Renewing the Covenant to Respond to the Urgency of Now

Inside Leadership

Renewing the Covenant to Respond to the Urgency of Now

View from bimah of Consultation on Conscience 2017 participants filling sanctuary (including the balcony)

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism recently concluded its 2017 Consultation on Conscience. With more than 800 Reform Movement leaders and activists gathered from across North America, the excitement to build a more just world was palpable. Participants from 89 congregational and community-based delegations, representing 200 synagogues, came together as a movement to learn and be inspired by our guest speakers, as well as by one another – returning home to cities and towns across North America ready to act.

Whether you were with us or not, I invite you to visit our Facebook photo albums (Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3), watch the videos from our main stage plenary sessions, and read on to learn about our Brit Olam – a covenant with our world -- initiative that offers an opportunity for you to act with others as part of a sacred community.

As members of the Reform Movement and as citizens of the United States and Canada, we share a new sense of vulnerability. We are inspired by the injunction in Exodus 22:20-21 – “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan” – and are enjoined to stand with the most vulnerable among us. We hear the demonization of immigrants and see refugees turned away at our borders. We witness our fellow citizens unjustly denied their right to vote. We are pained when individuals are unable to live authentically according to their gender identity or sexual orientation. We fear the rise in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We experience the assault on women’s reproductive rights. We see plainly the crushing weight of mass incarceration and a broken criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that “we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

As members of the Reform Movement, we have the power – when we pull together, focus our energy, and build strong partnerships across lines of faith, race, and class – to create a world in which all people experience wholeness, justice, and compassion.

To do this work in a strategic way and to hold ourselves accountable, we began, at Consultation, to re-covenant with each other. In Pirkei Avot 1:17, we are taught: “It is not what one says, but rather what one does, that makes all the difference in the world.”

It is not enough to say that we stand with the most vulnerable people in our society. Together, we must do something about it.

We are inviting Reform congregations to sign a Brit Olam – a covenant with our world. Our goal is to have 100 congregations signed up by the URJ Biennial 2017 in December. This covenant is a commitment not only to act, but to do so together, as a sacred community.

Congregations can get involved in several ways, including by joining the Urgency of Now initiative that we launched at Consultation. Currently, the initiative includes three issue-based campaigns, though we plan to expand that number in the coming months and years. Each campaign has been identified as an area of immediate concern in which our movement can make a significant impact by acting in partnership at the local, state, and federal levels. The three campaigns focus on:

  1. Protecting the rights of transgender students
  2. Defending the rights of immigrants at risk of deportation
  3. Reforming the criminal justice system to end mass incarceration.

None of these campaigns will be easy, but few things worth building are. To succeed, we will need to couple the Religious Action Center’s traditional work in Washington, D.C., with local- and state-level community organizing. By acting in our congregations, and by working with our school boards and in our city halls and state capitols, we can rise to meet the challenges of our times with clarity of purpose, truly transforming our world.

During the week of Consultation, we studied the Torah portion K’doshim – Leviticus 19:1 and 2. In it, we read, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy.” In this text, “You” is plural. We are called to be holy together.

And now, to harness the power of our movement and create a world, not as we see it, filled with fear and injustice, but as we know it can and should be – filled with inclusion, equality, and justice – we need to be holy together. Our vision is not to stand only with those who assembled at Consultation, but rather to join as a movement, 900 congregations and 1.5 million souls strong, to hear God’s call, “K’doshim tihiyu, You shall be holy,” and to stand in covenant as one holy community, determined to repair the world.

Signing the Brit Olam is a powerful next step for each of our congregations. It is not something to take lightly. We ask activists and leaders to discuss it, consider the actions they will take, and make a commitment. The staff of the Religious Action Center will partner with signers, helping them and their congregations to build skills as organizers and advocates, and connecting us all in the Reform Movement-wide pursuit of justice.

Now is the time to get local, forge new alliances, and stand up for the most vulnerable. Together, there is no limit to what we can achieve.

If your congregation is ready to sign the Brit Olam, or has a question for the RAC staff, please contact Tracy Wolf.

Interested in learning more about the Urgency of Now Initiative, the Brit Olam, and ways your congregation can get involved in the Reform Movement's social justice work? Register for our informational webinar on June 6 at 1:00 PM ET.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the administration as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

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