weapons. I can only hope that the Zimmerman trial, along with the countless other examples of the effects of this legislation can help to put an end to gun violence once and for all, giving those on the side of sensible gun violence prevention legislation a much needed victory, and hopefully helping to ease the pain of the families who have suffered the most.
Image courtesy of AP
I have a rule about internet videos. I realize that a lot of people (maybe you) can spend hours watching them, but they’re just not my thing So for me to actually sit down and watch a three minute video on YouTube takes a lot – three different people recommending it to me, in fact. That’s my rule: I won’t watch an online video unless three friends basically force me. So let me be all three of those people for you today. You have to watch this video. It will change how you think about wealth and inequality in America. Chances are, if you’re reading RACblog, you already know this inequality exists and are pretty upset about it. But this will make you angry, up in arms, ready to jump up and change this flawed system:
When we talk about economic inequality, we tend to focus on income, but this video (pulling data from a recent study and making it more accessible, and shocking) highlights the drastic differences in wealth in our country. This video compares what most Americans think the wealth distribution is, what they want it to be and what it actually is. The juxtaposition is shocking.
Here’s the comparison in graph form:
If you’re concerned about economic inequality in our country, you’re not alone. “Nearly half (49%) of all American Jews believe that one of the biggest problems in this country is that we don’t give everyone an equal chance in life,” and “[n]early three-quarters ((73%) of American Jews agree that the economic system in the U.S. unfairly favors the wealthy” (“Chosen for What?”, 2012 Public Religious Research Institute).
These current political views reflect our centuries-old religious teachings. Our tradition teaches, “…If all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12). Even hundreds of years ago, the most pressing issue facing our communities’ leaders was the distribution of wealth. That’s because, while economic justice may not be in the headlines every day as the news cycles favor sexier issues like drones, immigration and guns, it is the constantly simmering problem underlying and influencing all of these. So yes, take action on these important, top-line issues, but know that none of those can truly be solved if we do not address the root causes of poverty in our country.
But seriously—and this is coming from a video skeptic—the graphic above doesn’t do it justice. Just watch the video. But make sure you’re sitting down!
Image from WonkBlog
If there’s any month when the eyes of the country are on the judicial system, it’s June. This is the month when the Supreme Court’s term ends, and therefore is when a lot of the year’s big decisions come down. This year is no exception – we have all been waiting with baited breath for the Court to release its decisions on the landmark cases of the year: the future of affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the legality of gay marriage in Windsor v. the United States and Hollingsworth v. Perry and the validity of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.
But unfortunately, while the judicial branch is receiving a bit more press, the lower courts still seem to be ignored – both by the mainstream public and, apparently, by the other branches of government. There remain 77 judicial vacancies in the U.S. Circuit Courts and Courts of Appeal. Yet there are only five nominees pending in the Senate. It is clear that the process is being stalled at multiple points: the White House isn’t receiving lists of nominee recommendations from home-state Senators, the White House isn’t acting upon the vacancies in a timely manner, Senators aren’t approving the White House recommendations, and the Senate isn’t holding hearings or conducting votes on the nominations.
The D.C. Circuit Court is an unfortunate microcosm of the problems plaguing our national judicial nomination system. The D.C. Circuit Court is often viewed as the “second highest court” in the country – however, today, three of its eleven seats are vacant. Obama’s nominee from his first term, Caitlin Halligan, was the victim of such intense partisan obstructionism that she eventually withdrew her nomination. And while Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan was finally confirmed earlier this month, he was the first judge to be confirmed for this important court in an astonishing seven years. While the Administration has submitted three nominees for the remaining vacant seats, Senator Chuck Grassley and others are already working to oppose these nominations through proposed legislation that would eliminate the remaining three seats from the D.C. Circuit Court altogether.
Jewish tradition teaches the importance of fair and impartial courts. In Exodus 18:21, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, advises him to chose capable, trustworthy and law-abiding members of society to judge the people. Further, in an often-quoted passage in Deuteronomy, God proclaims to the people of Israel, “you shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice, shall you pursue” (16:19-20). The responsibility to pursue justice extends beyond ensuring that we, ourselves, are behaving justly and judging fairly. We also have a responsibility to create a legal system that strives for balance and that treats all people equitably.
Last week I discussed how the section of the Torah we find ourselves in at this time of year deals with the young Israelite nation growing into a military power. This evolution continues in this week’s parsha when an enemy king, Balak, sends a Balaam – a sort of religious leader cum warrior – to curse the Israelite camp. And again this week, this Torah portion resonates with some of the current debate in Congress about the National Defense Authorization Act.
Balaam, we read, attempts to curse the Israelites but each time he speaks he cannot help but bless them (this is where the prayer Mah Tovu comes from). The Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yochanan posits an explanation of why the tents of Jacob were so beautiful. Rabbi Yochanan explains that the tents of the Israelites were all arranged so that none of their entrances faced each other, promising as much privacy as possible to each member of the camp. The Talmud goes on and builds on this theme in an effort to enshrine privacy as a basic Jewish value and develop the idea of hezek ria, the harm that can be caused by seeing into someone’s private life.
The potential for too much “seeing,” or surveillance, to lead to real material damage becomes even more relevant as we consider modern technology. The increased surveillance capabilities and the ability for that surveillance to lead to lethal force raises interesting moral questions about the U.S. military and intelligence community’s use of drones. What might be the costs of the profound surveillance capabilities that drones promise? How do understand the way that ‘seeing’ translates into deadly harm?
In that vein, the U.S. House of Representatives quietly passed the first piece of legislation restricting American use of drones as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014. The NDAA included provisions from a previous bill introduced by Representative Mac Thornberry’s (R-TX) that called the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act, which would require the Secretary of Defense to notify the House and Senate Armed Services Committees when a lethal attack aimed at someone on the “capture or kill” list has taken place. Another provision – an explicit ban on the use of drones to kill American citizens, unless that person is actively engaged in combat against the U.S. – offered by Representative Paul Broun (R-GA) was adopted by voice vote.
These provisions still face several major hurdles before they can become law and they only address a few aspects of many people’s concerns about this new technology, but as the first legislation on an issue that hardly anyone in Congress was talking about six months ago this represents the beginning of an important conversation.
Image courtesy of Reuters
In the Bible, stories of wars are inextricably linked with religion. In addition to these battles merely being recorded in our sacred literature, the priests were actively involved with the war effort. Before the Israelite army could engage in warfare, the priests had to read the rules of what was ethically permitted in warfare and what was prohibited to those assembled to fight. These rules, frequently referred to as “just war theory,” primarily pertain to the treatment of enemy combatants. Today, however, we must look just as closely at how we treat our own soldiers. As the National Defense Reauthorization Act (NDAA) is being debated on the House floor, it is especially pertinent that we consider the conditions of our own military, and specifically their right to religious freedom.
While the news surrounding NDAA re-authorization has been largely dominated by policies around sexual assault and Guantanamo Bay, perhaps you’ve heard the spreading accounts of “attacks” on religious freedom in the military. These complaints of the curtailing of soldiers’ religious rights are actually the opposite; our enlisted service members are being exposed to proselytizing and blatant religious activities (for example: Bible verses written on guns). We must defend the rights of those who risk their lives to defend ours.
In addition to enforcing laws that already protect our service members from these encroachments, we must be on the watch for new laws that threaten to chip away at these rights, and there are more than a few amendments to the NDAA that do just that. One amendment, accepted into the bill last week, allows military chaplains to pray according to their faith “outside of a religious service.” This last phrase is the key—military chaplains should be allowed to lead prayer in their own faith tradition when they are in a worship service that people have elected to attend. However, when chaplains are serving as an “all-military” religious leader at a public event, they must use nonsectarian language to equally represent all of our service members.
At the same time, there are some encouraging amendments, which seek to increase rather than take away from our military’s religious freedoms. An amendment (that was unsuccessful) sought to “allow those certified by recognized nontheistic organizations to be appointed as officers in the chaplain core in order to fully serve nontheistic or nonreligious service members.”
Of course we support our service members’ right to practice their religion. It is when this right encroaches on others’ rights, though, that we draw the line. We must stand up for those who are sacrificing to protect our freedoms at home by protecting their freedoms in the military.
Image courtesy of NY Times
The thirty Machon Kaplan participants have arrived and it’s officially summer at the RAC. Thanks to the infusion of energy from our MK interns, Lizzie Stein and Sam Stone, along with summer rabbinic interns Benj Fried and Stephen Morris, the office is even buzz-ier than usual. Thursday night was our annual “Meet S’more Interns” event (yup – we were making smores in the RAC lobby), welcoming Jewish interns throughout the city to the RAC for some informal schmoozing – and a chance to be swabbed into the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry.
We’ve been incorporating our summer staff into much of our usual work and they’ve been getting a taste of the range of issues we cover. They were down on the National Mall at the beginning of the week to see the One Million Bones installation (including the bones we made with organizer Naomi Natale during the Consultation on Conscience). There was good coverage in the Washington Post and elsewhere. They also joined the rest of the RAC staff for a Tuesday afternoon discussion with our Senior Advisor for Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi David Sandmel, who shared some of his expertise in Jewish-Christian relations. And yesterday, they were part of a commemoration of the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, CT. Today marks six months since the tragedy, yet Congress has yet to pass any gun violence prevention legislation. Take a moment to email your members of Congress if you haven’t done so recently.
It’s been a busy legislative week as well. The immigration reform bill has finally hit the Senate floor and our advocacy is in full swing. Rachel Laser and Sarah Krinsky joined Just Congregations’ Lila Foldes and Joy Friedman, as well as a group of other Jewish and Christian faith and lay leaders for a Monday meeting with Senator Rubio (R-FL). Sen. Rubio has been a leading force on this issue and we urged him to continue to support the bill that he authored as it is debated on the Senate floor. If you haven’t yet weighed in with your senators about the importance of passing common sense immigration reform, make sure to send them an email with our action alert.
I met on Thursday with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and representatives from other faith groups that support the Affordable Care Act. Now that the law’s provisions are taking effect, urging states to participate in the Medicaid expansion is essential. If you want to see how your state would be affected, check out this chart from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In case you missed it, Google announced this week that it is buying an Israeli creation called Waze, which is a huge hit with Israeli drivers navigating that country’s notoriously bad roads. The deal is reportedly worth more than $1 billion. If you’re curious about what Waze is and does, and why in a country with 2.5 million cars there are 1.7 million Waze users, check out this Washington Post story.
And finally, giving new meaning to the phrase “stump the LAs,” enjoy this photo (at right) from yesterday afternoon when a big storm brought down the tree on the sidewalk in front of the RAC. Luckily, it fell onto our lawn and no one was hurt. Clearly, the tree was guided by its arbor for social justice.
School is out, the weather is hot and mosquitoes are buzzing! This can only mean one thing: Reform Jewish youth across North America are in the final countdown to the opening day of summer camp! As someone who grew up going to camp and then spent many college summers working at Jewish summer camps, each year at this time I get a bit reminiscent of that countdown, of days with friends that seem to last forever, and even of the mosquito bites!
That’s why, as the Program Coordinator at the Religious Action Center, I was excited to work with URJ camps to write and distribute a summer camp program to engage the youth of our Movement with Nothing But Nets. Nothing But Nets, a global, grassroots campaign, raises awareness and funding to fight malaria in Africa. Working on this partnership and writing these camp programs has surely given me a whole new prospective on the notorious mosquito bites I remember getting each summer at camp.
That is why summer camp is a great way to engage Reform Jewish youth on the issue of malaria. How would camp be different if those pesky mosquitoes still carried the malaria parasite in the U.S.? Yet in many parts of the world, mosquitoes can carry the deadly parasite that is the number one killer of children and leaves many parents anxious when they hear the buzzing of mosquitoes.
The Reform Movement recognizes the importance of helping those in need, and is committed to saving lives, one net at a time. The camp program packet contains four ready-made programs for counselors to use to teach campers about the partnership, malaria and why this is an important issue for Reform Jews.
The first program, the “starter” program gives campers an overview of basic facts about malaria, Nothing But Nets, and our partnership. It can be paired with any of the other programs or serve as a standalone on a Shabbat afternoon or during a shiur session. The Living Talmud and Basketball Tournament programs serve as great Shabbat afternoon activities, a rainy-day plan or work it into the regular camp day. The final program, Nets Tag, is a fun evening program for an entire age unit, or multiple age units together.
Download the program packet off the Religious Action Center’s website or email me to get started with these programs at your summer camp. This is a great opportunity to teach our next generation of Reform Jewish leaders on the importance of eradicating global diseases and poverty, and why these are important values to Reform Judaism.
In 1972, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath sent me to Florida to organize Jewish students protesting the Vietnam War at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami.
In 1990, my wife, my father and I travelled through China just a few months before Tiananmen Square.
In both situations, the moral passion and democratic hopes and aspirations of the young people we encountered were palpable. Infused with the belief that by using non-violent methods they could transform their lives, their nation, their world for the better, they set about with courage and confidence to change their future.
That was exactly the feeling I had as I spent two lengthy visits with the protestors in Gezi Park in the Taksim area of Istanbul over the past few days. There is something special happening in Gezi Park – and it is inspiring.
I am travelling for several weeks. I began speaking at one of the sessions at the U.S.–Muslim World Forum held in Qatar this year (an annual State Dept, Brookings Institution, Qatari Gov’t undertaking – fortunately underwritten by them). I will be joining many other Jewish leaders in Israel at the Annual “Israeli Presidential Conference” hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, this year celebrating his 90th birthday, supplemented by a series of meetings (coordinated by the Israel Religious Action Center) with Knesset and Reform leaders on Reform Jewish rights, women’s rights and peace process issues. Not to mention – Barbra Streisand’s first concerts in a generation in Israel. (Our URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, will have an even more intense agenda of meetings with a side trip to our new community efforts in Kiev.) And then, with Rabbi Rick Block, our new CCAR President, and Rabbi David Sandmel, the RAC’s Ssenior Advisor on Interreligious Affairs, we travel on to Rome to meet with the new Pope, Pope Francis, who has captured the moral imagination of the world. We will be part of a delegation of experienced Jewish professionals in interfaith work who will meet with the Pope and later other Vatican officials on Jewish-Catholic relations.
But the unexpected events on which the attention of the world is focused made this visit to Turkey different and made me determined to add Turkey to my trip. I suspect it will be among the most memorable experiences in this trip of memorable experiences.
Prime Minister Erdogan is a fascinating figure. Many have hoped he would show a successful synthesis of modern Islamism and democracy, as he tried to rebalance religious/political life in this heretofore scrupulously secular, yet 99% majority Muslim, nation. Many fear that a failure to succeed would leave only two alternatives for Muslims: a secular state or a fundamentalist non-democratic state – exactly when a successful, moderate, tolerant version of political Islam feels so desperately needed.
Yet what many feel is his autocratic style with what appears to be a deaf ear to how to respond to those who feel disempowered has fueled this confrontation. Out of fairness, there seem to be many structural sources of that frustration beyond the government’s policy or style. There is a lack of the kind of robust civil society or NGO institutions that people can get involved in (institutions like this are often the norm in many other democracies). In Turkey’s top down political culture, there are sharp limits on grassroots engagement with politics. These have added to deep resentments that were triggered by, but far transcend, the protests over the building development of the park.
It should be clear: in general over the past decade, PM Erdogan enjoys support from a majority of Turkish citizens, as his electoral successes reflect. But he evokes deep distrust and frustration from a very large minority who feel he is changing the entire nation for the worse and who are growingly disenchanted with their prospects for a non-religious democracy and culture, in which individuals make their own religious life-style choices, which they believe is every Turkish citizen’s birthright.
The young people I spoke with, most in their twenties and early thirties, are less concerned with the particular spark to these protests – the commercial development of the popular Geza Park– than with the broader themes. Those I spoke to were mostly well-educated people, primarily Muslim, as were almost all the protestors – although I met one Jew who indicated that he had Jewish friends there. And what struck me as interesting was the depth of amorphous resentment of the government. When pressed on what human rights were most threatened and what action most needed, the responses were all over the place. Some spoke about concerns about the growing Islamization of the nation. Yet, his supporters and even some among his critics, commend his enhancement of religious freedom in the face of secular constraints, e.g. the easing of restriction of the long-time ban on wearing of headscarves in public buildings. But critics cite with alarm the changing tone in the society with things ranging from the requirement, new this year, for women to wear head, shoulder and leg coverings when entering as tourists into Turkey’s famous mosques – even when no services were taking place, to greater restrictions on alcohol purchases. To many in the park, these were indications of a growing effort to trade core freedoms for Mr. Erdogan’s view of proper Muslim behavior. Mostly the protestors I spoke with simply felt that the government just doesn’t care sufficiently about core civil liberties and human rights and was too autocratic. And they feared for the direction the nation is moving in.
Of course the global outcry is less about the precise grievances of the protestors and more about the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceable protestors. On that level, I was struck by the sheer courage of those who in reaction to the police attacks on protesters were more determined than ever to return in yet larger numbers to assert their rights.
So long as Mr. Erdogan enjoys majority support and stays in power, we hope that his long term reaction to these events will be to find that moderate, tolerant path that would mean so much to the world. What seems clear is that without an effective political response from the government, this crisis can turn into a political watershed for this influential nation, which means so much not only to its own people but to America’s interests, Israel’s interests, regional stability and the future direction of political Islam.
This article by Bob Feferman originally appeared in the Forward on Friday, June 14, 2013.
As Iran approaches another fraudulent presidential election on June 14, it is important to remember the 2009 protests in Iran over the results of the rigged election. The heart-wrenching picture of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was shot dead by regime thugs, was not an isolated event. Neda’s tragic death should serve as a call for us to take action, both for the sake of the people of Iran and the cause of peace.
According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur’s March 2013 report on human rights in Iran , “There continues to be widespread systemic and systematic violations of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
The U.N. report expressed concern about “the widespread use of torture by Iranian authorities”, and provides evidence that rape and sexual abuse is used in Iranian prisons as a means of intimidation. The sickening practice of public hangings from building cranes — 60 of them in 2012 — is another indicator of the brutal nature of the Iranian regime.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, recently reported that there are, “… 2,600 prisoners of conscience in the country, among them hundreds of activists, scores of students, dozens of women’s rights campaigners, lawyers, artists, former politicians and many members of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities”. The newspaper provides, “an online database that catalogues the extent of repression by the Iranian authorities”.
It is time to recognize that there is an inextricable connection between the human rights situation in Iran and the threat Iran already poses to world peace. A regime that murders its own children will not hesitate to murder those of other countries.
We see this in Iran’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. We see proof of this in Syria where Iran and Hezbollah are providing massive support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the brutal repression of the popular uprising that has cost the lives of more than 80,000 civilians.
As Iran continues its march toward nuclear weapons in defiance of four U.N. Security Council Resolutions, there is no doubt that a nuclear-armed Iran would feel emboldened to do even worse.
How is it possible that in the 21st century, Iran continues to defy all accepted norms of civilized behavior? The answer may surprise you.
Today, U.S companies and their foreign subsidiaries are prohibited from doing any business in Iran except for humanitarian reasons. Unfortunately, with the exception of Canada, the same cannot be said of America’s foreign friends and allies. Beyond the effective embargo of the European Union on Iranian oil, hundreds of major multinational companies, like Ericsson, LG, Lufthansa, Nissan and Mazda continue to do business in Iran.
The Torah teaches us, “Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). Multinational companies that provide corporate support for the Iranian regime- without concern for human rights- are making tremendous profits while the Iranian people continue to suffer at the hands of their own government and the slaughter in Syria continues unabated.
Even worse, many of these companies are making profits while directly enabling the Iranian regime to abuse of the human rights of the Iranian people.
According to the advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), “… the regime relies on technology and equipment provided by Western and Asian firms. Whether it is telecommunications technology misused to restrict and monitor internet and cellphone communication, motorbikes ridden by the basij to terrorize civilians, or construction cranes used to hang dissidents, foreign firms providing such equipment must immediately end their Iran business or become willing partners in the regime’s ruthless human rights abuses”.
In addition, companies that conduct business as usual with Iran undermine the efforts of the international community to pressure Iran to end its abuse of human rights, support for terrorists and pursuit of nuclear weapons. Moreover, when we, as Americans, invest in these companies, or buy their products, we are unintentionally undermining the sanctions of our own government and inadvertently giving legitimacy to the brutality of the Iranian regime.
Yet, we have the opportunity to send the world a different message: No more business as usual with Iran.
Each of us has the power to shine a light onto the dark business being done by multinational companies in Iran. We can choose not to buy their products or invest in these companies. Each time that we convince a company to end its business in Iran, we are one step closer to convincing the regime to end its abuse of human rights, support for terrorists and pursuit of nuclear weapons.
For the sake of peace, and the freedom of the people of Iran, it is important to act now.
Bob Feferman is Outreach Coordinator for the non-partisan advocacy group, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).
New Yorkers, the time is now to lift up your voices together and call your state Senator and tell them that you support the New York Women’s Equality Act. Along with others across the state, tell the state Senate that you demand strengthened policies to support women as equal members of society as consistent with our American and Jewish values.
Dial 1-888-897-0174 or text “WEA” or “womensequality” to 877-877 to hear key points and automatically connect to your state Senator.
Today, women in New York face challenges that can prevent them from being contributing fully to society. Women are victims of wage discrimination in the workplace, face restricted access to reproductive health care services, endure family status and pregnancy discrimination and are more likely to be victims of human trafficking.
Call your state Senator and urge them to support the Women’s Equality Act that includes provisions to:
Protect reproductive health care services to ensure that every woman is able to decide what is best for her and her family, including using contraception, having a child or ending a pregnancy when her health or life is in danger. Currently, New York law only permits a woman to seek an abortion in the third trimester if her life is deemed in danger, which remains inconsistent with federal law as interpreted by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade. This provision seeks to align state law and medical practices with existing federal statute and standards.
Achieve of pay equality for women in New York who earn on average 84% of what men earn statewide. The median full salary for women in New York is $41,570, while the median full time for men is $50,228 a year. The provision will strengthen existing laws prohibiting wage discrimination and will bar employers from terminating or retaliating against employees who share information about their wages. The prohibition of sharing wage information is how pay disparities are perpetuated.
Encourage your Senator to support this bill to hold up women as equal contributors in all aspects of life across New York State.
Our tradition teaches that all life is sacred and that although an unborn fetus is precious and to be protected, Judaism views the life and well-being of the mother as paramount, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life. We are also instructed to recognize the importance of paying fair wages, as commanded in Leviticus to “not defraud your neighbor, nor rob him; the wages of he who is hired shall not remain with you all night until the morning.”
Now is the time to turn our tradition into action. Call you Senator at 888-897-0174 or text “WEA” or “womensequality” to 877-877 to receive talking points via text message.
For further background on the Women’s Equality Agenda and a sample phone call script, you can visit our issue page.
A human ribbon of remembrance formed on the lawn just west of the Capitol. Donning green shirts, which represented the school color of Sandy Hook Elementary, those gathered marked the 6 month anniversary of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Despite public outcry and a groundswell of support for proposed legislation, our nation has yet to realize our promise to decisively act to prevent gun violence in the wake of this year’s tragedies.
In the six months since Sandy Hook, more Americans have been killed by firearms than were killed in Iraq. You know the statistics. On average, each day 33 Americans are murdered with a gun, 8 of whom are under the age of 18. Indeed, every three days, our nation buries more children than were killed in the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook. Each and every one of these deaths deserves our recognition.
Yet, the vast majority of gun deaths receive little attention at all. Broadcast in the waning moments of the 11 o’clock news, these deaths are sadly a mere blimp on the radar screen, if they’re mentioned at all.
While Friday marks the 6 months anniversary of the tragedy, this weekend is also Fathers Day. For the fathers of the Sandy Hook children, and for all fathers who have lost their children to gun violence, this Sunday takes on a different tone. And for the thousands of children whose fathers have been killed by firearms, there will be no father with whom they can mark this otherwise joyous holiday.
Send a card to Congress in honor of all of those who, due to gun violence, may not celebrate Fathers Day this year. Together, we can fulfill our pledge to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors” (Leviticus 19:16).
We know that it is our religious and moral obligation to fight for sensible gun violence prevention, and as we mark a half year since the tragedy that opened many of our eyes to the perils of gun violence, we must renew our commitment to stop such violence from ravaging our nation.
Image courtesy of the Newtown Action Alliance
After months of negotiations and a heated mark-up by the Judiciary Committee, S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, is finally headed to the floor of the Senate for debate. Yesterday, the Senate voted 84-15 to proceed with consideration of what could be the most comprehensive reform of our immigration system in a generation. Today begins a long three weeks for the Senate, as they start to debate, amend and vote their way through the over-1,000 page bill. So what’s included in this mammoth piece of legislation? Here are some of the key items the RAC is focusing on:
This bill includes provisions that prioritize family reunification and contains new merit-based legal channels for loved ones to enter the United States. We are supportive of the elimination of the decades-long backlogs in family visas over the next 8 years as established by the bill. However, we believe that family reunification must be inclusive of all family members and we are thankful that Senator Leahy (D-VT) introduced an amendment to the bill to extend spousal visas for LGBT couples.
Balanced Approach to Enforcement
It is essential that we help secure our border against illegal immigration and keep America safe; we are fully supporting the provisions in the legislation that would help achieve these goals. This bill addresses enforcing the border with “trigger” provisions (including a plan created by the Secretary of Homeland Security to increase surveillance and build a fence on the southern border and a 90% apprehension rate of undocumented border crossers) that must be met before a pathway to citizenship can be paved for the 11 million undocumented. The RAC continues to express that our border policies must be consistent with American humanitarian values and must not unduly stall the pathway to citizenship. We also believed that national security will be strengthened by increased trust and cooperation between local law enforcement and their communities as undocumented immigrants can begin to come out of the shadows.
Pathway to Citizenship
The pathway to citizenship created by S. 744 creates opportunities for immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows and legalize their status. While we are very supportive of the pathway, we still have concerns over the fact that this proposal would take 13 years. There are also fees and other requirements included that could be prohibitive for low-income immigrants. It is also crucial that, while immigrants are on the long road to citizenship, they are given access to vital social services such as food, housing and health care benefits—unfortunately, this important protection has been excluded from the legislation.
Our tradition is very clear on the treatment of immigrants and our faith demands that we show concern for the stranger in our midst, for we too “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). It is that history of being the “stranger” that reminds us to be aware of the struggles faced by immigrants today and to remain committed to creating the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our families generations ago.
As debate begins on this landmark legislation (which you can watch here), take a moment to tell your Senators that you support comprehensive immigration reform. Send them an email or call the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121. Today’s immigration system is broken and leaves 11 million people vulnerable and in the shadows. We can, and we must, do better. Our American values, and our Jewish values, command it.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite community undergoes some substantial changes. Moses’ sister Miriam, who has been a (literally) guiding figure for the Israelites, dies. Aaron, Moses’ brother and the community’s high priest, dies. Moses is told that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In modern day terms, we could call this a period with a pretty high turnover rate among top leadership. Luckily, the Israelites were ready – Elazar was able to relatively seamlessly assume the high priesthood, and Moses spends much of Deuteronomy preparing the people for their entry into the land of Israel.
Unfortunately, in today’s society, we are not similarly preparing the next generation to be full and productive leaders of society. On exams administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science or reading. Only 70%of students graduate high school, with a much lower percentage enrolling in and ultimately finishing college. These trends are even more pronounced among black and Hispanic children, who graduate high school and attend college at markedly lower rates than their white counterparts. Poor and minority students are also out-performed by white students on standardized tests, with evidence of the “achievement gap” starting as early as elementary school.
While there is theoretically legislation that outlines recommendations and policies for our school system – entitled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – this bill was set to be reauthorized in 2007 and has yet to be properly considered by Congress. This week, federal legislators are beginning a new attempt to revisit and improve upon this crucial piece of legislation. An updated version passed out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate yesterday, and now will hopefully be considered by the full chamber. Importantly, the Senate’s version contained LGBT-friendly provisions that create a national definition of bullying and provide LGBT students the same legal recourse as other targets of discrimination. Click here to tell your member of Congress that these are important policies to you in any legislation moving forward.
The Jewish tradition is unequivocal in its views on the importance of education. The second paragraph of the sh’ma itself commands us to “teach these instructions to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7), with the Talmud expanding on this idea and relaying an elaborate system of compulsory education starting at the age of six. A school or learning center has been at the heart of every Jewish society throughout time, and few institutions are more valued by the community. It is time that we take these traditions and commands to heart, and demand a timely refocusing on education as the building block of the next generation of Americans.
Welcome to my first day in D.C. When the RAC’s Rabbi Michael Namath called to tell me I’d be interning at the RAC all those weeks ago, amid all my uncertainties and unanswered questions about my internship in Washington, D.C., I knew there was one thing I could expect with certainty: adventure. I knew I would have the opportunity to learn about and advocate for a wide variety of people and issues while working at the RAC. And on my very first day, I proved myself right. I visited an anti-genocide art installation on the National Mall and a panel on queer reproductive justice all in the same afternoon.
After trudging through the rain and humidity, through the Ellipse (I even picked up some D.C. lingo on this adventure) and to the National Mall, we came upon a display of One Million Bones, presented by The Art of Revolution. The dramatic public installation of paper mache, rubber, duct tape and plastic bones were scattered across the National Mall to raise awareness about current genocides – in Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Burma. The One Million Bones movement took their message beyond the mall and into the halls of Congress as volunteers participated in the movement’s lobby day on Monday, June 10: “Take a Bone to Congress.”
As is frequently the case at the RAC, our afternoon adventure quickly changed directions, and I found myself on the metro’s red line, headed towards the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice to attend a panel on LGBT reproductive justice.
In a room filled with actively engaged, and slightly damp, progressive thinkers from organizations all over the city, these open and wise powerhouse advocates for reproductive justice highlighted the injustices in reproductive health that exists for the LGBT community – a community often overlooked in conversations around reproductive health. Members of the LGBT community, who need the same vital access to the reproductive health services as their heterosexual counterparts, have been devastatingly limited in obtaining it. Kierra Johnson, executive director of ChoiceUSA reminded us that, “Everybody and every BODY needs to be valued.”
Her message echoes the Jewish value, b’tselem Elohim, all humans are created in the image of god; an individual’s identity or sexual orientation does not change this. Kierra’s message is an important one for us to remember, as every human deserves equal access to reproductive health services.
The panel was powerful and brought to light an issue I knew next to nothing about before coming to Washington. I am thrilled today’s adventure is just the beginning of my summer in D.C., working for an organization that stops at nothing to bring about social justice, not even the rain.
Lizzy Stein is a rising sophomore at Occidental College. She is originally from Phoenix, AZ, and belongs to Temple Kol Ami.
This week’s Torah portion – Chukat – presents Moses and the Israelites as they near the Promised Land, battle with the Emorites and struggle with the morality of being a nation at war. This biblical moment holds deep resonance with the moment the U.S. finds itself in today: as the war in Afghanistan winds down, the War on Terror continues to evolve, and new technology brings new forms of warfare into political reality, our nation continues to struggle with the moral questions that come with being a nation at war.
President Obama gave these questions a powerful spotlight in a major speech at the National Defense University last month. There he highlighted the United States’ changing military needs, discussed the growing use of drones and targeted killing, and renewed his Administration’s call to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Following this speech, last week the President made two major foreign policy personnel announcements, naming Susan Rice to the position of National Security Advisor and nominating Samantha Power to fill the new vacancy as U.N. Ambassador. Both this speech and these announcements contribute to the sense that we are a nation at change, a military in transition.
However, most developments will have to get approval from Congress – a feat that faces its first test as the House considers the National Defense Authorization Act. The nearly 800-page bill, which authorizes the scope and funding levels of most aspects of the United States military passed out of the House Armed Services Committee last week. Nearly 150 amendments have been submitted to the House Rules Committee, some number of which will be debated as the full House considers the bill. Over the next week or so we’ll take a look at some of the priorities of the Reform Movement and how they’ll be affected by this bill.
As June is Torture Awareness Month (check out some great materials from our partner the National Religious Campaign Against Torture), it is fitting to start with the NDAA’s provisions on the U.S. Military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
This year’s bill maintains language from the last few years that prohibit the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the United States for trial, and places nearly insurmountable certification requirements on the transfer of detainees to third countries. These two provisions have frequently been cited by the Administration and anti=torture advocates as the primary obstacles to closing Guantanamo in the near future.
The bill also prohibits the use of funds to build a facility within the United States to house the detainees at Guantanamo and approves $500 million toward maintaining the prison and working to make it permanent.
Several Members of Congress have filed amendments with the Rules Committee in order to challenge these controversial provisions. The President has also filed a Statement of Administration Policy threatening to veto the bill over these (and other) sections.
The recent hunger strike of more than half of the detainees housed at Guantanamo has renewed debates about their treatment and continued detention. Whether the very existence of Guantanamo is legal or moral can be debated, certainly aspects of these detainees treatment and detention amounts to acts of torture. And torture must always be a concern for those committed to living the values taught to us through our Jewish tradition and for those committed to the pursuit of human rights. As the former President of the Union for Reform Judaism , Eric Yoffie, said in 2005, “The torture of prisoners, or issues of what is the appropriate conduct of soldiers, are issues that should have special resonance for Jews, given our experience in the 20th century. We have a special obligation to speak out on these issues; if we don’t, shame on us.”
Last week I attended the Teva Learning Alliance Seminar with a wide range of Jewish professionals from around the world. For three days we exchanged ideas and skills on sustainable living, advocacy and education. Set against the beautiful backdrop of the Isabella Friedman Center in north-central Connecticut (albeit a schlep and a half from civilization) the participants enjoyed the sights and sounds of nature and the delicacies provided by sustainable farming practices on the premises. I was there to co-present with the Coalition from the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) on advocacy and where related legislation stands in Congress. However, it was also a great opportunity to connect with our Jewish leaders, educators and clergy who care about environmental protection and sustainable living.
Among the most interesting sessions were a discussion of Christian and Muslim perspectives on the environment a seminar on Creation Care and Kabbalah, a wild mushroom hunt and a cheese-making demonstration. But perhaps the most interesting was the talk and demonstration of a soferet (scribe) on how to turn an animal hide into parchment for Torah scrolls.
Spending a few days surrounded by nature where wild mushrooms were in greater abundance than spots with cell service was rejuvenating. The exchange of ideas and information that the Teva conference facilitated was fantastic. We all came away with new ideas, greater understanding and new friends.
The very first Pride Parade took place on June 28th, 1970 in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Stonewall raid in New York City. The parade, almost a year in the making, was an opportunity for gay men and women to step out of the proverbial closet and respond as a community to the horrific attacks at the Stonewall Inn by proclaiming loudly and proudly that the gay community cannot be brought down. The courageousness and sheer strength of will in organizing this first Pride Parade cannot be overstated, as our country’s gay rights record in 1970 was not deserving of too much pride; sodomy laws were on the books and routinely enforced, discrimination was rampant, and gay visibility in the social and cultural landscapes was virtually non-existent, except as seen as a threat or a mockery.
Now 43 years hence, the LGBT community has grown in strength, in numbers and in visibility, and we have so much about which to be proud, as the arc of our country’s history bends more and more toward equality and justice for all. This is why every year I march with pride and with hope: pride in how far we’ve come, and hope that our trajectory will continue this trend.
This year, I can’t help but color my pride with a slight bit of ambivalence as a result of the failure of Senator Patrick Leahy’s amendment to the current Immigration bill, which would have recognized same-sex bi-national couples, affording them the same rights and benefits that opposite-sex couples obtain during the immigration process.
If you’ve been following the issue, you know that the RAC has been at the forefront of the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform, helping to mobilizing rabbis nationwide and educating congregants about the inherent Jewish values of welcoming the stranger. You’ll also know that the bill that just passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, as organized by the bipartisan “Gang of 8,” shows significant promise in the way of solid immigration policy, easing the process toward citizenship for many, allowing for the children of immigrants to attend college, and contribute to the good of society as they also work towards citizenship. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the bill seeks to keep bi-national families together as the non-American spouse or family member works toward obtaining their citizenship.
However, with the failure of the Leahy amendment, the definition of family has been disappointingly narrowed. As Senator Leahy himself proclaimed, “Discriminating against people based on who they love is a travesty,” and with the failure of this amendment, the fate of some 24,700 bi-national couples, along with over 267,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants, now hangs in limbo. As Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin wrote the other day “We owe it to [these couples] living in the U.S. today to get the job done.” As such, I am incredibly proud of the eight senators who came together to push this legislation forward, but I am also exceedingly saddened that they did so at the expense of so many LGBT families.
About a month ago, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates ??? ????, the giving of the Torah, along with the bounty of the Spring Harvest. As part of our celebration of Shavuot, tradition states we read from the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who upon her husband’s death seeks to follow her mother-in-law Naomi, by becoming part of the Israelite community. She states, quite poignantly “???? ???-?????? ???????? ??????, ?????????? ????????? ??????–??????? ??????, ???????? ???????” – “Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you rest, I will rest, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” This text teaches us that we have an obligation to those who seek to join in our journey with us, whatever that journey may be. When God reminds us not to forget our status as strangers, as less than, as servants in the land of Egypt, this is what is meant; when God impels us to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, this is what is meant. And when God calls to us to be a light unto the nations, this is absolutely what is meant. I am proud that our tradition shows such compassion for those who desire to join us, enriching and enhancing our community. It is our charge as Jews that we make sure that all those who wish to become part of our national fold are given that same compassion and care, and it is my hope that by next year’s Pride parade, our nation’s immigration system reflects exactly that charge.
Photo courtesy of Getequal.
Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued an announcement that Plan B will now be made available over-the-counter without age restriction. Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:
“We applaud the Obama Administration’s decision to allow women of all ages to access Plan B emergency contraception over-the-counter. This is an historic step toward ensuring that all women have access to the medical care that they need and deserve. Emergency contraception is safe and effective, restores a woman’s control over her reproductive health, and reduces the many physical and emotional risks of unintended pregnancies.
It is especially crucial that teenagers are able to access emergency contraception in a timely and unrestricted manner. More than three quarters of teenage pregnancies are unintended. Increased access to emergency contraception will help prevent such pregnancies and ensure that women have autonomy over their own bodies and reproductive decisions.
Unfortunately, opponents of emergency contraception have succeeded in severely limiting access to it in recent years. Restrictive age requirements as well as pharmacist refusal and limited pharmacy hours have created burdensome hurdles for women and unnecessarily limited the availability of this important medication. The Obama Administration’s reversal this week of its earlier position that required a Plan B prescription for those aged 16 and younger respects women’s moral agency and will advance reproductive health.”