By Rabbi Bonnie Margulis
Immigrant rights. Health care. Global warming. Racial equity. COVID-19 relief. Abortion Rights. LGBTQ+ rights. Criminal justice reform. Fair housing. Tribal rights. Workers’ rights. What do all of these issues have in common? They have all been the subject of one or more of the 42 different Executive Orders signed by President Biden in the first ten days of his administration1.
In just those ten days, President Biden has brought us back into membership in the World Health Organization and opened up the federal health insurance marketplace. He has brought the US back to the Paris Climate Accord and directed all government agencies to use science and evidence when making policy
President Biden is protecting women’s rights at home and abroad, rescinding the global gag rule that preventing federal funding for international agencies that refer women for abortions, and looking into rescinding the ban on federal funding for such agencies in the US. He also rescinded the ban on transgender people serving in our military.
Federal agencies are directed to review all policies through a racial justice lens, and workplace discrimination is banned on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal contracts on for-profit prisons will not be renewed, and there will be meaningful consultation with tribal leaders on areas of mutual interest and concern.
Collective bargaining for federal workers will be restored, and a path is put forward to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Workplace safety during the pandemic will be a priority, and OSHA is directed to enforce worker health and safety standards.
President Biden has ended the diversion of funds away from their intended use to build a border wall. He is restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and is proposing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people living and working in the United States.
These Executive Orders are important and have already begun to make a difference in people’s lives. However, lasting, systemic policy changes, which will withstand the vicissitudes of shifting political winds, need to be made through legislative action. In these polarized times, the only way that action will happen is if we, the people, press our elected officials to propose and vote for bills that will codify into law the policies we support.
All of these Executive Orders, and more, address issues that are important to the Jewish community. Our tradition teaches us it is our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth, as the midrash tells us: “God led Adam around all the trees of the Garden of Eden. And God said to Adam: ‘See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are? And all that I have created, I made for you. Be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world—for if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13).2
Torah instructs us to treat our workers with justice, and thirty-six times in Torah we are told to care for the strangers in our midst, for we know what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. More than that, we are told to love our neighbor as ourselves, and the prophets continually admonish us to look after the poor, the hungry, the widow, the orphan.
As Jews, we are dedicated to behaving b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, and committed to our partnership with God in the ongoing work of perfecting our world. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to engage in tikkun olam, the repair of our world. In the modern American context, this means voting and engaging in public policy debates.
Over the last year, Civic Engagement was a major priority of the Reform Jewish movement nationally, and at Temple Beth El here in Madison. Temple Beth El, Beth Israel Center, and Congregation Shaarei Shamayim have all participated in the Wisconsin Interfaith Voter Engagement Campaign, a joint project of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and Wisconsin Council of Churches. Through this non-partisan campaign, volunteers focused on educating potential voters and getting out the vote for the April, August, and November elections.
Getting out the vote is important. Executive orders are important. But neither of these activities are sufficient to make real, lasting change. The public, including the Jewish community, needs to be engaged in the important issues we are facing, continuing to learn about the policies that affect our lives, to educate our congregations and communities, and to be vocal advocates for the changes we wish to see.
The Wisconsin Interfaith Voter Engagement Campaign will continue to work with all our synagogues and congregations of other faiths throughout the state, to promote voting rights and get out the vote, but also to provide training and tools so we can all live out the words of Torah, “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” I hope that you will join us!
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis is the executive director of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.