A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of leading a delegation of 16 Temple Jeremiah members for the biennial Consultation on Conscience of the Religious Action Center. The RAC is the Reform voice in Washington, D.C. Working with the RAC we have strengthened our Social Justice Advocacy work. It was a very exciting and energizing conference.
The Torah portion for this week is Naso, from the Book of Numbers. This portion continues the work of the census that began in last week’s portion, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew word Naso means” lift up.” The command is not merely to count the number of people but to lift them up. Moses and Aaron are commanded to lift up and acknowledge the importance of each person; to affirm their humanity.
This is our work, too. As social justice advocates, we take on the responsibility of lifting up those who are most vulnerable. One focus of the Consultation on Conscience was on returning citizens. This new language is meant to replace the reference: convicted felons. During the first plenary session we heard from Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. He spoke about the successful campaign in Florida to restore voting rights to those persons convicted of a felony. His point, most people will get out of prison and return to society. It is much better to do all that we can to help these persons become part of the community again. This positive message rolled into the work we lobbied for, to remove the check off box on federal job applications that asked if you were convicted of a felony. The idea is again to give returning citizens a better shot at finding employment, housing and hope.
Hope was the overall feeling we got as we moved through the Consultation on Conscience. Two years ago, 400 people attended. This year, 1200 people participated in the conference. The fact that we had one of the largest delegations speaks to the desire we have to make the world better and the acknowledgement that we can. You will be hearing more about how we will continue our advocacy here in our state through our RAC Illinois cohort. We are working with our sister congregations throughout Illinois as well as non-profit organizations advocating for immigration reforms and criminal justice reforms.
Moses and Aaron, at God’s command, lift up the heads of each Israelite. It was to be a sign that each person was seen, was valued and was worthy of care. We must continue this work as we lift each other, rising to the work to bring help and hope to those who seek refuge in our state and those who are returning citizens seeking to make a new life for themselves after serving their sentence. May we all commit to this work with energy, spirit and hope.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D. Min, D.D.