Segal: Religious freedom, locally and globally

David Segal
Guest Commentary

I received an excited phone call the week before Chanukah. The Basalt Chamber of Commerce had just purchased their first-ever menorah — a 9-foot metal styling from (The electric candelabra’s design allows for manual activation or a convenient automatic mode for each of the eight nights of the holiday.) They asked if I would oversee the lighting of this new menorah in Lions Park in downtown Basalt on the first night of Chanukah. I was honored to represent the valley’s Jewish community and the Aspen Jewish Congregation at this special event. Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt attended, along with members of the Town Council and upward of 100 valley residents, including many children. Dreidels and gelt (chocolate coins) enhanced the festivities, along with Chanukah songs and blessings led beautifully by my wife, Cantor Rollin Simmons, and many of our religious school students.

I believe this was the first-ever civic menorah lighting anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley (someone please correct me if I’m wrong). I was proud to celebrate a holiday of religious freedom in a way that highlights the extraordinary religious freedom we enjoy as Americans. A society shows its strength when it embraces diversity and difference.

We witnessed another milestone for religious freedom last month, albeit on a different scale. The Senate confirmed Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. He is the first non-Christian to serve in this role.

For 40 years, Saperstein headed the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism. According to its website (, the center “educates and mobilizes the Reform Jewish community on legislative and social concerns, advocating on more than 70 different issues, including economic justice, civil rights, religious liberty, Israel and more. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the RAC’s advocacy work is completely nonpartisan and pursues public policies that reflect the Jewish values of social justice that form the core of our mandate.” Under Saperstein’s leadership, the center and the Reform Jewish Movement have sustained a powerful and effective prophetic voice in Washington.

I was privileged to work with Saperstein at the Religious Action Center between college and rabbinic school. His mentorship and example were pivotal in my own decision to become a rabbi. He continues to model and teach that religion must not stay sheltered within the walls of a worship space or limited to private interactions. Fundamental religious commitments to justice and compassion must inform our actions in public life, too. They should motivate our drive to bring our country ever closer to the high ideals to which we aspire.

As he takes the helm of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, Saperstein will bring his prophetic leadership to the global community. He will defend the cause of oppressed religious minorities around the world and leverage America’s diplomatic power to effect positive change. I’m proud as an American to be represented by Saperstein on the world stage, and proud of America for selecting him for this post.

This holiday season, I’ve been thinking globally about the potential impact of a great rabbi leading America’s charge for religious freedom around the globe. And I’ve been acting locally by the simple act of celebrating Chanukah in public with the Basalt community. The latter may seem small on a global scale, but it’s part of the same continuum of religious freedom. In 2015, may we speak out on behalf of those still fighting for freedom of religion around the world as we give thanks that we enjoy that freedom in our own backyard.

Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, hopes his readers appreciate satire. He can be reached at 970-925-8245 or He blogs at, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.