State of the Union

Tonight, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address to Congress and the nation. Leaders of the Reform Jewish Movement are highlighting key issues they hope President Obama will address in the speech and calling on the President and Members of Congress to act swiftly on pressing domestic and international concerns.

Tune in tonight, or visit us here to watch the President’s address to a joint session of Congress. Weigh in yourself by following us on Twitter, @theRAC.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism – Even as the national economy begins to recover, millions of Americans are left behind. More than 46 million people live below the poverty line, struggling to make ends meet. One out of two children will have to rely on food stamp benefits before they turn 21. And though accurate data is difficult to gather, approximately 3.5 million people, more than 1 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.

The Book of Proverbs (31:9) reminds us to “champion the poor and the needy.” Just as his inaugural address made a strong case for a social safety net of programs that raise struggling families out of poverty, the President’s State of the Union speech must make clear that deficit reduction cannot come on the backs of the poorest in our communities. Together, Congress and the White House must protect key programs including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and SNAP, which allow many in our communities to take the first steps toward independent and productive lives. As Rashi tells us of our fellow beings, “Do not allow him to decline and fall, so that it will be difficult to restore him, but strengthen him from the time of his weakness.”  This approach reflects the bipartisan principle in existence since Gramm-Rudman-Hollings in 1985 that any steps we take as a nation should not leave the poor worse off – and that’s the bipartisan approach needed today.

Evan Traylor, President, North American Federation of Temple Youth – Our Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity of human life, and commands us to pursue peace. Inspired by these lessons, NFTYites chose the 2012-2013 Study Theme of “Hashomer Achi Anochi – Am I My Brother’s Keeper” and the Action Theme “R’Fuat Hanefesh – Caring for the Soul: NFTY Addresses Mental Health.” We didn’t know when we chose the themes almost a year ago that the Newtown tragedy would happen and that the responsibilities we have to each other and the importance of mental health would become even more significant than they already were.  We have made advances in recent years with the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, but those advances are in danger of being gutted by significant cuts in funding for mental health care. The President and Congress must address both of these challenges for the safety and well-being of us all.

Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive Officer, Central Conference of American Rabbis –  As the son of immigrants to the United States, I understand well the beacon of light and hope this country has been to generations of immigrants. For Jews in particular, the religious liberty that has been a core principle since this nation’s founding has provided freedoms that were too long denied us throughout our history in the Diaspora.  Today, we continue to be inspired by the oft-repeated biblical command to “welcome the stranger,” even as we recognize that our American immigration system is broken.

We hope and expect that immigration reform will be a key focal point in the President’s State of the Union address, reflecting his comments in recent weeks about the need for a comprehensive approach to this challenge. Immigration reform must not only improve border security and immigration law enforcement, but also provide for a just and fair path to citizenship for those now in the country without legal documentation, protect against the exploitation of immigrant workers and protect the family unit, including LGBT families. We can do no less if we are to live up to our heritage as a nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants.

Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Religious Action Center – The growing acceptance of LGBT Americans is an overdue recognition that we are all created in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect.  President Obama, who lifted up the issue of LGBT equality in his inaugural address last month, has done much to further this effort, including working with Congress to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and stating publicly his support for civil marriage equality.

Yet more must be done if LGBT Americans are to be protected from even the most basic forms of prejudice and discrimination. The State of the Union is an opportunity for President Obama to call on Congress to end workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, ensuring that our laws extend basic civil rights to the LGBT community. 29 states still allow firing, hiring, promotion or demotion based on sexual orientation. Now is the time for the federal government, through legislation or executive action, to right this injustice. The stamp of the divine is present in each of us and if gay and lesbian Americans are to be, like other Americans, free to live lives of liberty and happiness, their most basic rights must be protected and upheld.

Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director, Women of Reform Judaism – We appreciate the President’s longstanding commitment to advancing the well-being of women and girls, including beginning his presidency with the enactment of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. His two Supreme Court nominees were women, and the Affordable Care Act has expanded access to women’s reproductive health care. Yet across the U.S., women still face great challenges that must be addressed by Congress and the White House. Women continue to earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable positions. The Violence Against Women Act, due to be reauthorized last year, languishes over disagreements about expanded protections for native American women and against same-sex violence. And access to reproductive health care is constantly challenged, 40 years after Roe v Wade affirmed a woman’s right to make her own health decisions. We note with pleasure the strides made by women, represented by a record number of women serving in Congress; yet at less than 20% of the total, there is still much work to be done to achieve full parity.

We read in our prayer book, the Gates of Prayer, “When will redemption come? . . .When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.” We call on the President to make clear in his address that women’s rights are not negotiable and that every individual is responsible for allowing others the same liberties, rights, and responsibilities they would claim for themselves. It is time to pass the Violence Against Women Act, protect access to contraception for all women, and ensure fair pay protections are firmly established in law.

Barbara Kavadias, Acting Executive Director, ARZA – Throughout Israel’s history, the United States, no matter which party has held power in the White House or Congress, has been the closest of friends and allies. As political unrest continues in the Middle East, Israel remains a pillar of democracy and stability in the region and the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship has never been more important, for both countries.

In his State of the Union address, we hope that President Obama will make clear the importance of American engagement in the Middle East, including continued involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been stagnant for too long. Such words will also reflect the President’s commitment to engagement, evident again last week in the announcement of his upcoming trip to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. Now is the time for all members of Congress to also engage constructively to bring Israel and the Palestinians closer together as honest partners for a peace that is difficult to achieve, but will foster interaction, cooperation and lasting agreements for the benefit of future generations.

Jennifer Kaufman, Chair, Commission on Social Action – The intensity of the past year’s weather patterns should be enough to convince even the most doubtful of climate change skeptics.  From the devastation of Superstorm Sandy to the corn belt drought to the fact that 2012 was the hottest year recorded in U.S. history to this weekend’s record snowfall, the time to act to protect our earth is clearly past due.

President Obama has expressed a desire to engage on this challenge, and the State of the Union is the time to put forth a substantive plan. Over the last year he has articulated an “all of the above” approach to energy policy; now there is a need to focus on a comprehensive national energy bill that includes de-emphasizing carbon fuels and increased reliance on green energy. The President should again make clear his support for a Renewable Energy Standard and take steps to help reduce the economic impact of shifting to a green energy economy. The start of his second term presents the best opportunity he will have to work with Congress to tackle this pressing issue of climate change.

Rabbi Jonathan Stein, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis – The speech President Obama will deliver tonight is rooted in the Constitution’s directive that the President “from time to time” give Congress information about the state of union. Today, that address has become an annual event and is seen not just by those in the congressional chamber, but by an audience of Americans from across the nation. It is a key means of informing and engaging the public about the issues that touch and shape their lives.  Unfortunately, the ability of citizens to express their own views about these issues through voting is becoming increasingly difficult. As we saw in this most recent election, hours-long waits at polling stations and efforts to impose onerous voter ID laws, among other obstacles, are muffling or even silencing the voice of the people.

Steve Sacks, Chairman, Union for Reform Judaism – February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month, and the needs of people with disabilities should be lifted up in President Obama’s speech. People with disabilities consistently experience poverty rates twice that of the national average. Too often, people with disabilities of all ages are forced into nursing homes and institutions against their will in the name of cutting costs. Children with disabilities are disproportionately bullied by peers and inhumanely restrained by teachers. This sad reality does not fulfill the prophetic vision of full participation in the community, failing to heed Isaiah’s instructions to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (58:6) Particularly as the number of Americans with disabilities continues to grow, reaching nearly 57 million in 2010, and in recognition of Jewish Disability Awareness Month, shining a presidential spotlight on these challenges and committing to addressing them is more necessary than ever and a recognition that in this nation, no one should be left behind.

In the Book of Numbers, we learn of God’s instructions to Moses to gather 70 elders of Israel to serve as representatives of the people (Numbers 11:16–25). Reflecting this example, Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed until the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55a). Government officials must be accountable to the citizens they represent and having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which we must live is critical to the rights of all citizens. President Obama should use the State of the Union speech to call on Congress to reform our voting system in a way that will allow all Americans to exercise their right – and responsibility – to vote, free from hindrance.