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Passover in Hebrew, matzah, kiddush cup

Passover Reminds Us: We Too Were Strangers

As we approach the holiday of Passover, I’m starting to think of the commandment in the Haggadah: “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” The commandment has always stuck with me as a call for empathy with our Jewish ancestors, yet after working on immigration reform for the past year, I see the commandment as a way of forming a connection to our immigrant history. For what is “coming forth from Egypt” but immigrating to another land? Read more…

Take a Hike! Green Nisan Challenge

Spring is almost here! The snow is finally melting (if you live on the Northeast corridor), flowers are budding and you have two weeks to eat all the chametz in your kitchen before Passover. Welcome to the Jewish month of Nisan, and to the beginning of spring. Read more…

Human Trafficking

This Passover, Seeking Justice for Victims of Modern-Day Slavery

As we prepare to celebrate Passover in only a few weeks, we know that celebrating Passover connects us as Jews – to our families, to our communities and the broader Jewish people. Passover also unites us with humanity. Many people across our country and our world have experienced oppression and persecution. Although we were once slaves, avadim hayinu, we now are free—but too many in the world are not. Modern-day slavery is one of the most profoundly troubling plagues of our time. The innumerable people who are trafficked for sex work or domestic work all have one thing in common: their freedom has been taken from them.

This month, many in the anti-trafficking community rallied around the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (S. 178), a bill to enhance protections and increase the infrastructure around restitution for victims of human trafficking. One key feature of the bill is the establishment of a Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund to provide financial support to individuals as they rebuild their lives after having been trafficked. The bill had strong, bipartisan support, a rare instance in which members of Congress united across the ideological spectrum. The bill passed swiftly through procedural steps and seemed poised for easy passage. As a vote neared, however, it came to light that language had been added to restrict trafficking victims from accessing abortion services if they were going to use help from the victim assistance fund.

The anti-choice provision mirrored language in the Hyde Amendment, a prohibition on taxpayer funding for abortion that affects all federally-administered health-care plans like Medicaid, and would create a harmful barrier between survivors of domestic trafficking and the comprehensive health care they need. The provision in the trafficking bill sought to expand Hyde’s attack on reproductive rights by restricting money from the Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund—which is financed by penalties from convicted federal offenders and not by tax dollars—from being used to help trafficking victims cover the cost of abortion, with exceptions only in cases of rape, incest or if the woman’s health is in danger.

Many in the reproductive rights and human trafficking advocacy communities expressed their dismay that anti-choice Senators inserted this restrictive language into the bill. A number of Senators withdrew their support from the bill, leaving it without enough votes to advance in last week’s procedural vote.

In this Passover season of freedom and of redemption, when we are reminded of the plight of our ancestors and their Exodus from bondage. Our hearts cry out for those who are victims of modern-day slavery, and we must do all we can to ensure their liberation and recovery, including in health care choices. Jewish tradition teaches that all life is sacred. Although an unborn fetus is precious and to be protected, Judaism looks on the life and well-being of the woman as central. Indeed, women are required to care for their own health above all else, placing a higher value on existing life than on potential life. Grounded in these affirmations of a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health care decisions, we strongly oppose restrictions on abortion access.

As we transition to Passover in the coming days, let us keep in mind all those who do not today know freedom—reproductive freedom, freedom from trafficking and the freedom to make decisions about their lives and their future. The RAC has created a Modern-Day Slavery Haggadah and a reproductive justice reading insert to bring these critical issues to your table for Passover. Be sure to take a look and use all or a part of these resources as they fit into your seder. Let this Passover inspire us all to be more attuned to the fight for freedom from oppression that is still being waged.

ACA Anniversary Reminds Us of Successes and Work Left to Be Done for the LGBT Community

Today marks the five-year anniversary of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), and a lot has changed in the past five years. Thanks to the ACA, the 129 million non-elderly Americans with pre-existing health conditions can no longer be denied coverage or charged more because of their pre-existing condition. Also, millions of low-income individuals are now eligible for Medicaid thanks to ACA expansion of the program. And, a March 16, 2016 Department of Health and Human Services report states that 16.4 million uninsured people have gained health insurance coverage since 2010 under the Affordable Care Act. These improvements, among many others, on the five year anniversary of the ACA are a cause to celebrate and rededicate our commitment to affordable and accessible care for all.

Read more…

Redemption for All God’s Children This Passover

The United States has a mass incarceration problem. While only having 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, making us the world’s largest jailer. Between 1980 and 2012, the U.S. federal prison population rose from about 25,000 inmates to 219,000 inmates, an increase of more than 790 percent. In fact, at the end of 2013, an estimated 6,899,000 persons were under the supervision of adult correctional systems, which includes those incarcerated in prison or local jail in addition to those supervised in the community on parole or probation.

The policies that caused mass incarceration came out of a direct response to the social tumult of the 1960s and increasing crime rate of the 1970s and 1980s. The thought was that incarceration will take offenders off the streets and deter potential offenders from committing future crimes. Many today will argue that this plan worked: over the last two decades, crime has steadily declined and today the crime rate is about half of what it was in 1991 at its height. Additionally, violent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991. However, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice called ”What Caused the Crime Decline,” tells us that there is no one cause for this dramatic change, but rather many factors that are responsible:

“It concludes that over-harsh criminal justice policies, particularly increased incarceration, which rose even more dramatically over the same period, were not the main drivers of the crime decline. In fact, the report finds that increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. Its effect on crime rates since 1990 has been limited, and has been non-existent since 2000.”

Acknowledging the severity of this problem, the RAC has long worked to reform our criminal justice system. As we approach Passover, when we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must remember our own redemption and think about redemption for those who are not free today. There is a Midrash that tells us that when the Egyptians drowned after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the angels celebrated. However, God admonished them, asking “are they not my children too?!” Even though the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites, God still recognized their humanity and that the loss of their lives was tragic. Therefore, even for those in our nation who have committed crimes, we know that they were still created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we must remember their humanity and rededicate ourselves to repairing our broken criminal justice system.

Next month at our Consultation on Conscience conference in Washington, D.C., participants hear from Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works on behalf of indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system by providing legal representation and assisting advocates and policymakers who are working to reform our criminal justice. I hope that you will join us in April as we continue this important conversation about our nation’s justice system!

Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures.

Jews in New York in 1908 with packages of matzah

This is the Bread of Affliction: Hunger at the Seder

On Passover, Jews around the world eat matzah instead of leavened bread to remember how the Jewish people did not have time to wait for their bread to rise before they were escaping slavery in Egypt. While matzah can be delicious in certain forms – there is nothing like Grandma Fineman’s matzah meal pancakes, her chocolate covered matzah, or her matzah brei recipes – after eating the umpteenth peanut butter and jelly sandwich on matzah, the unleavened staple can start to seem old or tiresome. When seeing boxes upon boxes in grocery stores, I am among the first to groan. Yet even though we may not enjoy eating matzah, we have to remember that we are lucky to have food on our tables and in our bellies, unlike far too many people in our country. Read more…

Bronson Koenig talks to reporters

Remembering Koufax, Raising Up Minority Identities Through Sports

When I was young, one of my largest role models was Sandy Koufax, one of the best all-time pitchers in Major League Baseball. I identified with Koufax: like him, I was Jewish, I played baseball, and I was left-handed. Though I never played baseball quite as well as he did, I felt like I could understand some of the struggles he went through—when I was angry about having to skip school for the High Holy Days, I reminded myself of the time when Koufax famously refused to pitch in the World Series because it was Yom Kippur (and his Los Angeles Dodgers still won the World Series anyway). Read more…

Bobby Harris and Sophie in Selma

Reflections from a Father-Daughter Trip to Selma

By Bobby and Sophie Harris

My daughter Sophie and I drove from our home in Marietta, GA to participate in the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. We attended a pre-march program at Temple Mishkan Israel—Selma’s only synagogue. Though the synagogue has less than 10 remaining members, the sanctuary was full that morning. Sophie was one of just a handful of youth who attended the service. Below are our reflections from the day: Read more…