Religion and State: Bridging the Gap

During my year in Israel, I was assigned to lead morning services on a Thursday in November. It wasn’t just any Thursday—it was the Thursday morning after the 2016 presidential election. Leading that service was just the beginning of what has become an important endeavor of mine. I’ve been trying to find meaning in my Reform Jewish tradition, all while living in an America that does not always reflect my values. I’ve looked in many places for comfort and inspiration, but it wasn’t until this past summer working with RAC (Religious Action Center) Ohio that I found what I was looking for. As it turns out, I wasn’t looking for comfort at all. I was looking for my own agency and a framework within which to take action.

I’ll admit that I knew very little about community organizing before I started my fellowship. In fact, I was tempted to shy away from community organizing as a whole because I knew the experience would be overtly political, and that made me nervous. I have always been skittish around political conversations, afraid to offend someone or make people uncomfortable. But I’ve become restless over the past few years, and it has become all too clear that my Jewish values require me to act on my convictions. So I took the plunge and started to learn what community organizing is all about.

My biggest takeaway from my fellowship with RAC Ohio is that community organizing is first and foremost about people. RAC Ohio works with Jewish communities across the state to learn what issues matter most and then helps each community organize themselvesby partnering with other organizations. The process would not work if we gave the job of problem solving to people outside of our communities. We need to come together ourselves and do the work to make a difference in our own communities, together with people of all faiths and backgrounds.

During my time as a fellow, I learned how to canvass. I spent time traveling throughout Cincinnati in order to build awareness of and support for the Safe and Healthy Ohio Campaign, asking people to sign in support of an amendment to the Ohio State Constitution. Yes, the act of canvassing is overtly political, but the more I learned and the more I was exposed to important issues, the more comfortable I became with sharing my values through this work. I believe that each person is created betselem Elohim (“in the image of God”), and the current criminal justice system in Ohio does not reflect that belief. I was able to participate in a process that will hopefully make our state a place where that belief is evident in our institutions and our political life.

This fellowship experience has helped me find my personal, faith-based understanding of my political responsibilities in our country. I’m finding my voice and an ability to articulate my values in a political context. As a rabbi, I know I cannot stand on the bimah and endorse one political candidate over another. However, I will live and teach Jewish values and beliefs, especially when I find them in conflict with the treatment of people in our communities. This is exactly the type of work done by RAC Ohio, and I am committed to bringing this to future communities where I will serve as a rabbi.

Libby Fisher

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