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Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Lobbying for Immigration in Sacramento: Reform CA in Action

What does it mean to be part of a movement? What could it look like if we actually moved together?

On Thursday May 23rd forty-two Californian Reform Jews answered that question as we gathered in Sacramento for a day of lobbying and learning. A beautiful mix of clergy and community members, we took our message of justice and equality to the State Capitol. Our day was filled with individual lobby visits to thirty Assembly Members and state Senators as well as a meeting with Governor Brown’s office and with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. That morning, as we stood together on the steps of the Capitol, preparing ourselves for this ambitious day of meetings, we offered words of prayer. Rabbi Jason Gwasdoff from Stockton reminded us that although we pray in separate synagogues, we offer the same words, to the same God, for the same reasons. As we sang Shehecheyanu, we not only thanked God for bringing us to the Capitol to do justice, we thanked God for bringing us together as a movement.

It was the first lobby day of Reform CA, a new initiative for the California Reform Movement to act powerfully together for justice in our state. Over the past 18 months, more than 120 Reform rabbis and communities have come together to create Reform CA with a goal of restoring the California dream.  Once upon a time, California represented openness, fairness, and equality; progressive thought, investment in education and infrastructure, and cutting edge innovation. A family could move to our state, afford a home, send their children to excellent, publicly-funded schools and colleges, and find meaningful, well-paying jobs. Some of us remember living the California dream, while others of us grew up hearing stories of the California that once was. As a project of all the social justice initiatives of the Reform Movement: the Peace and Justice Committee of the CCAR, the Religious Action Center, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s Just Congregations, we feel called to come together as a Movement to play a role in repairing the California dream. We are joining with one another to address systemic issues of injustice that hurt our families and our brothers and sisters across lines of race, class, and faith. As Rabbis who were ordained together and work down the street from one another, it took Reform CA and our collective passion to act for justice to bring us together and reignite within us the that flame of partnership.

We were in Sacramento to press for just immigration reform in our state, specifically passage of the TRUST Act, which would remedy the effect of the Secure Communities program, a federal law which has created a climate of fear in the immigrant community and has adversely affected law enforcement’s ability to make our towns, cities and state safer. Currently, immigrants picked up by police for minor misdemeanors – something as small as a broken taillight – can be held for deportation. The TRUST Act will help address the shortcomings in our current immigration system by permitting deportation holds on undocumented immigrants only if they have a serious or violent felony. This legislation will restore the trust between immigrant communities and local police and aid the continued fighting of crime in California’s towns and cities.

We learn in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” but our immigrant brothers and sisters are forced to live in the shadows and separate themselves from the community and the California dream. We hope that we will continue to march together on the path of justice as we exit the walls of our individual institutions and join together as a unified movement.

 Rabbi Rachel Timoner is Associate Rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles, CA.

Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds is Associate Rabbi at University Synagogue, Los Angeles, CA.

 

Reform CA Sacramento Lobby Day

 

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CCAR on the Road General CCAR Immigration News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis: Immigration Reform Lobby Day in DC

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day in DC

(The CCAR “Gang of Ten”: Rabbis Michael Namath, Baht Weiss, Sam Gordon, Esther Lederman, Greg Litcofsky, Ari Margolis, David Adelson, RAC Deputy Director Rachel Laser, and Seth Limmer)

 It started as a question: as part of our Rabbis Organizing Rabbis campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, would colleagues be interested in journeying to Washington, D.C. for a Rabbinic Lobby Day on Capitol Hill?  If so, would Senators and their staffs be willing to meet with national representatives of CCAR, even from out of state? If so, would we as rabbis be able to make any impact on the success of the legislation’s passage through Congress?

The answer to all these questions, I discovered on our first Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Lobby Day,  is a resounding: YES.

May 22 was an auspicious date for many reasons. We knew it was one of the final days Senators would be in town before their June recess.  We knew we had a team of ten colleagues taking trains, planes and automobiles to meet up at our Religious Action Center.  But we didn’t realize that late in the evening on May 21 the Senate Judiciary Committee would vote S. 744 [the bi-partisan bill for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or CIR] out of committee by a margin of 13-5.  When we entered the halls of Congress, our Senators all knew that a vote on CIR was coming their way.

After a thorough prep session at the RAC, our day began by meeting Senator Daniel Bennet [D-CO], one of the members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who championed CIR.  Led by David Saperstein (and together with our allies from the UUAA) we thanked Senator Bennet for his leadership, asked him how we could help ensure the passage of the Bill, and charged him (as he was happy to hear) to “get this work done”.

From that session, our own CCAR “Gang of Ten” fanned out over Capitol Hill to meet in smaller groups with the offices of  seven key senators.  We heard interesting messages from two other members of the Gang of Eight with whom we met: Dick Durbin [D-IL] charged us to help secure the vote of his IL colleague, Mark Kirk [R-IL]; Robert Menendez directed our focus to the House of Representatives, where his staff feels this legislation will face serious and sustained opposition.  Angus King [I-ME] also reiterated a call to ensure the overwhelming passage of CIR in the Senate to put real pressure on the House.

Our teams also scheduled appointments with Senators whose previous statements and records led us to believe we would have to work hard to gain their support. In many ways, it was in these sessions where the real learning of the day took place, and where the greatest optimism was found.  Joe Donnelly [D-IN], heavily influenced by the support the Catholic Conference of Bishops has put behind CIR, was encouraged to hear more faith groups speak of the moral arguments for the legislation he is leaning to support.  His colleague, Dan Coats [R-IN, who had expressed dismay for President Obama’s DREAM act], turns out to be focused on the realism of CIR’s border-security measures, but seeks a comprehensive solution and is very open to the possibility of supporting S. 744.  (Coat’s Legislative Director especially asked us to be vocal on the issue of why this bill didn’t provide “amnesty”, as that was the biggest negative public perception he felt his office needed to overcome.)  Kay Hagan [D-NC], one of five Democrats who voted against the DREAM act, wouldn’t commit to a position, as she faces re-election in a state turning towards the other party.  It was curious that we felt more encouraged by our meetings with “swing”  Republicans than Democrats…..

The most interesting meeting of the day was with the office of Mark Kirk [R-IL].  The importance of Kirk’s leadership in widening the bipartisan support for CIR could be crucial, we had been told when meeting with Durbin’s staff.  So it was with great hope and a sense of urgency that Chicago’s own Rabbi Sam Gordon began our session setting forth a compelling case.  As conversations continued, we learned that Senator Kirk was open to supporting S. 744, and potentially even inclined to do so.  The early and vocal advocacy of the faith community, we were told, was a large reason why.  As the meeting became more and more encouraging, I felt emboldened to share the following with the Senator: thanks to Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, we already have a network of sixteen committed colleagues throughout Illinois who are poised to come out and support and help Senator Kirk arrive at (and keep to) the right vote on this issue.  Sam Gordon listed the many cities in which Rabbis Organizing Rabbis can really make a very public difference for the Senator, and Kirk’s people widened their eyes at the opportunities, took business cards, and pledged to be in touch.

I learned a lot from a tremendously full day in D.C.  From Rachel Laser and the RAC Staff, I learned how important it was, before going to Wasington, to advocate publicly on a local level (I was fortunate enough to have an Op-Ed published on Immigration Reform in the Jewish Week).  Sitting with Senators and showing them my public commitment and leadership definitely made a difference.  From my Just Congregations community organizing training I learned how having people on the ground in states gave us greater power and opportunity when talking with Senators.  From the Senators and staffers with whom we shared such fascinating conversations, I came to understand how much of a real difference it makes in the policy and legislation of our nation that we as rabbis went door-to-door on Capitol Hill.

And, lastly, I learned how invigorating it was to walk through the halls of Congress with my colleagues, making a real difference in the governance of our country and the ways its people are able to enjoy justice, peace and civil liberties.  I can’t wait to do it again.

 Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

Categories
Ethics News Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

What Drives You to Do Social Justice?

The question was so simple.  “What drives you to do social justice?”  But the answer was so complex and varied.  The themes were similar: family role models, personal experiences of injustice, a sense of responsibility and moral obligation.  But each one of us had a story to tell, a piece to uncover, a truth to reveal.  After 15 months of knowing the people in the room with me, I realized that maybe I didn’t really know them that well at all.  And all it takes, to really get to know a person, is to ask a simple question and let their story unfold.

I just returned from the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. As a 2012-2013 Brickner Rabbinic Fellow, this was the culminating event to months of study, prayer, and exploration on social advocacy, as it pertains to being a rabbi. But it was more than that.  It was the culmination of months of being in relationship with a great group that helped me realize what it means to be passionate about social justice, to rely on one another professionally to help better our world, and to live with holy intention in the work that we do.

And yet, there was something so powerful, so organically raw and moving in the room as we closed out our final moments together as a group.  Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive of the CCAR, invited us to reflect for a moment.  In most cases, you would expect us to reflect back on the last 15 months and the experiences shared in the program.  But we didn’t do that.  We did something much more sacred, much more meaningful and much more useful.  We shared words with one another about our own personal journeys and lives in relation to changing, healing, and helping our broken world.  It had all the potential to be go wrong and be self-serving and egotistical.  But it wasn’t.  It was beautiful. In that moment, our group took the trust that had been building in those 15 months and we unleashed our stories – painful, funny, heartfelt – and we created sacred space to continue connecting our lives with one another.

That moment continued to teach us about social advocacy, about the holiness that comes from hearing and sharing stories and recognizing the beauty of the human spirit and the power of community.  Social advocacy is nothing without recognizing that we are all human beings, with complex stories and histories and lives, and that we are all in this world together, trying to create a better world so that all may live with dignity and freedom.  But it begins by listening and by sharing.

The question was so very simple.  But I am grateful that it was asked.  Because with it, I was able to understand what the last 15 months truly were about – making sacred connections so that I can be empowered to continue partnering with God and with my fellow human beings in order to help create a more perfect world through social advocacy, social justice and tikkun olam.

Rabbi Liz Wood is the Associate Rabbi Educator at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, NY.