Former ambassador for religious freedom to give Bilgray lectures at Temple Emanu-El

Rabbi David Saperstein

Named America’s most influential rabbi by Newsweek in 2009, Ambassador Rabbi David Saperstein will be the scholar-in residence for Temple Emanu-El’s annual Rabbi Albert T. Bilgray Memorial Lecture Series, Feb. 8-10. Speaking on “Freedom and Justice in the World Today,” Saperstein will draw upon a career of service to the nation and to his faith. His series of talks will center around global intolerance, democracy and economic justice.

Director emeritus for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Saperstein was appointed in 2014 by former President Barack Obama as the first non-Christian to serve as the U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, serving until January 2017. As the nation’s top diplomat on religious freedom issues, he worked with both sides of the aisle, leading the Washington Post to call him the quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Saperstein is no stranger to Tucson. Three decades ago he visited Temple Emanu-El to address immigration issues and the moral need to provide sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing wars. “These problems continue to challenge us,” he notes.

“At the global level, growth of religious intolerance and prosecution has become an alarming trend,” he says, highlighting ISIS, the crisis of the Muslim Rohingya in Burma, the growth of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across the globe. “It is a matter of claims of religious freedom versus civil liberties. We need to find common ground and find a way to accommodate religious freedom that doesn’t harm the human rights of others under protected status.” He will discuss these topics in his lecture on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m., “The State of Religious Freedom in the United States and Across the Globe.”

On Friday, Feb. 9, during a sermon at the 7:30 p.m. Shabbat service, he will tackle “Israel’s Three Most Vital Challenges: Peace, Equality, and the Battle for Religious Freedom and Tolerance in Israel.”

“All of these topics are connected to challenges Israel faces to protect the democratic state of Israel,” he says. “Being part of a democratic state is not only enjoying religious equality of all citizens but also equality for all those who’ve been subject to discrimination and degradation. There are tensions between the Israeli government and the Diaspora community with a significant percent of non-Orthodox Jews. We must find a way to make real Israel’s promise for religious equality and freedom for all.”

Saperstein will conclude the series at rabbi’s tish (table) at noon on Saturday, Feb. 10, when he will present “Economic Justice: Testing the Morality of Our Nation,” exploring what Jewish texts and tradition say about addressing economic challenges around the globe. The tish includes a dairy/vegetarian potluck.

During his tenure at the helm of the Religious Action Center, Saperstein headed national religious coalitions, including the Coalition to Protect Religious Liberty. He serves on the board of national organizations including the NAACP, People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Religious Partnership on the Environment and the World Bank’s World Faith Development Dialogue.

Also an attorney, he’s taught seminars on church, state and Jewish law for 35 years at Georgetown University Law Center. He currently serves as a senior fellow at both Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and its School of Foreign Services’ Center for Jewish Civilization and is a senior advisor for strategy and policy for the Union of Reform Judaism.

This year’s lecture series is co-sponsored by Temple Emanu-El, the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Cardozo Society and Pima County Interfaith Council. All lectures will be held at Temple Emanu-El. A dinner at 5:30 p.m. precedes the Shabbat service on Friday, Feb. 9. The dinner is $40; RSVP by Jan. 26 at 327-4501 or tetucson.org.