Finding a Reform Jewish Voice in New York State


Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the best "greatest hits collection" of the Torah – The Book of Deuteronomy! (applause, applause) Am I right?

You betcha! We revisit many of the key moments that took place in the early development of the Israelite people. We hear a reiteration (though not entirely word-for-word) of the Ten Commandments. And we find many of the most important teachings of the entire scroll. About half way through the final book of the Torah, we find three words – a mere three words – which speak volumes to me. I often find myself returning to them as inspiration and guidance: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof/ Justice, Justice shall you pursue!" (Deuteronomy 16:20)

As Jews, we are people of action – we are not just people of belief, thought, or speech (though these facets of Jewish life are important).

Often, what sets us apart is our collective call to act, to do, to build, and to work. Performing mitzvot – commandments – requires some type of doing. It is not enough to sit back and ponder injustices that might be found in the world around us; rather, we are mandated to do something about it. We are required to be God’s partner in the repair of the brokenness in our world. In this way alone can we all be a part of bringing about a messianic era in the future.

We are very lucky, in many ways, to be able to live freely as Jews in this wonderful country. We are able to live comfortably and openly in a way that has, perhaps, never before been quite as possible. As fortunate as we Jews are, there are still many who are not able to live equally in peace or openness. It is our responsibility to ensure that freedom and justice are possible for all not just in the country at large, but also to ensure that this takes place on a state level.

To that end, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, together with the URJ Commission on Social Action, created a project a number of years ago called "Reform Jewish Voice of New York State (RJVNYS)," ( meant to advocate for the many issues relevant to residents of our fine state, and to offer meaningful local programming. Through the RJVNYS, 100 congregations are represented, totaling over 100,000 Reform Jews. Nationally, there is no other group like it. I have followed the group’s work over the years, and I have been quite impressed by the issues that they take on.

This year, I’m quite honored to have been chosen to be a part of the Steering Committee of the RJVNYS. The Steering Committee is comprised of 18 lay leaders and rabbis from all over the state, led by our co-chairs, Honey Heller and Donald C. Cutler. My first event with the Steering Committee was the annual Advocacy Day, in Albany, in mid-May, which was attended by 50 motivated Reform Jews. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had never personally approached legislators about issues that I cared about (like all of those who were lucky enough to attend a L’Taken Social Justice Seminar for High School Students in Washington, D.C. ( I have actively written letters and attended protests and marches, but I had never been to the State Capital.

RJVNYS highlighted three primary issues during this year’s Advocacy Day:

* Marriage Equality: We are all created in the image of God, and Reform Jewish leaders warmly welcome gay and lesbian singles, couples, and families into our congregations. We support full civil marriage rights for all same-sex couples.

* The Reproductive Health Act: Reform Judaism has strongly supported women’s right to choose throughout its history. Donald C. Cutler, co-chair of RJV, said, "While our tradition places great importance on the sanctity of life, the Reform Jewish movement places equal importance on respect for, and sanctity of the human body. Because of this dual perspective, Reform Judaism affirms the right of a woman to make individual choices about her reproductive health. It is within that tradition that the Reform Jewish Voice supports passage of the Reproductive Health Act."

* Independent Redistricting Commission: In the interest of encouraging our state government to act fairly and with complete honesty, we strongly support the formation of an independent redistricting commission, which will ensure that all communities are fairly represented in the Legislature.

It was thrilling, nerve-wracking, and empowering to approach the offices of my state representatives, and to share with them what a "person of faith" believes on these three topics. I felt that my words were heard and respected (even if my congressmen did not ultimately agree with me), and I felt that their offices appreciated hearing from constituents.

So, my friends, what are you doing this week to pursue justice? What are you doing to ensure equal rights to all on a county, state, or national level? May each and every one of us help bring humanity ever closer to a day when all shall be one, and at peace.

Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004