By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
An organizing community has formed in Illinois that brings together Reform congregations and partnering agencies to engage in social justice advocacy work on a statewide and local level.
Religious Action Center Illinois has been a year in the making and had its public launch recently at Chicago Sinai Congregation. Twenty speakers addressed 350 lay, clergy and youth leaders, organizational partners and others engaged in the cause. Participants came from as far as Peoria and Springfield.
Speakers included Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of national RAC of Reform Judaism, Quinn Kareem Rallins, Program Director, Illinois Justice Project, Rabbi Seth Limmer, Senior Rabbi at Chicago Sinai and Rabbi Shoshana Conover, Associate Rabbi at Temple Sholom.
A movement extending from the hub of the D.C.-based Religious Action Center, RAC-Illinois is the fifth state in five years to organize to “act passionately and deeply engage in justice work to build a more just and compassionate land of Lincoln for all,” said Julie Webb, the lead organizer and sole staff member.
Her position is funded by national donors to the RAC in Washington, D.C. which has been taking on federal, statewide and local causes for more than 50 years and now sees the benefit of formalizing movements statewide. So far, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, California and New York have organized under the RAC umbrella.
“More and more social justice issues are playing out on a state level as opposed to federal level,” said Limmer, who is on the core leadership team of RAC-Illinois. “We’re trying to be of maximum impact. In order to do that we need to be in states to make that happen.”
Twenty-five of 40 Reform congregations in Illinois are now participating in a model of congregational-based organizing, said Webb, who has been a lay leader in organizing congregations for 10 years.
The social justice issues of common concern that RAC-Illinois has identified through hundreds of conversations and learning sessions are immigrant and refugee rights and racial justice. Also generating passion are women’s health, government- supported health care, voting rights and disenfranchisement. “We’re in the process of narrowing our focus to campaigns and work that we can actually take action on and have an impact,” said Webb.
RAC Illinois will be in full campaign mode when the Spring 2019 legislative session starts, Webb said. In the meantime, RAC Illinois will be doing voter registration and voter turnout work starting this summer. “We want to make sure our communities participate in shaping who will be our next set of legislators and governor,” Limmer said.
Communities will be invited to attend candidate forums where RAC Illinois will let candidates know where they stand on issues “that we care about because once they are in office we can work with them to make change,” Limmer said.
To learn more about RAC Illinois, email JWebb@rac.org