Rabbi Don Weber
As a child growing up on Long Island, Rabbi Don Weber’s parents were committed to Judaism, but they struggled with faith. His father, like so many other Jews, had his faith “driven out of him” by what he had witnessed as a soldier during World War II.
For a long time, Rabbi Weber had not thought that, as he put it, “intelligent people had a relationship with God.” At his synagogue, however, he encountered a different kind of Judaism offered by his rabbi, who was an example of courage and faith in action – he was involved in protesting the Vietnam war; even when he job was on the line, he stood up for his convictions. It was his childhood rabbi’s example of genuine faith in God, paired with his intelligence and commitment to social justice, that led a young Don Weber to say to himself, “I want to be like him when I grow up.”
Young Don’s social justice, however, was also inspired by his home life and his own experiences growing up. As a child, he worked at his father’s office and was responsible for writing the checks to pay the bills. He was instructed to, first, write the checks for tzedakah, for the charities, and then worry about paying the creditors later – “We’ll find the money somehow.”
Many years later, after his ordination as a rabbi, a family decision turned Rabbi Weber into an activist. He and his wife were overjoyed that they were pregnant, until their four-month checkup when their obstetrician told them that a high-resolution sonogram showed that their baby’s internal organs were growing on the outside of her body, and there appeared to be no brain growth at all.
He and his wife made the difficult decision to have a late-term abortion, because it gave them the greatest chance of being able to have children afterward. “We were fortunate to be in an excellent hospital, with wonderful staff who didn’t judge us but helped us through the 37-hour labor and delivery,” remembers Rabbi Weber.
In the middle of the procedure, they turned on the television to take her mind off of the pain. Ronald Reagan was delivering a speech to the National Association of Christian Broadcasters, promising an end to the “callous” abortion of “unborn children.” Both Rabbi Weber and his wife felt devastated and angry – of the many bad options from which they could choose, this was the least bad. So, still in the clinic, they composed a letter to the President, objecting to his remarks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never heard back – but they did hear back from the Democratic National Committee, and through them, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (now NARAL Pro-Choice America). Coordinating with NARAL, they put together a campaign that would humanize the women who ultimately choose to terminate a pregnancy.
Working with his congregation, the rabbi has also coordinated a number of social action campaigns to directly impact the community. His personal commitment to feeding the hungry has fueled his and his congregation’s participation in MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger from the program’s inception. His congregation has collected over 9000 pounds of food in one year for the organization.
Like many advocates for social justice, Rabbi Weber has occasionally met some resistance to the idea of a Jewish leader openly advocating for vital issues of pubic policy, whether in the synagogue or not. But he says that if he only ever said what his congregants wanted to hear, “I would be an entertainer, not a rabbi.”
“I’ve never said, ‘a Jew must.’” He explains: “you get further by leading someone to feel that they must believe something, rather than informing than that they ought to.”