A Study in Action: Rabbi David Saperstein

A Study in Action: Rabbi David Saperstein

The Reform movement's Washington director says Torah study, worship, spirituality and social justice are "not separate."

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the offices of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., usually a madhouse of ringing phones and scurrying legislative assistants, were strangely silent. Rabbi David Saperstein was stretching and eating his lunch during an interview, cooling down after a six-mile run from his home. All that activity had no appreciable effect on the rapid-fire flow of words.

To Rabbi Saperstein, a lawyer whose real interest is navigating the intersection between Jewish religious tradition and social action, the greatest sin seems to be wasting time. That frenetic quality — routinely lampooned by other Jewish leaders, but which yields results most envy — has turned the Reform political outpost into the second largest Jewish lobby in the capital.
Next week Rabbi Saperstein will be honored at a gala dinner for his 25 years as director of the RAC. President Bill Clinton is expected to attend; the media will comment on a tenure that is all the more remarkable in a city where a long-term job commitment means more than two years.
But Rabbi Saperstein’s true achievement isn’t sheer endurance — it’s the persistence of his particular vision of Jewish social and political action.
“Torah study, worship and spirituality and social justice — the three historic pillars of Jewish life — are not separate,” he said. “They are different strands of the tapestry of Jewish life. Two thousand years ago the rabbis debated: what is more important, study or action? They concluded that the essential thing is study that leads to action.”
Since it creation in 1959, the RAC has been an icon of Jewish progressivism. It has been at the center of every major civil-rights battle since opening its doors. It was fighting attacks on the First Amendment by the Christian right even before it was called the Christian right.
Critics say it’s one of the last outposts of liberal political correctness. Conservatives, claiming the RAC is out of step with today’s Jews, mock the RAC’s redefinition of everything from the Minimum Wage to the Endangered Species Act as Jewish issues.
But Rabbi Saperstein insists most Jews see the RAC’s core issues the way he does.
“The Jewish community is where it has been for 70 years,” he said. “It remains one of the most liberal groups in American in its attitudes on issues and the most liberal in its voting patterns. In the last four presidential elections, the Jewish community voted from 72 to 85 percent Democratic. They’ve averaged over 70 percent for Democratic congressional candidates.”
At the same time, social-action programs at the congregational level — programs to feed the hungry, house the homeless, help the elderly — are burgeoning, he said.
“By any measure, social justice in our congregations today dwarfs what it was in the 1960s,” he said.
He comes by that diehard Jewish progressivism honestly. His father was the longtime rabbi of a congregation in Malverne, L.I.; his parents were both prominent civil-rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. After college he decided on a dual career as a rabbi and a lawyer “because I decided those were the institutions most capable of helping people in need and transforming society for the better.”
He served several years as a rabbi in a Reform congregation in Manhattan, but social action was what grabbed him.
“I loved being a congregational rabbi. But the social-justice work was the passion of my heart even then. We did some groundbreaking work; we set up a hot lunch program that fed 370 elderly poor on the Upper West Side every day, and I was in a synagogue that created the first Reform Jewish day school in America.”
He also organized a hunger strike among Manhattan rabbis to protest the bombing of Cambodia.
In 1974 — with Washington in an uproar over President Gerald Ford’s pardon of the disgraced Richard Nixon — Rabbi Saperstein took over the reins of the RAC, and there was no turning back.
“The satisfactions here are different. You work on an issue for months — stopping a bad piece of legislation or passing a good one. Or you work for years, and when you finally get something done, you realize: you’ve just touched the lives of millions of people who will never know who you are, who probably never heard of the Religious Action Center. That’s something extraordinary.”
Over the years issues have come and gone, although the RAC’s core issues — church-state separation, health and welfare programs, civil rights, Israel — have changed only in the details.
But the Reform movement itself has changed, becoming more focused on spirituality and ritual. The old jokes about civil rights demonstrations being more important than Shabbat services now sound dated.
Rabbi Saperstein said that shift does not necessarily detract from the movement’s political focus.
“But it has that potential if people see it as an ‘either-or,’ division,” he said. “It would be a catastrophic mistake if our efforts at Jewish continuity segregated the different parts of Jewish identity.”
Asked about his greatest successes as RAC director, he pointed to “our continuing efforts to defeat changes to the First Amendment” and to the RAC’s lobbying for the international treaty banning genocide.
He attributes much of the RAC’s success to the ever-changing team of legislative assistants — young Jews who take a year off between college and graduate school to work for Rabbi Saperstein — and to the active backing of rabbis and congregants in 900 Reform congregations, who often respond overwhelmingly to RAC action alerts.
“One of my most satisfying moments was when then-Sen. Pete Wilson’s chief of staff called just before a school prayer vote and pleaded: ‘Stop the phone calls. Your people in California are clogging our switchboard.’ That’s the kind of thing that tells you you’ve really made a difference.”
Even activists from the other side of the Jewish political spectrum praise the hyperactive but effective machine Rabbi Saperstein has created at RAC headquarters.
“The Orthodox community is a later entrant to political activity in Washington,” said Nathan Diament, Washington representative for the Orthodox Union. “In many cases I have looked at the way David and the RAC have implemented programs and strategies as a model. His energy and his drive are infectious, and he’s intellectually honest. That’s something else that sets him apart.”
Saperstein’s intelligence can be overwhelming.
“David thinks faster than anybody I’ve ever seen — physically thinks faster,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Price worked for Rabbi Saperstein more than a dozen years ago. “I used to say he thinks in a kind of time warp. It’s amazing and a little scary.”
Colleagues in other Jewish organizations say his strength is his consistency and his focus. He is intense to the point of driving some people crazy, they say, but when the noisy coalition meetings are over, his words are the ones people remember.
“The organizational culture at the RAC seems to involve lurching from crisis to crisis,” said a longtime associate. “It all works because David seems to know exactly where he’s going all the time. Everybody else just sort of hangs on.”

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