Obama nominates rabbi as religious freedom ambassador


WASHINGTON — Rabbi David Saperstein, director and counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is President Barack Obama’s nominee to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

The State Department post has been vacant since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned in October 2013. She had held the position from since May 2011.

“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 July 28 in announcing his nomination, which will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The ambassador-at-large serves as principle adviser on religious freedom to Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama administration.

The position was created as a part of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The law was aimed at increasing attention to the role of religion in diplomacy, especially addressing deficiencies in religious freedom worldwide.

The law also created a separate entity, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, to monitor and advise the administration and Congress on the issue.

Rabbi Saperstein, who has been at the Religious Action Center in Washington since 1974, is also an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches First Amendment church-state law and Jewish law. He serves on a number of boards, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.

He was a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2010 to 2011. He was a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001, serving as its first chair from 1999 to 2000.

Over the years, Rabbi Saperstein has joined with Catholic bishops and other religious leaders in speaking out and issuing joint statements on a variety of issues, including immigration and health care reform.

He has bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s degree in rabbinical studies from Hebrew Union College, and a law degree from American University.

Rabbi Saperstein is married to Ellen Weiss, an award-winning broadcast journalist. They have two sons, Daniel and Ari.