Judaism Unbound Episode 91: Is This The Fast That I Have Chosen? - Jonah Pesner


Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about social justice, Judaism, and the many ways that the two intertwine. They discuss the RAC's origins during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, its evolution, and the work it does today to bring about a world built on justice and equality. [1]

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Image Credit: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Image Credit: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

(0:01 - 19:29): To begin the episode, Rabbi Jonah Pesner tells the story of the origin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, [2] along with its important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He also discusses how the organization grew and evolved over the following decades, during the tenure of Rabbi David Saperstein as the RAC's director, [3] emphasizing initiatives such as the Eisendrath Legislative Assistants program, the Machon Kaplan summer internships, and the L'Taken Seminars for high school students. [4] Pesner then looks back on his own childhood and how it formed his commitment to political activism, Judaism, and the ways they overlap.

(19:30 - 41:47): Pesner explores elements of the RAC's work that take place through the Reform Movement's network of synagogues, as well as elements that are organized outside of the realm of synagogue life. He and the co-hosts also consider the dangers that arise when social justice is understood as a means towards Jewish engagement, and not, instead, as a form of Jewish practice in and of itself. Next, he looks specifically at the issues that the RAC is currently working on, ranging from mass incarceration, to transgender rights, to economic inequality, to Islamophobia. [5]

(41:48 - 56:58): The conversation turns to particular texts from Jewish tradition that can serve as ancient anchors for contemporary justice work. Pesner cites the idea that "We were slaves in Egypt," which helps Jews understand why it is important to stand with refugees, along with chapter 58 of Isaiah, where the title quote of this episode can be found. [6] To close, the co-hosts and Pesner complicate matters a bit by examining situations, past and present, in which Jews have not always been on the side of justice and equality. [7]

Image Credit: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Image Credit: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

[1] Check out Jonah Pesner's full bio by clicking here. Read a recent piece he wrote, on responding to the white supremacist march and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, by clicking here.

[2] Learn more about the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism at their website, www.rac.org.

[3] The bio of David Saperstein, Pesner's predecessor at the RAC, can be found here.

[4] Learn more about all three of these programs, along with a number of others offered by the RAC, by clicking here.

[5] Learn more about the Reflect, Relate, Reform initiative through this 2016 URJ.org blog post by Joy Friedman.

James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three activists killed during Mississippi Freedom Summer Image Credit: Jewish Week

James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three activists killed during Mississippi Freedom Summer Image Credit: Jewish Week

[6] Hear Dan and Lex's take on Isaiah 58, the Haftarah Reading for Yom Kippur's morning service, by listening to Bonus Episode: Yom Kippur Unbound - Morning Haftarah Reading.

[7] One historical event that reflects division among American Jews was 1964's Mississippi Freedom Summer. A disproportionately high number of Jews participated in that fight for civil rights, but many rabbis and Jewish communities in the South stood firmly against their movement. Learn more about that important moment, along with Jewish responses to it, by reading the books featured at this link.