Three decades after being arrested in a 1988 anti-nuclear weapons protest, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman recalled having his arms twisted by police officers.
“I felt no pain,” said Tepperman of the Reconstructionist Bnai Keshet in Montclair. “I felt perfect alignment of body and soul. I was non-violently expressing my values and vision for the world even though it brought me in conflict with my government. I felt I was in a small way moving the world away from war.”
At the time he was a college student at UC Santa Cruz in California, and the rabbi’s activism hasn’t abated since. On May 22, he was one of two rabbis honored with the 2019 Rabbinic Human Rights Hero Award by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
The New York-based T’ruah, which represents more than 2,000 North American rabbis and cantors, honored Tepperman with the annual award for leading his congregants and colleagues across faiths to fight for a variety of social justice causes, including LGBTQ rights, reduction of gun violence, and defending immigrants and refugees.
“It’s a powerful thing to be acknowledged by colleagues and members of the rabbinate for actively using the rabbinate to change the world and build a more socially just world,” he told NJJN.
Rabbi Jocee Hudson of Temple Israel of Hollywood, California, was the second rabbi honored at the T’ruah gala held at the Prince George Ballroom in Manhattan.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah’s executive director, called Tepperman a “true” human rights hero.
“Warm, inspiring and tireless, he is a role model for all clergy who take seriously our responsibility to make the world a better, more just place,” Jacobs said. “His impact can be felt not just among the countless Bnai Keshet members who, under his leadership, have mobilized to defend the rights of immigrants and other vulnerable people, but in the broader community.”
Tepperman has been the spiritual leader of Bnai Keshet since 2002. His rabbinic philosophy on social justice involves framing issues through “chesed and love,” rather than righteousness, and on reaching communities beyond the synagogue.
“The only way to help each other with these kinds of challenges is to reach beyond the circle of the synagogue and join a larger circle of power, whether this is other individuals, other congregations, or organizations,” he said. “In taking action together, we learn their stories, we learn how their stories and struggles intersect with our own.” For instance, he said, “Becoming a sanctuary congregation reminded us of our members’ own stories of immigration, but also has exposed us to the stories of families we have met doing this work.”
Tepperman is a founding member of New Jersey Together, a multi-faith activist group in northern New Jersey affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). He is working to build the state’s sanctuary movement to protect undocumented immigrants with Faith in New Jersey (FINJ).
Through his affiliation with Bend the Arc, which describes itself as a Jewish partnership for justice, he has taught congregation-based community organizing at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RCC) and other seminaries. He was also accepted to Selah, the organization’s leadership program.
Tepperman is a past president of the Montclair Clergy Association and is on the executive committee of the RCC.
He is married to Sarah O’Leary and is the father of two children, Akiva-Lev and Sam.