Rabbi Lynne Landsberg at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s 2017 Consultation on Conscience conference. (Courtesy of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg: champion of social justice, giant of the disability rights movement

By Curtis Ramsey-Lucas

I first learned from posts on social media. Shortly after, I received an email from a colleague in ministry. Rabbi Lynne Landsberg had died. The news was not unexpected. I knew she was in hospice care. Still it was sudden, shocking and saddening.

Rabbi Landsberg was a prominent Reform rabbi, a champion of social justice, and a giant of the disability rights movement. She was an advocate for people with disabilities who became disabled herself after a 1999 car accident. She led two Reform congregations in Virginia and was the associate director, and later, senior advisor on disability rights, at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.

She founded and co-chaired the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee on Disability Awareness and Inclusion. She helped found and lead the Jewish Disability Network and the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC). Her impact within and beyond Jewish faith and practice was significant and enduring.

I first met Lynne through my involvement with IDAC. Prior to her retirement, we served together several years on its steering committee.

Lynne was determined. She was elegant. She was humorous. I am not the first to say she was a force of nature nor will I be the last to remember her as such.

She was a fierce advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), lobbying Congress to pass it in 1990. Troubled that religious organizations received an exemption from some of the provisions of the law, she lobbied faith communities to meet or exceed the ADA’s requirements and become accessible to and inclusive of people with disabilities. She supported efforts to improve access to education and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

In 2015, on the 25th anniversary of the ADA, Lynne received the Thornburgh Family Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities. Named for former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, his wife, Ginny, and son, Peter, the award recognizes a religious leader who exemplifies the spirit of the ADA.

Lynne received the award at an interfaith worship service celebrating the progress and promise of the ADA. Dick and Ginny Thornburgh were there. Lynne knew she was receiving the award but was surprised to learn we had secured a letter of congratulations from President Obama. In it, he wrote:

By bringing people of diverse faiths and backgrounds together around the mission of expanding opportunity, you have helped shape a more inclusive future for generations to come. Your leadership reflects essential beliefs at the core of our Nation’s creed: that all things are possible for all people, and that we all do better when we lift each other up. While our work to uphold fairness and equality is unending, our country is stronger and truer to itself because of the progress leaders like you have inspired.

Lynne understood politics. She knew politics wasn’t about the emails sent or the phone calls made, important as those things are. Politics is about showing up for meetings and developing enduring relationships with legislators, their staffs, and other advocates.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg showed up time after time for the causes, concerns and people for whom she was passionate. In so doing, she helped shape a more just and inclusive future for all, one that is ours to continue to shape and expand with thanksgiving for her life and legacy.

Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.