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.
“I don’t know where Rick Jacobs wants to go” he said of the URJ leader, who came to office just two years ago. “But there is no suggestion I’ve seen that they want to change course in any significant direction.”
Saperstein himself declined to be interviewed pending his Senate confirmation hearings.
Saperstein’s lifelong commitment to social justice and to civil rights has included stints on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, People for the American Way, National Religious Partnership on the Environment and the World Bank’s World Faith Development Dialogue.
He was also instrumental in the passage of the landmark 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to show a compelling reason for any action that impinges on the exercise of religion. Saperstein has additionally taken a leading role in forging Jewish-Muslim dialogue with the Islamic Society of North America.
Yet despite his liberalism, worn boldly on his sleeve, Saperstein is almost universally well liked — no mean feat in the partisan atmosphere of today’s Washington.
Elliott Abrams, the well-known neoconservative activist and former senior official in Republican administrations dating back to President Reagan, termed Saperstein “a terrific choice.”
“I’ve known David since we served together on the Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001,” he said in an email to the Forward. “The challenge he will face is getting the secretary of state and the president to show more concern about an issue they have largely avoided for five years.”
Pelavin, who worked as associate director of the RAC for 15 years under Saperstein, credits his former boss with a unique intellectual depth and relentless energy.
“The RAC works on 60 different issues at once, and I would watch David pick up the phone and talk to anyone about any one of those issues with insight that was astounding, considering his schedule,” Pelavin said.
Many of Saperstein’s friends and colleagues pointed to the influence of his father, Rabbi Harold Saperstein, a major leader in Reform Judaism, as a major influence on him. Writer and liberal activist Leonard Fein, a longtime friend, said the two were very close.
“I know few fathers and sons that if they found themselves at a convention together would share a room,” Fein said. “David and his father would do that.”
“His leadership is global,” Jacobs said, “and now he will have a platform to really make an impact in ways that we need him to.”