Rabbi Jonah Pesner to Lead Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Jonah Pesner will serve as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the Washington, D.C. advocacy and social justice arm of North America’s largest Jewish Movement. Rabbi Pesner, an accomplished advocate with broad experience leading social justice campaigns, comes to the RAC with a mandate to deepen its advocacy work while mobilizing the Reform Jewish community and its allies.

In announcing the appointment, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, said,

“For more than half a century, the RAC has been a leading voice in Washington, D.C. for social justice. Some of the great advances in civil rights were literally written at our table. Jonah will carry that legacy forward with great distinction starting today. The issues our world faces are far too critical for us to lose any momentum during this transition. From day one, Jonah will be a powerful voice as he leads our work on economic inequality, climate change, U.S./Israel relations, healthcare reform, and more.”

Rabbi Pesner, who founded the URJ’s Just Congregations initiative that has mobilized thousands of social justice advocates, said of his new role,

“Leading one of the most respected religious advocacy organizations in Washington, D.C. into its next chapter is a remarkable blessing, but more importantly, it is an opportunity to positively impact the lives of others by pursuing public policies that reflect our democratic and moral values. The pursuit of social justice has always been at the core of the RAC’s work and I am proud to continue that legacy going forward.”

Rabbi Pesner, who assumes the role as the 114th Congress opens, plans to focus on economic inequality, racial justice and climate change.He added,

“As I look at the tragedies in Ferguson and Staten Island, I fear that they are emblematic of what is happening in too many communities nationwide. Fortunately, I know that the RAC staff is already engaged in this work, alongside our congregations in communities nationwide. Among our top priorities to address the racial disparity all too present in our society will be pushing for action in the new Congress to protect voting rights and to end racial profiling.”

Rabbi Pesner will succeed Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as director of the RAC for 40 years, building it into one of the most influential religious advocacy institutions in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Saperstein stepped down following his confirmation as the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom. The RAC operates under the joint auspices of The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Rabbi Pesner will assume the role of Director of the Religious Action Center beginning immediately. He will also continue to serve as Senior Vice President of the URJ, and will play a key role in infusing the work of social justice throughout the Reform Movement.

Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive Officer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, expressed enthusiastic support for the appointment, noting,

“At this moment in history, when we face renewed challenges in our ongoing work to bring about a just and fair society, Jonah is the right leader for the RAC. We will miss Rabbi Saperstein dearly, but we know that Jonah is a fitting heir to David’s significant legacy. Today, there is no institution more central to our Reform Movement’s pursuit of social justice than the Religious Action Center, and Jonah’s demonstrated ability to unite diverse voices from within our Movement and with others in pursuit of our common purpose will serve him and us well.”

Rabbi Saperstein added,

“Jonah has been a partner in the RAC’s work for many years, and he has become a respected voice among government leaders as well as faith leaders both inside of and beyond the Jewish community. As I move on to my new role, I am heartened to know that Jonah will be here to continue moving our work forward.”

Jennifer Brodkey Kaufman, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism said,

“I have had the pleasure of working with Jonah for many years and know that an unyielding commitment to the work of tikkun olam is central to his rabbinate and his character. His leadership of the RAC will allow him to devote himself full time to this task, and we will all be the better for it.”

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, 46, currently serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism, a position to which he was elected to in 2011. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice. In his current position, he has been a principal architect in transforming the URJ and guiding the Reform Movement to become even more impactful as the largest Jewish denomination in the world. Among other initiatives, he is a founder and visionary leader of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a bold strategy to mobilize tens of thousands of young people in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Pesner’s signature accomplishment has been to encourage Jewish communities in interfaith efforts to reach across lines of race, class and faith in campaigns for social justice. In 2006, he founded Just Congregations, which impacts more than 180 communities in 30 states and engages countless clergy, professional and volunteer leaders in interfaith efforts for the common good. He has led and supported campaigns for economic justice, marriage equality, human rights, and a variety of other causes. He was a primary leader in the successful Massachusetts campaign for health care access that has provided health care coverage to hundreds of thousands and which became a model for national reform.

Rabbi Pesner has trained and mentored students on all four campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and gives speeches in interfaith and secular venues all over the world. He has served as a scholar for the Wexner Foundation, American Jewish World Service, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, among others.

Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1997, Rabbi Pesner was a congregational rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston and at Temple Israel in Westport, Conn. A graduate of Wesleyan University and the Bronx High School of Science, Rabbi Pesner is married to Dana S. Gershon, an attorney in Boston. They have four daughters, Juliet, Noa, Bobbie and Cate.

About the Religious Action Center

For over 50 years, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (“the RAC”) has been the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C. As the DC office of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the RAC educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. The RAC’s advocacy work is completely non-partisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice that form the core of our mandate.

About the Union for Reform Judaism

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is a dynamic network of Reform Jewish congregations, lay leaders, clergy and professionals, which represent the largest and fastest growing constituency of Jews in North America. Our progressive, inclusive approach unites thousands of years of Jewish tradition and values with modern Jewish experience to strengthen Judaism today and for future generations. Through programs, consultations, resources, and networking opportunities provided by the URJ, we seek to help strengthen our nearly 900 member congregations, welcome spiritual seekers through audacious hospitality, engage Jewish youth, deepen Jewish learning, energize worship, pursue tikkun olam (social justice), connect with Israel, and develop inspired leadership.

NOTE: To arrange an interview with Rabbi Pesner, please contact Sean Thibault atsthibault@rac.org, (202) 387-2800 at the Religious Action Center. Rabbi Jacobs, Rabbi Fox and Jennifer Kaufman are available for comment, and hi-res photographs are also available.

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From the URJ

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