As a kid, “Dayenu” was perhaps my favorite Jewish holiday song. It’s catchy, it’s upbeat, and, if you sing the full 15 verses, it goes on forever. With “Dayenu,” we express our thanks for the myriad miracles that took place at the time of the Exodus. We sing that each was so powerful that one alone would have been enough. Read more…
By Lara Pukatch and Rebecca Koppel
As Passover approaches, Jews remember that we were once slaves, forced into backbreaking labor and oppressed by the Egyptian pharaohs. Our escape from bondage came after forty years of wandering without a place to call home. At this time of year and throughout the Passover Seder, we often think of those who are less fortunate, who are oppressed and, of course, those who are still finding their way home.
The right to vote is fundamental to American democracy and has been a key part of the Religious Action Center’s work since our founding in 1961. As you may know, the RAC and Reform Jews have a proud legacy of support for the Civil Rights Movement and portions of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were even drafted right in our conference room! It is for this reason that we were so disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder in June 2013, which invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act and eliminated crucial protections for voters. In the wake of Shelby, we have pushed for a Congressional fix through the Voting Rights Amendment Act, but we know that there are many aspects of our voting system that needs reform.
Last week, two new bills, the Democracy Restoration Act and the Voter Empowerment Act, were introduced to protect and restore voting rights for Americans across the country. The Democracy Restoration Act seeks to restore federal voting rights to men and women who have served their time in prison. Currently, 5.85 million American citizens are denied the right to vote because of criminal convictions, 4.4 million of whom have been released from prison and have returned to work in our communities, pay taxes and raise their families. Criminal disenfranchisement laws also disproportionately affect minorities and communities of color because of the racial inequities that persist in our criminal justice system. As a result, 1 in 13 African Americans nationwide is unable to fully participate in civic life.
The Voter Empowerment Act aims to increase accountability, accessibility and integrity in federal elections. While our election system has made great progress over time, we know that it is still fraught with inequalities that make voting less accessible for people of color, people with disabilities and low income communities. Since 2010, twenty-two states have enacted new barriers to the ballot box and at least forty restrictive voting bills have already been introduced in seventeen states this year or have been carried over from last year. The Voter Empowerment Act works to ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans by modernizing the voter registration process, allowing online voter registration, expanding early voting, promoting access to the polls for people with disabilities and more.
Our tradition teaches us that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (B’rachot 55a) and to “not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). These texts emphasize the idea that everyone must have a voice in determining how their community is run, and remind us that voting is a collective responsibility. It is the duty of all who cherish democracy to ensure that every eligible citizen is afforded the opportunity to vote and have their vote counted. Be sure to check out our Black-Jewish Haggadah, The Common Road to Freedom, to incorporate civil rights into your Passover seder.
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.
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…
One of my favorite things about Reform Judaism is how much the Reform Movement accepts multicultural families and celebrates diversity. The Reform Movement has always stood for inclusion and acceptance of all types and ways of being Jewish, and our wholehearted embrace of interfaith families is a demonstration of our commitment to pluralism even within Reform Judaism. Read more…
We often talk about climate change and environmental initiatives to combat the human-made disruption of our earth’s systems and exhaustion of its resources. However, while climate change is a threat that affects us all as sea levels rise and we experience more frequent extreme weather events, people of color and low-income people across the United States and the world will be disproportionately burdened by the most damaging impacts of a changing and less habitable climate. Less economically stable communities are unable to bounce back from the devastation to infrastructure caused by extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Similarly, communities of color are significantly more likely to live near toxic waste facilities and to unequally come into contact with polluted air and water. Read more…
When we sit down for the retelling of the Exodus story at our Passover Seder each year, we are both retelling and reliving that experience. As Jews, we are taught that “in every generation, all of us are obliged to regard ourselves as if we had personally gone forth from the Land of Egypt.” Victoria Levi, who we met in Selma while commemorating Bloody Sunday and hearing from inspiring Jewish activists like Peter Yarrow, inspired me with her story. Read more…