A New Jersey Rabbi in Kansas

Drawing parallels to what is being “said about Muslims now” to what was being said about Jews in America’s most anti-Semitic times, occurring during the isolationist/ semi-fascist 1920s, Rabbi Moti Rieber then spoke of the importance of action in bringing about more compassionate Kansas communities in the next year.

Rieber was the featured speaker at this season’s inaugural Civic Luncheon Lecture, held at Kansas State Polytechnic on Tuesday. Rieber is the Executive Director of Kansas Interfaith Action, which is a statewide, multi-faith issue-advocacy organization. KIFA educates, engages and advocates on behalf of people of faith and the public regarding critical social, economic and climate justice issues.

Rieber said he is a third generation American, whose great-grandparents left Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. His family’s history followed typical patterns. His first generation lived in the tenements of New York City; the second generation moved to the Bronx; and the third generation moved to Long Island or New Jersey. They thrived because they were free of the legal impediments of Europe.

But, there was much social segregation of the Jews. In Kansas City, Jewish doctors formed the Menorah Hospital, because they weren’t permitted to work in other hospitals.

The anti-Semitism changed after World War 2, when Jews became prominent in public life.
Initially, Rieber’s American ancestors were “conservative” and secular. His parents then established a synagogue. Reiber attended public school but also attended three afternoons of religious instruction each week.

He grew up with an understanding of Tikkum Olam, where Jews feel they must prepare the world with the knowledge they have acquired. They were oppressed. They know what it is/was like to be oppressed. They must now lead the fight against oppression.

Rieber said that as a young adult, he first rejected aspects of his faith. Later, he felt the need for a spiritual practice, explored different faith traditions, and found himself attracted to “reconstructionism” Jewish beliefs that focuses on how Jews are in control of what happens to them. He described “evolutionary” beliefs—that Judaism is an evolving civilization of Jewish people as well as “naturalistic theology” that allows Jews to make a better world where all incentives that can make individuals bad can be turned to make individuals good—or Godly.

He moved to Israel and taught English for four years. In Israel, he met his future wife, who is from Kansas City. He became an ordained rabbi in 2004. He liked “organizational work”. He was hired by Jill Docking to work with the Jewish Federation in Wichita, which he did for three years.

In time, he came to work at the Kansas Interfaith Association. In March 2011, his team focused on weatherizing churches. He testified against the Excel pipeline. By chance, his team was at the State Capitol when a bill was introduced to “wipe out the renewable portfolio standard to boost the use of wind energy”. He spent two years working to save this policy; in the third year, wind energy businesses no longer needed this provision.

Rieber said that in 2015, there was no meaningful Kansas energy policy coming from the State legislature. He worked with a national trend to bring multi-discipline groups together, such as the National Council of Churches and Texas Impact.

In 2016, Rieber testified against a bill that would prevent the resettlement of refuges to Kansas. In a 90 minute hearing, Rieber said, ”One hour was spent in Islamophobia dialogue”. Reiber was given 15 minutes to respond, but found himself “cut off” after three minutes, when he started addressing the racial component of the proposed ban. That’s when peer organizations in other states reached out. While that bill got out of committee, Rieber said it was “squashed” in the House.

Rieber said, “If you put your energy into doing what’s right, you won’t know where” the initiative “is going to go”. He said the first step is to “stand up and say what is wrong”.

In 2016, Rieber testified against proposed welfare reforms that essentially were designed to take people off of public assistance. He said everything he says about policy comes from statements made by key religions. He has argued Biblical passages with legislators.

For the 2017 Legislative session, KIFA worked to expand Medicaid in Kansas and to limit “campus carry”, a measure that allows for the open carry of firearms on college campuses. While the Kansas Legislature did not place the hoped for restrictions on “campus carry”, they did restrict the carrying of firearms in hospitals. Initially, one hospital approached their legislators, asking that weapons be banned in their hospital. Several groups worked to expand this restriction to all Kansas hospitals.

Rieber said that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reinforce the dangers of climate change and show the devastating effects it can have on individuals. He noted that refineries are often built in communities of color; residents often lack the means to “get out in a hurry”. Any environmental contamination near the refineries will impact communities of color.

Rieber then described recent changes in DACA (involving the “dreamers”) as “a clear-cut moral issue that will be dealt with in the political arena”. Individuals who came to the United States as undocumented children were encouraged to “come out of the shadows” and give their information. Some have gone on to own businesses . . . and to pay many personal and business taxes. But, “they are not eligible for certain government benefits, like the Affordable Care Act. Now, they risk deportation.”

Rieber said, “Congress seems to be completely broken” and “some Congressmen feel that they can’t be pro-immigrant”. He said interfaith advocates “need to make sure the government realizes this is an unmanageable policy; we’ll try to overturn it and will disrupt it; we will act in an escalating fashion”.

“Change will be accomplished by engaging those who haven’t been engaged before”, said Reiber. Some segments of the population have been disengaged because no one has asked them to become involved.

He noted that many people are “a couple of paychecks away from destitution. The recent floods are made even more devastating as many don’t have flood insurance”. Adding, Americans “shouldn’t be so close to the edge; we can afford to care for others. For 30 years, we have been told there is scarcity. Its okay with Rieber if a billionaire is made slightly less wealthy if it means a “kid can graduate” from college “debt free”.

Some have told Rieber that being part of KIFA is a “faith of consciousness”—where they are giving people back their religions and churches, as they are acting in accordance with the Gospels.

KIFA’s mission focuses on what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as the “three evils” of racism/discrimination, economic injustice, and violence. To this KIFA adds the “fourth evil” of human-caused climate disruption. Interrelated and inclusive, these evils stand as barriers to a more just and peaceful world. KIFA “agrees with Dr. King that when we work to remedy one evil, we affect all four”.

KIFA’s goal is to build a grassroots movement that will result in political change on the state level. KIFA invite all people of faith and conscience to join us in bringing a moral voice to public policy in Kansas. They can be contacted at www.KansasInterfaithAction.org or facebook.com/KansasInterfaithAction.


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