WASHINGTON (JTA) – President Obama nominated Reform movement leader Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department.
Saperstein, a veteran civil rights activist, is director and counsel of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, a position he has held since 1974.
The rabbi lobbies on Capitol Hill and speaks throughout the country on social issues. He delivered the invocation at the Democratic national convention in 2008 at which Obama was nominated for president, and was selected in 2009 by Newsweek magazine as the most influential rabbi in America.
“I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country,” said President Obama.
Saperstein is the fourth person and the first non-Christian to hold the post, first established in 1998. The ambassador travels the world making the case for minorities facing persecution or discrimination; in recent years, ambassadors have taken up the causes of Muslims in Burma and Christians in China and Sudan, among other cases.
The office produces the annual report on religious freedom. That report has in recent years made note of the special privileges enjoyed by the Orthodox in Israel, often at the expense of the Reform and Conservative streams.
Leaders of other Jewish streams were quick to congratulate Saperstein.
“Over the years David has worked with the Rabbinical Assembly to advance a number of key projects related to American Jewish life, Israeli politics, global religious freedom, and more,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice-president of the Conservative movement’s political wing, said in a statement.
Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, called Saperstein a “good friend and colleague” and said he would “be a great religious freedom advocate.”
Saperstein, 66, is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches First Amendment Church-State Law and Jewish Law. He serves on many boards, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
This is not his first position within the Obama Administration. He was a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. Rabbi Saperstein also was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001.
If approved, Saperstein is expected to begin his new duties in the fall.
He received a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.H.L. from Hebrew Union College, and a J.D. from American University.