Last week, I had the honor to travel to Washington, D.C., (with 18 others from Pittsburgh-area Reform congregations) to attend the Consultation on Conscience, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s biennial social justice leadership conference.
Held over three days, the Consultation affords both professional and lay leaders opportunities to network, build community and engage in active dialogue culminating in an afternoon of advocacy on Capitol Hill.
This was my second time attending the conference, and I was inspired by the speakers and workshops offered and buoyed by the large gathering of more than 1,200 people from around the country — the largest group yet.
As a progressive Jew, I am guided deeply by my values to speak up for our community, as well as standing shoulder to shoulder with those in other communities who may not otherwise be heard. The main takeaway message was to translate our shared values into action in a very tangible way. The oft-repeated line of standing united with others in “radical solidarity” reinforced my desire to reach out and find places where we have shared goals and ideals.
One of the main highlights was witnessing extraordinary youth leadership. Student activists engaging in gun control, immigration reform and issues relating to climate change took the stage and spoke eloquently and passionately about the advocacy work of the next generation.
One such young leader was Matt Dietsch, co-founder of March for Our Lives, who said: “If you aren’t using your privilege as a resource for the people who are oppressed, you are part of the problem. Each of you has to do more for the people who aren’t in this room. We are prisoners of our own perspective.”
Another young leader was Elias Rosenfeld, a Venezuelan Jew who came to the U.S. seeking asylum with his mother and brother. When he was just 11, his mother passed away. After receiving DACA status under the previous administration, his legal status is in question. He graduated at the top of his class and now attends Brandeis University, where he is required daily to check his legal status. He has become a strong voice in the fight for immigration reform.
Another featured speaker, Pramila Jayapal from Washington and the first Indian American in Congress, spoke about the role of Jewish organizers in the work of justice and the importance of bringing the “silenced majority” to the forefront.
Each speaker specifically mentioned the need to fight together against anti-Semitism and acknowledged the pain in our community, both due to the Oct. 27 attack and to the rising tide of anti-Semitism worldwide.
Ted Deutch a member of the House of Representatives from Parkland, Florida, said, “If there is anti-Semitism in a country, it means there is hatred and division, and it must be confronted. We know where anti-Semitism can lead if others remain silent or check out. We must all fight against racism and anti-Semitism together across lines of faith, race and political divides. As a country we are facing rising threats. It is too important that we don’t allow political division to get in the way of providing safety and security of our society.”
On the 100th anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote Act, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addressed the crowd dressed all in white in a nod to the suffragettes.
“I used to talk in Europe about anti-Semitism,” she said. “The manifestation of anti-Semitism in our own country is just as challenging now.”
Conference workshops with specific Jewish content included one titled “Anti-Semitism, White Supremacy and White Nationalism: Charting a Path Forward” and another titled “Jews of Color: What We Experience in Mostly Ashkenazi/White Congregations.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the conference is that we must all stand poised to act. In the words of U.S. Rep. Chris Coons of Delaware, “Justice isn’t an abstract concept — it’s a verb. It is only by acting that we do the things we are all called to do.”
Several RAC satellites have begun to work around the country in Florida, California and Texas as well as IRAC in Israel, and there is even some talk of starting a RAC, PA.
If you want to know more about the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, visit its website at rac.org. PJC
Sara Stock Mayo is the director of Ruach and Music at Temple Ohav Shalom and co-leader of the independent minyan Chavurat Shirah. She is involved in social justice movements and is the managing director of Pittsburgh Playback Theatre.