Born in Israel and educated in Jewish day schools, Udi Ofer says Jewish values have played an important role in shaping his commitment to civil liberties — including those of Muslims.
On Feb. 19, after 10 years at the New York Civil Liberties Union, Ofer became executive director of the ACLU in New Jersey, bringing with him the “values of caring” he learned as an immigrant and as a Jew.
He succeeds Deborah Jacobs, who left in July for a position at the Ms. Foundation in Brooklyn.
“Judaism plays an important role in my life,” he said as he sat at a conference table in his downtown Newark office. “An important reason why I am at the American Civil Liberties Union today is the concept of tikun olam. From a very young age I was instilled with values of caring for other people and helping people, and I connect that to Judaism, or at least the way I was exposed to it.”
Because he spoke no English when he moved from Herzliya to Chicago, then Brooklyn, at the age of 10, Ofer said, he is committed to protecting fellow immigrants in a state that ranks sixth in the nation in the number of foreign-born residents.
“I am incredibly passionate about immigrants’ rights. Growing up as an immigrant with a name that is different from most people, with a family that spoke with an accent, instilled in me an appreciation of American values like freedom of speech and diversity and made me appreciate the hurdles faced by anyone who is considered an outsider by mainstream society,” he said.
Ofer is particularly disturbed at the way Muslims and Latinos have been treated by government and law enforcement agencies. As director of advocacy at the NYCLU, Ofer was a frequent critic of the city’s police surveillance of Muslims, in-state and out-of-state.
Last month, lawyers for New York City filed another request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Muslim individuals and organizations over police department surveillance of Muslims in New Jersey.
“What the New York Police Department has done is tragic,” Ofer said. “We know the NYPD has been surveilling Muslims in New York and New Jersey and the northeastern seaboard and building files and dossiers, even though there is no suspicion of wrongdoing. That is the definition of racial and religious profiling. It was unconstitutional before 9/11, and it is unconstitutional after 9/11.
“My job is to protect the Muslim community and other communities from the backlash against civil liberties we have seen since 9/11,” he said.
Asked how he reconciles the civil liberties of Muslims with genuine security concerns over Islamist-inspired terror, Ofer said the answer was “pretty straightforward.”
“We can be both safe and free,” he said. “If the FBI or the police department has tangible evidence that someone is engaged in criminal activity, they need to do everything in their power to investigate that person and stop that person and bring them to trial.
“But what we cannot do is throw the Constitution out the door and engage in profiling of people based solely on their religion or cultural beliefs.”
Ofer urged law enforcement agencies to build positive relationships with individuals in relevant communities, “so when they hear that something is happening they feel comfortable in picking up the phone.”
Ofer is also determined to educate New Jerseyans on how to file complaints against police without facing retribution. Last month the ACLU reported that local police departments don’t often follow state rules when citizens allege misconduct by cops.
He is eager to reverse what he called “the school-to-prison pipeline,” particularly in low-income neighborhoods, where police arrest students for minor offenses that would be handled more effectively by school authorities.
ACLU-NJ has also set as a priority advocating for marriage rights for same-sex couples and greater transparency and adequacy of government services, particularly how money is being spent for the Superstorm Sandy clean-up.
Ofer, 38, received his bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies at the University at Buffalo. After graduating from Fordham University School of Law, he represented abused women as a staff attorney at My Sisters’ Place in Westchester County.
In addition to his work at the ACLU, Ofer is an adjunct professor at New York Law School. He and his long-term partner, attorney Kacy Wiggum, are preparing to move from Brooklyn to Jersey City.
Ofer called his Jewish upbringing “almost entirely cultural.”
“Jews have a special role to play in understanding the plight of the underprivileged,” he said. “The Jewish community knows what it means to be a neglected community. For hundreds of years all around the world it has faced government abuse of power, discrimination, and other communities not wanting to help them. The Jewish community understands that we need to take care of our neighbors and we need to make sure that no one faces discrimination.
“I have great faith in the Jewish community to be terribly empathetic.”