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The RAC Reflects on Harlam’s Rabbi Jack Paskoff

This blog is from the Religious Action Center Blog. Rabbi Paskoff is a Camp Harlam Council Member, Faculty Member as well as the father of two Harlam campers and staff members.

124266_640[1]Social justice was never something that Rabbi Paskoff had to force into his understanding of Judaism; the sermons that he grew up hearing (from David Saperstein’s father’s pulpit) were infused with themes and lessons from the civil rights movement, activism for Israel, and Soviet Judaism.  In religious school, Saperstein’s mother incorporated these same themes of social action into her lesson plans.

As one of the first students in a program that would later become the Bernard and Audre Rappaport L’Taken Social Justice Seminars, a high school public policy program run by the RAC, Rabbi Paskoff remembers spending a Saturday night in high school being regaled by David Saperstein’s personal stories of social justice and activism.  While attending havdalah services at the Lincoln Memorial, he remembers the profound realization that such a small minority was endowed with such extensive rights in a country as grand and as powerful as the United States.

Rabbi Paskoff stayed in touch with the RAC throughout college, but became much more involved after he was ordained as a rabbi.  Since he had grown up understanding that Judaism and social justice could be synonymous, there was no question that his future congregations would be compassionate, active, and service-oriented communities.  Rabbi Paskoff encountered his first real challenge when he moved to Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA, a far cry from the politically liberal groups he had worked with in New York City. He was warned that his congregation had no history with or interest in interest in social justice.  Rabbi Paskoff refused to accept this and Shaarai Shomayim’s social action activities and mitzvah days quickly grew in popularity and effectiveness.

In the past 18 years at Shaarai Shomayim, Rabbi Paskoff has turned his congregation into a social action-oriented community, whose participation has continued to surpass his expectations. Shaarai Shomayim has come out in full force to staff their emergency overflow homeless shelter, to travel to New Orleans and Kentucky for relief work, and to raise over $18,000 simply from placing a Tzedakah box on the table during meetings.  Rabbi Paskoff has realized that if someone is simply asked to contribute or give back to their community or help someone in need, and they’re shown how this action is not only connected to but required by their religion, they will definitely participate.

Rabbi Paskoff continues to push his once-conservative congregation to embrace a social justice agenda.  He believes that political action, as much as social action, is part of the role of a congregation, and his has rallied around first amendment issues, reproductive rights, and Israel activism.  Although the program is in its infant stages, his congregation is beginning to provide meaningful summer work opportunities for kids in inner city Lancaster.

The RAC has had a significant influence on Rabbi Paskoff’s life, and he is most proud of the RAC’s work when he sees David Saperstein or Mark Pelavin in the news, making the “reform social justice agenda so central to the social justice discourse in the country.”  He remains proud of the RAC for its ability to take opinions that aren’t popular and to tell congregations why these stances are our Jewish obligations.

Rabbi Paskoff has also found that the programming provided for teenagers by the RAC can serve as an educational tool for a whole congregation.  While acting as a chaperone on a L’Taken weekend, he and his students were especially moved by the exhibit in the Holocaust Museum that displayed the shoes of people who had died during the Holocaust.  The students were so influenced by this exhibit that for Yom Hashoah they ran a shoe drive, asking for donations of shoes at their synagogue.  Not only did they far surpass their goal of 500 shoes, but these students were able to transfer the knowledge and passion that they had gained at L’Taken to the rest of their congregants.

Upon reflecting on the more than 50 years of RAC history and the recent presidential election cycle, Rabbi Paskoff worries about what will happen to the strong Jewish voice of social justice if the country (and particularly the Jewish vote) becomes more politically divided.  He yearns for a time in which civil discourse was productive and it was arrived at through the depths of our religion, however he has high hopes that the RAC will continue to successfully advocate social justice policies on behalf of Reform Jews.

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