Reform Jews for Justice: URJ Biennial and Social Action
By Ben Kern, Class of 2018
Rutgers Hillel Student Board Israel Co-Chair
Ben Kern was one of six Rutgers students who attended the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial last month, along with Rutgers Hillel staff member Sarah Magida, our Reform Community Educator.
What happens when the leaders of the Reform Movement in North America come together with thousands of clergy, educators, community leaders, and students for a weekend of education, advocacy, and action? URJ Biennial, of course! Why education, advocacy, and activism, you ask? What does that even mean?
Education, advocacy, and activism are the ways in which we express our dissatisfaction with the world as it is and strive to improve it. At Rutgers Hillel, we educate often, bringing in speakers and hosting learning sessions multiple times a week. Additionally, there are many opportunities for activists to volunteer with initiatives that help the New Brunswick community; such as food drives and hospital visits. To be a Jew is to care about the world around us, to be engaged in acts of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World), and to pursue justice.
Reform Judaism is a movement like no other. The ancient command “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof!” (Justice, justice shall you seek!) constantly reverberates in our ears. It has become deeply entrenched in the Reform Jewish psyche. This charge has led to a long and proud tradition of political activism by the Reform Movement.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (or “The RAC”) is the lobbying arm of the URJ. The RAC’s advocacy work is completely non-partisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice. My exposure to the RAC and its leadership at URJ Biennial was a critical moment for me. At Biennial, Rabbi Jonah Pesner (Director of the RAC) led a session on Social Justice with college students. He began the session with a text study, examining the Yom Kippur haftarah portion, Isaiah 58.
Looking down at my copy of the portion, I quickly recognized it as the portion that I had read for several years during high school at the early Yom Kippur morning service at my home congregation. I remembered the many hours I spent learning the Hebrew and reading over the long English translation so that I wouldn’t slip up when I read it in front of my congregation. Now, approaching the text through an investigative lens, I had a newfound appreciation for its message. This Haftrah offers an explanation for why we fast on Yom Kippur, stating, “It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin” (Isaiah 58:7, JPS Translation).
Reading this text, I found that it offered more than a simple explanation for why we fast on Yom Kippur; it offered an explanation as to why the Jewish people pursue justice. From sharing your bread with the hungry and clothing the naked to lobbying for legislation that fights poverty and homelessness, the work that the RAC and the Jewish people are pursuing is righteous and makes me proud to be a Reform Jew. I am glad that Rutgers Hillel gave me this opportunity attend the URJ Biennial and reinforce my connection to Reform Judaism.
Rutgers Hillel developed the Reform Outreach Initiative, the first program on any campus dedicated to the Reform Movement. With a full-time Reform Educator, a cadre of student leaders, and support for programming, the Reform Movement now has a voice on the campus with the largest Jewish undergraduate population in the country, to complement our staff’s Orthodox Rabbinic couple and Conservative Rabbi.
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