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Social Justice Takes Center Stage at the Academy Awards

Social Justice Takes Center Stage at the Academy Awards

In case you missed it, this week’s Academy Awards featured a number of acceptance speeches in which many of the winners called attention to important issues of social justice. The stage of the Dolby Theater is a unique platform to call attention to these critical issues, and it can be validating to see celebrities discuss topics that we have long been working on in our mandate to repair the world.

In one of the most moving speeches of the night, singer John Legend and rapper/Selma actor Common spoke about the continuing fight for justice and equality in our world as the recipients of the Oscar for Best Original Song for “Glory” from Selma. Just moments after their live rendition of “Glory” before a backdrop of the Edmund Pettus bridge moved several audience members to tears, Common said:

“Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform “Glory” on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago… The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.”

It cannot be ignored that art and artists can shine a special light on these areas, and help to educate the general public. In the spirit of building on the themes of the movie Selma, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism invites you to join a webinar on March 3 to reflect on the real life event with insights from Jewish clergy and civil rights activists spanning five decades. Register now for "Web Learning Session: The Fight for Civil Rights Then and Now." Also, if you’re able to travel to Selma, AL, this March, join RAC staffers and stand behind a Reform Jewish banner on Sunday, March 8. Register and learn more at this link.

Equality in the Jewish tradition is based on the concept that all of God’s children are “created in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). From that flows the biblical injunction “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God” (Leviticus 24:22).

During the civil rights movement, Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Reform Movement were arrested with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. Most famously, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King in his 1965 March on Selma.

In his Oscar acceptance speech, John Legend also brought up racial disparities in the criminal justice system and troubling threats to voting rights. You can take action today by urging Congress to reintroduce and to pass the Voting Rights Amendments Act to restore critical protections after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, AL v. Holder (2013).

Also of note was the acceptance speech by Patricia Arquette’s, who won for Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood and called for pay equity for women. The Reform Movement has long been a moral leader for equality for women in Jewish life and in broader society – equal pay for equal work is one key component of that fight. Heed the call and take action by encouraging Members of Congress to end gender-based wage discrimination.

Whether you were rooting for a specific film or actor, you’re most interested in the fashion choices or love it for the spectacle it always is, the strong show of social justice in the awards show demonstrates once again how important our work is on these issues. But, the fight doesn’t begin and end with the acceptance speeches – we each need to take action on legislation that can help improve the lives of so many people around the world.

Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg
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