A "Shehecheyanu" Moment
It’s been more than a year since I left behind the Religious Action Center in Washington for the not-really-greener pastures of the Union for Reform Judaism’s headquarters in New York. I have always been a political junkie, and many of my friends and colleagues ask me still if I miss the politics. The honest answer is: no. I spent 15 years representing the Reform Movement on Capitol Hill, and I would not give up a day of it for anything. But sometimes too much of a good thing is just, well, too much. So I happily left Washington behind, and threw myself into my new job.
Yesterday, of course, was the last “decision day” of the U.S. Supreme Court term. Like all of my Washington friends (and an increasing number across the county) I sat glued to my computer yesterday morning, staring at SCOTUS Blog (which would be the first to have the news), and waiting. By the time yesterday’s decisions came down, there were more than 200,000 people on the website. Judging by my Facebook timeline, I only knew about half of them.
One of the things that came to drive me (and probably you, too,) crazy about Washington is the slow pace of progress. Bills get introduced Congress after Congress. Hearings are held, and then two years later the same hearings are held again. It’s painstakingly slow, and sometimes just painful.
Sometimes, though, you get see something through from beginning to end. As I read the Court’s decision in Windsor last night, I flashed back to a congregational hearing a long time ago. I wanted to check my memory, and spent a few minutes poking around the RAC’s website. Finally, I found the very first entry in the LGBT issue page, from May 15, 1996. I think it may have been the first piece of congressional testimony I worked on at the RAC. My son, who will be college freshman in the fall, was six months old when it was written.
What was the entry? It was a press release from June 1996, summarizing RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in opposition the Defense of Marriage Act. Since that day in June 1996, DOMA was passed by the House and the Senate, signed (to his later regret) by President Bill Clinton, and enacted into law. It was challenged in federal courts across the country, and the Reform Movement joined in those court cases. Finally, today, the Supreme Court came to the same conclusion the RAC had drawn 17 years ago—that DOMA was unconstitutional.
One of the more frustrating things about political work is that it is almost always impossible to draw a direct causal connection. Change rarely happens directly “because” of something else; progress is usually the accumulation of tens, hundreds or thousands of somethings. As I take pride in the role our Movement played in this remarkable legal victory, I want to thank, the three RAC Legislative Directors - Jeff Mandel, Lauren Schumer, and the remarkable Barbara Weinstein - and the RAC Legislative Assistants who worked on DOMA. So thanks to Noah Baron, Kate Bigam, Dena Wigder Feldman, Jason Fenster, Jennifer Gubitz, Beth Kalisch, Rebecca Katz, Matt Soffer, Amelia Viney, Matt Weinberg, and Benny Witkovsky, among others. And, especially, thanks to Rabbi Saperstein and the other leaders of the Reform Jewish Movement who made this issue a Reform Jewish issue at a time when today’s Supreme Court decision was literally unthinkable.
Dr. King famously taught that the “arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” His point, unsalable, of course, is that progress is slow. But sometimes, rarely, like yesterday, we get a day when that arc jumps rather than bends. And when that happens we say, Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh. Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of all: for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.
Mark Pelavin is the Senior Advisor to the President of the Union of Reform Judaism and is the Executive Director of Reform Judaism magazine. From 1996 to 2012, Mark was Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, D.C.