Reform Rabbi Becomes First non-Christian U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom

After over 30 years leading the Reform Movement’s political and legislative outreach arm, David Saperstein will head the Office of International Religious Freedom in the United States Department of State.

Rabbi David Saperstein and Obama
Rabbi David Saperstein applauding as Obama prepares to sign bill barring anti-gay discrimination on federal jobs, July 21, 2014. AP

The United States Senate confirmed Friday the appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as first non-Christian ambassador at large for international religious freedom, 61 to 35.

President Barack Obama announced the appointment in late July. “I am grateful that Rabbi Saperstein has chosen to dedicate his talent to serving the American people at this important time for our country. I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead,” Obama said upon announcing the appointment.

Saperstein has been the director and chief legal counsel of the Union for Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, the political and legislative outreach arm of Reform Judaism in America, for over 30 years.


“As he prepares to leave the Religious Action Center he has done so much to build, we know that the work of David’s life will not change,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism said in a statement. “He will continue to agitate for justice. He will continue to be a rodef shalom (a pursuer of peace). He will continue to defend the widow and the orphan and the stranger. David simply does not know another way.”

“Rabbi David Saperstein's appointment is a tribute to him as a person and as a leading Reform Rabbi in the United States and throughout the world,” Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis concurred. “In this new role, Rabbi Saperstein can be expected to amplify America’s voice forcefully on behalf of men, women, and children across the globe who face discrimination, degradation, and violence because of their religious beliefs and practices.”

The position of ambassador at large for international religious freedom is a new one formed in 1998. The holder of which heads the Office of International Religious Freedom in the United States Department of State. The office is mandated to “monitor religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, recommend and implement policies in respective regions or countries, and develop programs to promote religious freedom,” the State Department explains on its website.

The office has been unmanned since Dr. Suzan Denise Johnson Cook resigned the post in October 2013.