The second full plenary session of the second full day was an Introduction to the vision and program of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, featuring Rabbi Brian Walt (the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America), Rabbi Gerry Serotta (chair), Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (a board member at the organization) and Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster (director of education and outreach.)
Rabbi Brian Walt offered a brief introduction to the vision of the organization. "The intention of this session is to explain where RHR is coming from, what we are doing, and where we are going." He reiterated what Rabbi Ellen Lipman said last night, that the organizers hope we will all find ourselves "at home" in the organization.
This conference stands out from the organization's first conference, in part because it is open both to rabbis and to non-rabbis and to people of other faiths as well. "That is an expansion of our vision for RHR, part of our next step of creating the program that Rabbi Troster will talk about, Kvod ha-Briot, the Jewish Human Rights Network, dedicated to the human rights of all." Rabbis for human rights work in partnership with clergy of other faiths, and people of many faiths.
"Someone asked me," he recalled, "what the word Adas means, 'Adas Israel.' They had the sense it means community, so: Community of Israel. But Adas is from the Hebrew word edah, the word in the Talmud used for the idea of minyan, the idea of having a community of ten people, that you need ten people for a community." The rabbis defined that for a community, you need ten people, an edah. He added to Rabbi Lipman's remarks about home the idea that RHR is a minyan, is a community -- a community of witness; the word edah also has ed in it. Remember that the shema is written with an enlarged ayin and daled, which spells ed; we are called to be witnesses to God's presence every day.
The notion that human beings are created in the image of God is central to us. "Human rights and dignity, known as kvod ha-briyot, is a core teaching of Judaism." We here are pushing the universal dimensions of our particular tradition.
You can't build a world based only on relationship to people you love. You have to witness to God's presence in the universe even based on your relationship with people who are difficult for you. Even, or especially, if you don't love someone, you're challenged to see the dignity of God in them.
One of the most important roles of rabbis, he said, is to provide moral leadership for our communities. Judaism calls for us to protect the human rights of all, and as Jews we have a particular obligation to be committed to the rights of those who live in Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike. And we cannot only be concerned with Israel; we must also be concerned with human rights abuses in America. "The abuses perpetrated by the American government are of such a gross nature all over the world...we need to address those issues here at home." As someone reared in South Africa, he has seen religion legitimate unethical situations, and has also seen religion transform those situations. "For me, those rabbis who spoke out, and the teachers of the prophets from the tradition, are those who lead me directly to standing before you today."
RHR is dedicated to helping the Jewish people be in the image of God.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster spoke about how social justice has always been important to her. "It is amazing to me that our country has tortured people to 'make us safer,' and that we have not spoken out about this. We have to speak out about this." Since 2005, the Jewish Campaign Against Torture has been speaking out in the Jewish community about this, and she believes it is holy work.
The Jewish Campaign Against Torture is part of Kvod HaBriot. "The work we do against torture is stronger because we do it as part of an interfaith voice;" we're working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. "The Jewish community has an obligation to be the loudest voice demanding human rights be upheld. This is what our tradition calls us to do. "We know all too well what happens when human dignity is ignored," she said.
Kvod ha-Briot, a new human rights network which includes both rabbis and laypeople, was launched after last year's conference. "It has at its core three basic Jewish values: tzelem Elokim, that every person is greated in the image of God; that we must do what is right and what is just; and we should not oppress the most vulnerable members of our society." It's possible to join as individual members, and as congregations. Kvod ha-Briot aims to create community among those doing human rights work.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone told us that before she knew about RHR-NA, she knew about RHR in Israel, sometimes called Shomrei Mishpat, Keepers of Justice. "Being who I am -- maybe you'll identify with this -- as a rabbi, and as a Jew, living in this country, has been a crazy experience!" She learned the prophets all through childhood, learned principles of caring for those who are marginalized and fighting for justice -- and going to Israel felt like a big disconnect.
For twenty years now, rabbis who are part of RHR in Israel have been getting up in the middle of the night, planting trees, acting as human shields against home demolitions. "Creating a presence in the Occupied Territories of Yiddishkeit that I believed in was a tremendous relief for me." RHR in Israel is doing the work of breaking down the stereotype of the ugly Jew, the ugly Israeli. Showing up with kippot on, with saplings in our hands, is a say of saying: we're here; this is what Judaism is really all about.
Rabbi Firestone also spoke about Masekhet Atzma'ut, "Tractate Independence," a text which RHR has created, "reinstating the idea that human rights aren't some import from the United States; it's something that's at the core of Yiddishkeit, of our foundational beliefs." (Learn more: Masekhet Ha-Atzma'ut.)
"You can be an ohev Zion, a lover of Israel, and also be going there and connecting with people who are upholding our central principles."
And Rabbi Gerry Seratta stood up to speak about the organization and how we can be more involved in it. "There's a role for every person in this room to be involved in the organization."
The trip to Israel was part of a program called "In Pursuit of Justice." He spoke about the Two Trees Program, also. ("Pursuing Justice: Two Trees Initiative is part of RHR-NA's In Pursuit of Justice yearlong campaign to celebrate Israel's 60th and RHR's 20th anniversaries, and to promote justice, freedom, and equality for all who live in Israel and under its jurisdiction - Jewish and Arab alike.") And he spoke about needing a framework for planting justice which remains to be constructed. We're good at sending money over there, but we need to build something stronger than that.
The board of the organization has talked about what might be the next issue we choose to take on. "Where can we make a difference in the coming years?" Some suggested human trafficking, sexual trafficking and labor trafficking, which we've dealt with to some extent in Israel though there are parallel violations happening around the world; others suggested that the treatment of immigrants, particularly in North America, and the approach to immigrants in the U.S. which frequently singles out Muslims.
"We are limited in what we can do because we have only two fulltime program people," he noted. The organization leans heavily on volunteer board members, but it needs us, too. Do you have expertise in nonprofit management? (If you do, they want you to serve on a committee!) Especially if you have expertise in development. Much of the money raised by the North American branch of the organization goes to Israel; the growth of the organization in North America depends on how much substantive work we can do in North America. The work against torture has been a good thing in that regard, but in general undesignated contributions go to Israel to support their work, which is much more day-to-day in terms of saving lives and property and kiddush haShem ("sanctification of the Name.")
(As a meta-note: it's interesting to me how the energy level in the room drops when we start talking about fundraising. The sessions thus far have been pretty passionate, but it's hard to sustain that level of excitement when we're reminded of the necessity to raise money to support this work -- just as we all have to work to raise money for our own congregations, for the other organizations we each support, and so on. It's a conundrum, one which may not have easy answers...)