(February 21, 2017 / JNS) By Joshua Sharf/JNS.org
What if you got fired for observing Passover?
“Not possible in 21st-century America,” you confidently reply.
What if you sued, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as well as the local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) kept a studied silence during your entire legal fight?
“Again, not possible,” you insist.
Guess again. Because that’s exactly what happened to Susan Abeles.
Abeles is an Orthodox Jew, and up until spring of 2015, was an employee of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Every year for the past 26 years, she had taken vacation time for the first two and last two days of Passover, always emailing her supervisors at the beginning of the year to let them know the dates of the Jewish holidays.
In 2013, her new supervisors acknowledged her email notifying them of the holiday dates, and then acknowledged her follow-up email just before the holiday.
When Abeles returned to work after the holiday, she was slapped with a five-day suspension for going AWOL because they claimed she didn’t follow leave procedures. She was later forced into early retirement.
She sued in 2015 and lost her initial court battle. This January, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals denied her appeal. Abeles has filed a request for rehearing by the entire Fourth Circuit sitting en banc.
During all this time, the national ADL, the regional ADL, the national Jewish Federation umbrella and the regional JCRC have all been silent, their websites revealing not a single statement on Abeles’s behalf. It’s unlikely, but possible, that the regional JCRC was simply unaware of the case. The local Washington Jewish Week newspaper ran at least two stories about it.
Attempts to contact the national ADL and the Washington regional JCRC about this issue have been unsuccessful.
Both organizations can move quickly when they want to, even on major issues. The ADL is vocally proud of its self-proclaimed ecumenical approach when it comes to public affairs. Its current CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, famously used a conference on anti-Semitism to proclaim that he would register as a Muslim under the Trump administration’s non-existent Muslim registry. The regional JCRC’s webpage on refugees lists no fewer than seven bullet points for action that readers can take. But at least in this instance, they don’t seem to be very good at actually advocating for Jewish observance.
That task has fallen to civil rights attorney Nathan Lewin, assisted by the Becket Fund, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA)—groups that actually believe in religious liberty as a universal principle, rather than one of convenience.
The Becket Fund represents clients of every religious background and faith. Its website features cases on behalf of Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims and Native Americans. The AJC and COLPA, while sectarian, are not exclusively so. Along with many other organizations, they filed amicus briefs in support of a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who wanted to wear a short beard for religious purposes.
For them, this is a mission of principle. For groups nominally dedicated to advocating for Jewish issues, not so much.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), Hillel is quoted as saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Liberal Jewish groups, eager to take on any cause but their own, are partial to the second half of this saying. But it’s the groups that actually believe in religious liberty who are observing the quote in its entirety.
Joshua Sharf is a fellow with the Haym Salomon Center news and public policy group. Follow the group on Twitter @salomoncenter.