I recently had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. where I attended the Religious Action Center’s flagship policy conference, Consultation on Conscience. I spent four days listening to inspiring speakers, having meaningful discussions, and learning more than I ever thought possible. While reflecting on this incredible conference, I realized that there are three Hebrew phrases that can aid me in sharing my experiences: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue), L’dor Vador (From generation to generation), and im tirtzu, ein zo agada (If you will it, then it is no dream.)
Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, justice you shall pursue
Prior to attending the Consultation on Conscience, I knew that the Jewish community values the pursuit of justice. However, being surrounded by hundreds of motivated members of our movement helped me understand just how deeply rooted the idea of social justice is in our faith. I loved seeing how passionate everyone became when they were inspired by a particular speaker. Because there were so many fantastic speakers, we all became more and more inspired with each one. Sunday night, we began the Consultation with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She discussed her support for Israel and the Jewish community, as well as the idea behind the word Heneini, “here we are.” She explained how we are all gathered as one to answer the call of justice. On Monday, we heard from a variety of speakers. However, the most inspiring for me was Naomi Natale, the founder of One Million Bones. This project was started in order to raise awareness about genocide. Through Natale’s program, one million clay bones are being made and will be displayed on the National Mall to draw attention to the victims of genocides worldwide and give them the recognition that they deserve. Tuesday, we all went to the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill and had the opportunity to hear from Members of Congress. We heard from Representative Chris Van Hollen, Representative Joseph Kennedy III, and Representative Henry Waxman, just to name a few. After each member spoke, there was time for questions. During this time, I saw members of our community articulate their deep passion about specific issues in conversation with their representatives who are fighting for justice for all Americans each and every day.
As the only NFTY representative at Consultation, I was given the opportunity to attend the Commission on Social Action meetings. The Commission on Social Action consists of members from throughout North America who help decide the official position that the URJ and the Central Conference of American Rabbis take on controversial issues. While at these meetings, I was able to chat with some of the members. While talking to them, I realized that these are some of the most passionate, dedicated people that I have ever met. They are all so dedicated to the Reform Movement and to the pursuit of justice in their communities and throughout the world. During these meetings, it was decided that there are two resolutions that may be appearing at Biennial in December. The first is a resolution to form a position on hydrofracturing (fracking) and the second is regarding employers providing paid sick leave for their employees. Both resolutions have values that are rooted in the Jewish faith and I am excited to see if they pass at Biennial!
The Religious Action Center itself completely embodies the idea of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof. While hearing the RAC staff give updates, I was reminded of the amount of work they do each day to pursue justice. Throughout the year they advocate for 70+ issues by speaking with staff members on Capitol Hill, engaging congregations in their work, and mobilizing Jews all over North America. They recently raised $800,000 dollars for Hurricane Sandy relief. In addition, they have been working on expanding their involvement in campaigns for Nothing but Nets (which donates mosquito nets to African villages), Gift of Life (which saves lives by registering Jews for the universal bone marrow registry), and organizing interfaith “call-in days” to Members of Congress advocating for gun violence prevention legislation. These endeavors are just a few examples of the inspiring work the RAC does to pursue justice.
L’dor Vador: From Generation to Generation
When I found out I would be attending Consultation on Conscience, I anticipated that the most powerful, inspirational moments would come from listening to the speakers. While I did learn a great deal from the speakers, I also gained so much from the interactions I had with the adults in attendance. Being the only student at the conference gave me the opportunity to meet and have conversations with many interesting adults. I heard the most amazing stories! I heard first-hand about Rabbi Israel Dresner’s important work during the Civil Rights Movement, Judge David Davidson’s dedication to the Religious Action Center and the Commission on Social Action, and Ms. Judith Hertz’s involvement in the WRJ and URJ, just to name a few. Before hearing their stories, I knew very little about the structure and inner workings of the URJ. However, through these conversations, they all passed down a piece of their knowledge to me, the next generation. Also, I developed a much greater sense of what being a Reform Jew means. To me, personally, it means being dedicated to the movement, keeping faith, holding my head high, and most importantly, having a belief in justice.
In NFTY, we love the saying “Generational Leadership.” Having served as the Social Action Vice President at the local and regional levels for three years, my position has come to mean a lot to me. I recently passed down my Social Action leadership position as I prepare for the next stage in my life. As the youngest person in attendance at the Consultation on Conscience, I got a little taste of generational leadership on the larger URJ stage. During a meeting on fracking, everyone introduced themselves and stated whether they had ever been a committee chairperson. I would estimate that 1/3 of the people had served in a leadership role. I love seeing that the leadership positions have been passed between people. Because of this, many people have been able to share their passion and have the opportunity to impact the reform movement and the world. I can only hope that one day, I will be part of that line of leaders.
Im tirtzu, ein zo agada: If you will it, then it is no dream.
If there is one thing from this experience that I want to walk away with, it is that anything is possible. The work done by the Religious Action Center, the Commission on Social Action, and everyone in attendance at the Consultation on Conscience is a perfect example of people “willing change” and making it happen. Whether it is calling a member of congress, sending a malaria net to a village in Africa, or lending a hand to someone in financial trouble, the Reform Movement is perpetually willing change to happen in the world. From what I experienced, I now strongly believe in the power of our movement. I know that if we work together to will that change, justice will no longer be a dream.
Jackie Heymann is the NFTY Missouri Valley Social Action Vice President.