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Clinton joins tribute honoring 25 years of political activism

WASHINGTON, April 27 (JTA) — The guest list said it all: Members of Congress, religious leaders from nearly every denomination, leaders of the black community, lobbyists, journalists, folk singers — and the president of the United States. It was, by all accounts, a crowd only Rabbi David Saperstein could have drawn. More than 700 people, comprising a virtual who”s-who of progressive public policy advocates, turned out Monday night to honor the undisputed dean of religious activists in Washington, who is marking 25 years as the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Those who have known Saperstein over the years — through the battles for civil rights and religious liberties and the standoffs against the Christian right — find it hard to believe that the “boy rabbi,” as he has long been known, is now 51. During a gala dinner intended as much to energize the hundreds of Reform Jewish activists in town for the movement”s biennial public policy conference as it was to honor Saperstein, a stream of friends and colleagues praised Saperstein”s indefatigable commitment to Jewish social and political action. The night turned into something of a ”60s revival when one of Saperstein”s old friends, folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, led the gathering in nostalgia-tinged renditions of “Blowin” in the Wind” and “We Shall Overcome.” “For David, the pursuit of justice is not a political platform but a religious compulsion,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform group”s parent body, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “In this most political of towns, he is not captive to political seasons or election cycles. His campaign is eternal, rooted in the texts and teachings of the Torah.” Saperstein says his commitment to social justice stems not only from the Jewish values his parents instilled in him, but by the example they have lived. His father, a longtime congregational rabbi in Long Island, N.Y., and his mother put their ideals to work in pursuit of an array of social justice causes. Both were deeply involved in the civil rights movement — a torch Saperstein continues to carry as a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. His indoctrination into political activism came in the late 1960s as a student at Cornell University, where he protested the war in Vietnam and worked to create a low-income housing project in the surrounding city of Ithaca, N.Y. There were only two things he ever wanted to do — become a lawyer and rabbi. These were “professions I believed were dedicated to helping people in need as well as changing society as a whole. I knew I wanted to do both,” he said in a recent interview. And he did, receiving his law degree from American University after he had already begun his work at the Reform center. He graduated a year early from Hebrew Union College in New York, taking the pulpit of Rodeph Shalom Congregation in New York City after becoming ordained as a rabbi. It wasn”t long before he made his mark as an activist. He organized all of New York”s rabbis to go on a hunger strike in 1972 to protest the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, drawing national attention. The following year Saperstein became director of the RAC, which has served as a leading outpost for progressive political advocacy over the years, whether battling for nuclear disarmament and against apartheid in the 1980s, or for greater protections for religious liberty and against school prayer amendments in the 1990s. As he looks back on a quarter-century of advocacy, Saperstein points to his work for legislation that advances the cause of religious freedom and broadens civil rights as among his most important achievements. His most satisfying moments have come with the realization that he has “touched the lives of millions of people and helped make their lives a little bit better.” “That”s a feeling I could never get tired of,” he said. The institution he built at the RAC, the second largest Jewish political advocacy group in Washington — next to the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — also remains a source of immense pride, as does the cadre of young Jewish activists he has helped train. Saperstein proudly points out that many of the 200-some college graduates who have worked with him over the years have gone on to become rabbis, Jewish community leaders, congressional staffers, lobbyists, Supreme court law clerks and law professors. The reputation he has established among elected officials and political activists as one of the most respected religious leaders in the country also stands as no small achievement. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who has worked with Saperstein on religious liberty legislation and in fighting last year”s controversial school prayer amendment, said that of all the Jewish activists engaged in issue advocacy on Capitol Hill, Saperstein remains “the most experienced and probably one of the most capable generals.” “He”s really served not only his constituency, he”s served the country by trying to keep our procedures open and honest and defending the separation of church and state and religious freedom,” Nadler said in an interview. The Rev. James Dunn, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, said there is a great deal of respect among religious leaders for Saperstein”s convictions because “there is an absolute convergence between his philosophical and religious commitment and his political agenda.” Saperstein has had close ties with the Clintons, going back 12 years, to their shared involvement in children”s rights issues. He later stayed with them at the governor”s mansion in Little Rock, Ark., during the 30th anniversary of government-enforced integration of the city”s Central High School. They stayed up half the night discussing the meaning of Israel and their hopes of racial justice and religious freedom — conversations they have continued to this day. At last year”s national prayer breakfast at the White House, during which Clinton offered his most extensive confessional regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Saperstein was seated next to Hillary Clinton — at her request. And following the breakfast, President Clinton took him aside to discuss the urgency of rescuing the Middle East peace process. “Like all you, I love this man,” Clinton said at the tribute Monday night. “The most important thing about him is that whatever he says, he does his dead-level best to do.” “There are very few people,” he added, “who are as absolutely certain day in and day out to say something and then follow it up by acting in a way that is completely consistent with what they say. He is such a person, and that”s why he”s such a great treasure.” Saperstein finds time to teach seminars in church-state law and in Jewish law at Georgetown University Law School. He has also written several books. Although some remain convinced he would make an excellent politician, Saperstein said he has no higher aspiration other than to continue the work he is doing. He said he gave serious consideration to running for Congress in 1992, but ultimately decided against it when he recognized it would not allow him to be the kind of father he wanted to be to his two sons, Daniel, 9, and Ari, 6. Indeed, his family remains his greatest passion. “The passion and the devotion that David has brought to his work is just a tiny percent of what he brings to us,” his wife, Ellen Weiss, the executive producer of National Public Radio”s “All Things Considered,” said at the tribute. With every year becoming “more exciting and more fulfilling,” Saperstein said he plans to stay at the RAC indefinitely. “I really feel blessed about this,” he said. “Both my wife and I have jobs that we”d rather be doing than anything else that we can imagine. And blessed with two wonderful children, it makes for a wonderful existence.””