The Religious Action Center, Reform Judaism’s lobbying arm in Washington — and an enduring mainstay of liberalism in the capital — is about to undergo a seminal change.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s voluble longtime director and chief legal counsel, is packing his bags. Nominated by President Obama on July 28 to be America’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Saperstein is wrapping up almost four decades as the center’s leader, during which he became the virtual embodiment of Jewish liberalism for many members of Congress, senior government officials and others in Washington.
Under his tenure, the RAC went from a historic but small address for civil rights activism into an expansive anchor for Jewish liberalism. Indeed, in 2009, in a nod to the clout he had built up for himself at the RAC, Newsweek named Saperstein the most influential rabbi in the country.
“It’s sort of the case that there is not another David Saperstein walking the earth,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s congregational arm.
If Saperstein’s appointment is confirmed by the Senate as expected, the 66-year-old rabbi will become the first non-Christian to head the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, which is tasked with monitoring religious freedom abuses around the world. The office also produces an annual country-by-country report for Congress on the state of religious freedom around the world.
Who Saperstein’s replacement at the RAC will be is still unknown, but one thing remains certain: It will be difficult to find an executive director of equal stature. For now, Jacobs will act as the RAC’s interim executive director, adding this role to his portfolio.
“It’s a big hole to fill at the RAC, no doubt,” said Mark Pelavin, a senior adviser to Jacobs at URJ. “Luckily it’s not a hole we have to fill tomorrow.”
Saperstein’s accomplishments over the past four decades read like a social activist’s Hanukkah wish list.
He first took the reins at the RAC in 1974, as the Vietnam War was heading to a bloody end. The center was well known at the time for having been the central meeting place where civil rights leaders drafted the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished segregation and discrimination based on race, sex or religion.
Saperstein’s predecessor, Rabbi Richard Hirsch, ran the operation then with a staff of four or five people, according to Pelavin. Today the RAC has a staff of 25. The center also runs a competitive internship program that brings in five new college graduates each year, to be trained in the ways of Washington.
Both the country and American Jewry are significantly less liberal today than they were when Saperstein first took over the RAC. But Marshall Breger, a moderate conservative who served in several Republican administrations, does not expect the center to trim its sails.