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Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community

Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community

by Jill Jacobs, David Saperstein (Foreword by)

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How can Jewish values inform our work to create a just world—and help us work together for the good of all communities?

"Somehow, most Jews have decided that being a 'good Jew' means adhering to rituals such as Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer. But the word halakhah, generally translated as 'Jewish law,' literally means ‘the way to


How can Jewish values inform our work to create a just world—and help us work together for the good of all communities?

"Somehow, most Jews have decided that being a 'good Jew' means adhering to rituals such as Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer. But the word halakhah, generally translated as 'Jewish law,' literally means ‘the way to walk.’ Rather than a limited set of ritual laws, halakhah represents an all-encompassing way of life."
—from Chapter 1

Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable among us. But discerning how to make meaningful and effective change through social justice work—whether in community or on your own—is not always easy.

This guide provides ways to envision and act on your own ideals of social justice by helping you navigate through such issues as:

  • Creating a narrative mission statement that reflects your organization’s values
  • Balancing the needs of your community with those of other communities
  • Weighing the pros and cons of various models of social justice work (direct service, advocacy, investment and community organizing)
  • Expanding the impact and efficiency of your work
  • Locating your social justice goals and methods within the context of Jewish tradition
  • Maintaining the motivation and inspiration to continue your social justice work

Each chapter includes a set of discussion questions to prompt reflection and conversation, as well as tips, tools, processes and forms for getting your social justice project off the ground.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Born in 1975, author Jacobs (There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition) has been a social justice activist from her high school days in Framingham, Mass., where she persuaded the Board of Education to introduce sex education into the curriculum. Earlier this year, she became the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, concerned with Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Jacobs has published much on social justice, and her new volume is a primer on how to do social justice work, containing practical advice on organizing groups and congregations to fulfill what she considers to be a Jewish obligation, citing texts to support her view. She gives, however, scant attention to the historical and ongoing endeavors of Jewish social workers in this field. The book is a worthwhile mixture of exhortation with blow-by-blow recipes for doing social justice work. It reflects the author's strong belief in social action based on Jewish sources. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Social justice activists, scholars and teachers will treasure [this]…. Her wise and practical insights [will] inspire each of us to shape a more just world."
Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president, Union for Reform Judaism

"Continually and thoroughly integrates theory with practice. In crystal-clear language with ample examples, explore[s] serious questions about whom we should help, why and how…. A must-read for any Jew who wants to transform good intentions into actions—and to know how and why the Jewish tradition can help [you] do that."
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, PhD, author, The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World)

“Fresh and inspiring … a guide to Jewish responsibility and a restoration of classical biblical and rabbinic values in the lives of Jews today.”
Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College

“Brilliant.… A pitch-perfect guide for schools, congregations and communal organizations to engage in thoughtful, focused and effective social justice work…. Never skimps on the in-depth issues that may appear to complicate the matter but will, in fact, make the right results emerge.”
Ruth Messinger, president, American Jewish World Service

“An important contribution to synagogues that want to deepen their commitment to social justice work, [and] to individual Jews who want to understand the deep connection between Judaism and the commitment to repair the world.”
Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

“A magnificent how-to guide for Jewish institutions that want to take social justice seriously.”
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, author, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World

“Masterful…. Gives voice to a broader meaning of what it means to be a 'religious' Jew…. A deeply authentic religious underpinning for a 'spiritual practice' of social justice.”
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, author, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities

“Unique insights [on] repairing the world through social justice as part of the fullest expression of Jewish values.”
Rabbi Steve Wernick, executive vice president, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

“Presents more than the possibilities of Jewish social justice … a compelling road map that moves us from a place of altruism to a place of profound obligation.”
Dr. Erica Brown, author, Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities

“[Turns] passion and deep insights about justice into a practical and practicable guide … teaches us how we can place justice at the center and change the world.”
Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

“There are several publications and websites that give us the ‘how-to’ for doing the work of social justice and religious action. In this volume, Rabbi Jacobs also provides us with the ‘why-to’—the Jewish sources and in-depth thinking about our obligation to make this work a priority in our communities.”
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, immediate past president, Central Conference of American Rabbis

“An inspiration. I could not put it down…. In a voice of passion, wisdom and compassion … teaches us to turn our prayers into reality.”
Rabbi Naomi Levy, author, To Begin Again and Hope Will Find You

“Takes our hand and leads us step by step down the path of tikkun olam…. Pragmatic and yet lofty … a must for individuals and communities alike.”
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Nevei Kodesh, Boulder; author, The Receiving:
Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom
and With Roots in Heaven

“Challenges congregations to grapple with and integrate deeply social justice into congregational lives…. Offers textual understanding, vision and practical tools…. A must-read for faith-based social action.”
Kim Bobo, executive director, Interfaith Worker Justice; author, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It

“Offers a compelling vision of a world made whole, and concrete methods for living out our highest ideals in the public square…. Brings real, sustainable, meaningful transformation—of our communities, of the globe—within reach.”
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, author, Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion

“[Will] work for any Jew … [and] help you learn how to fulfill your Jewish and societal responsibilities…. Has all the rigor of a halakhic work with the passion and vision inspired by our prophetic tradition.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, Chicago

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Read an Excerpt

Where Justice Dwells

A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs


Copyright © 2011 Jill Jacobs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58023-453-5

Chapter One

Why Jewish Social Justice?

During rabbinical school, I spent a summer working at a labor union in New Jersey. Word spread quickly that a rabbi-to-be was in the building. In my first few days there, at least half a dozen people showed up at my desk to talk about their own Jewish identities. The son of a Jewish communal professional wondered aloud whether labor organizing constituted Jewish work. A union lawyer spoke about her commitment to public interest law as a calling rooted in Judaism. A few staff members hoped for confirmation that they were "good Jews" despite not going to synagogue or keeping kosher.

All of these union employees shared a deeply felt conviction that social justice work is inherently Jewish. But most of them struggled to define exactly what was Jewish about this work. Progressive Jews often note, as a point of pride, the number of Goldbergs and Cohens who sit at the helm of American social justice organizations. These social justice leaders may not often speak publicly about the role of Judaism in their lives; when probed, though, many describe their work as stemming from their Jewish identity. Meanwhile, virtually every rabbi, educator, and synagogue lay leader I've met brags about his or her synagogue's or school's involvement in social action.

But we Jews can hardly just pat ourselves on the back for having produced so many prominent social justice leaders or for the existence of social action committees in virtually every synagogue. The Jewish community has also produced more than its share of slumlords, bosses who mistreat their workers, and corporate tax evaders. Ubiquitous as they may be, social action committees often hover on the sidelines of synagogue life.

As the American Jewish community becomes increasingly wealthy and increasingly comfortable in the United States, it is no longer fair to assume that Jews will always put aside personal financial self-interest in favor of creating opportunity for others. The vague sense that there is "something Jewish" about social justice will not be enough to sustain long-term involvement in this work. Instead, we must formulate a coherent argument for why justice must remain at the center of Jewish life.

The Jewish obligation for social justice stems from four sources: the historical experience, the legal imperative, a vision of the world to come, and practical considerations about the place of Jews in a diverse society. These four sources should inspire Jews to do social justice work not only as individuals, but also within the specific context of Jewish communal institutions.


Ask most Jews what they know about Jewish history, and they will recite some of the following information: We were slaves in the land of Egypt. We survived the Babylonian and Roman invasions, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. We came to America as poor immigrants. We established some of the first labor unions in America. We marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama. We have been at the forefront of the feminist movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and other modern liberation struggles.

Jews who are deeply involved in social justice often trace their commitment to this work to their family histories. From supporters of immigration and immigrants' rights, I have heard stories about parents and grandparents who came to the United States with nothing, found a foothold in their new country, and taught their children and grandchildren to care for vulnerable populations. Public school teachers have shared with me the role that good public schools played in propelling their own families from poverty into the middle class. Labor organizers cite the union movement as the reason their families escaped the tenements.

We tell these stories as though it is a foregone conclusion that a people that has experienced both suffering and liberation will dedicate itself to alleviating the suffering of others. But the world does not always work like that. The experience of oppression can trigger at least two types of responses. The first model is that of the proverbial playground bully who suffers abuse at home and then takes out his anger on anyone smaller than himself. After suffering through centuries of persecution, the Jewish community could decide to wage a violent attack against everyone else. The Torah even would offer some precedent for such action, in the commandment to wipe out Amalek in retribution for this tribe's attack on the Israelites on their way out of slavery (Deuteronomy 25:17–19). Some Jewish extremists do advocate violence toward non-Jews. But the normative Jewish tradition rails against the instinct for revenge. The Torah itself forbids oppressing Egyptians, let alone orphans, widows, foreigners, or other vulnerable populations. In its repeated exhortation to care for the stranger because "you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20), the Bible sets a precedent that history imposes obligations.

One of the best-known lines of the Passover Haggadah comments, "In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she, personally, had come forth from Egypt." The obligation to tell the story of the Exodus compels us not only to speak of our ancestors' slavery and liberation, but to see their story as our own.

How do we see ourselves as having come forth from Egypt? The most literalist readings point to another line in the Haggadah: "If God had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt." We see ourselves as liberated slaves because, absent a miraculous series of events, we actually might have been born into slavery. More allegorical interpretations speak instead of the different kinds of emotional and spiritual slavery from which we continuously seek liberation.

The Sephardic tradition maintains a slightly, but significantly, different version of this command. The Sephardic Haggadah comments, "In every generation, one is obligated to show oneself [l'harot et atzmo] as though he or she, personally, had come forth from Egypt." In contrast to the introspective nature of the command lirot et atzmo—to see ourselves as having come forth from Egypt—this version of the obligation demands action.

For me, the intersection between these two commands speaks precisely to the challenge of being a Jew in America today.

The obligation of memory is twofold. The commandment lirot et atzmo, "to see ourselves" as liberated slaves, compels us to remember the suffering that has characterized much of Jewish history and to take pride in the role that Jews played in early civil rights and labor struggles.

But telling stories about the past does not suffice. The obligation l'harot et atzmo, "to show ourselves," demands action, not just introspection. Showing ourselves as having experienced poverty, discrimination, and inequality means continuously working to alleviate the suffering of others. And the cycle continues: the more we show ourselves to be people who respond to oppression, the more we and our children will see ourselves as such. And so on.


When I first tell someone that I am a rabbi, I often find myself the beneficiary of an outpouring of Jewish guilt. "Rabbi," my new acquaintance says, "I'm so sorry—I haven't been to synagogue since my bar mitzvah." Or: "I'm such a bad Jew—I didn't fast on Yom Kippur." Or: "I guess I shouldn't tell you that I had bacon for breakfast."

I certainly didn't get into the rabbinate to police other people's practice. The outpouring of guilt can be a bit much when I'm just trying to enjoy a quiet airplane flight or shmoozing at a party. A rabbi friend of mine got so fed up with the guilt that she started telling strangers that she is an astrophysicist. "Nobody can ever think of another question," she explained.

While I will probably never enjoy hearing confessions of others' perceived sins, I am struck that nobody has yet apologized to me for cheating on his or her taxes, underpaying workers, or failing to give tzedakah. Somehow, most Jews have decided that being a "good Jew" means adhering to rituals such as Shabbat, kashrut, and prayer.

But the word halakhah, generally translated as "Jewish law," literally means "the way to walk." Rather than a limited set of ritual laws, halakhah represents an all-encompassing way of life. Classical compendiums of halakhah generally consist of four sections of law: Orach Chayim deals with prayer, holiday observance, Shabbat, and other aspects of day-to-day life; Yoreh De'ah addresses kashrut, brit milah, tzedakah, and other ritual practices; Even HaEzer focuses on marriage, divorce, and family law; and Choshen Mishpat tackles civil law. Traditionally, Jewish education has emphasized the first two of these sections, and to a lesser extent the third. Many more teshuvot (legal opinions) respond to questions about Shabbat and kashrut than to ones about the appropriate treatment of workers. And modern Jews have largely internalized the idea that the core of Jewish practice consists of prescribed ritual behaviors.

There are good historical reasons for this de-emphasis of civil law. For most of history, Jews have had little political power and have been subject to the laws of the lands in which they have lived. With Christianity as the dominant model, Jews adapted to the idea that religion governs only private life. In considering whether to grant citizenship to French Jews or to expel them, Napoleon asked representatives of the community a series of questions aimed at determining whether Judaism was a religion or a nation. The answers, all of which classified Judaism as a religion, were the right ones from the perspective of allowing French Jews to become citizens; but from the perspective of classical Jewish thought, they reduced Judaism to a shadow of itself. Much later, the founders of the State of Israel struck a deal between the religious and secular factions: British common law (with some influences from Ottoman and international law) would continue to govern the nascent state, but laws pertaining to personal status would follow halakhah as interpreted by the Orthodox establishment. Since 1948, Israeli courts have increasingly looked to international law as well as halakhah and Jewish tradition in their decisions.

The decision to base Israeli law on British common law was a logical one. During the period of the British Mandate (1923–1948), British common law ruled Palestine; maintaining existing laws was certainly easier than resuscitating ancient and medieval Jewish laws that had never been used to govern a sovereign nation. However, ceding matters of personal status to the Orthodox rabbinical establishment has caused no end of difficulties. The absence of civil marriage or divorce means that women can be trapped by husbands who refuse to grant a religious divorce. Conservative and Reform rabbis cannot perform weddings in the State of Israel, and interfaith couples or those who want no religious ritual must go abroad to marry. It seems likely that an attempt to base civil law on halakhah would also have resulted in a disempowerment of non-Orthodox movements and individuals.

The decision to split Israeli law between the religious sphere and the secular sphere was grounded in practical concerns. Ultimately, though, this split reinforces the notion that Judaism has nothing to say about everyday life, but serves only as a limiting (and even oppressive) factor in areas of ritual and life cycle.

But halakhah can make a positive contribution even to modern systems of law. One of the most exciting moments of my own career occurred when an Israeli lawyer called to ask for guidance in arguing a Supreme Court case against the "Wisconsin Plan," a controversial welfare-to-work program that cast many low-income Israelis into even deeper economic distress. Basing ourselves on classical Jewish sources, she and I crafted an argument about the responsibility of the state to care for its citizens. Using this argument— as well as precedents from Israeli and international law—she and her team won the case and secured the cancellation of the program.

Jewish communities outside of the State of Israel might not expect civil courts to take halakhah into consideration. But for Jews who do not want to leave their spiritual selves and their relationship with the Divine at the synagogue door, taking halakhah seriously requires thinking about civil law in terms of obligation, rather than altruism. Religious Jews will not spend money on Shabbat or eat a ham sandwich no matter how tempting the alternative might be. In the same way, being a religious Jew should mean being scrupulous about paying workers appropriately, giving tzedakah (gifts to the poor), and maintaining fair business practices.

In 2008, the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (halakhic opinion) that I wrote, in which I concluded that Jewish employers are obligated to pay their workers a living wage. In the course of the discussion, a number of committee members objected that this requirement would cut into the profit margins of small businesses and could even force synagogues and schools to cut their program budgets. I responded that Jewish institutions think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars more to serve kosher food. El Al, the national airline of Israel, no doubt loses millions of dollars a year as a result of not flying on Shabbat. But Jewish institutions calculate into their budgets the costs of ritual practices commonly understood as obligatory. The demands of Jewish civil law are no less serious.

Accepting Jewish civil law as obligatory means sometimes prioritizing the needs of the larger world over our immediate desires. This approach rejects definitions of tzedakah or justice work as altruism, generosity, or good deeds. Instead, this work becomes something we have to do in the process of creating a world that reflects the divine presence.


Despite all of the injustices, bloodshed, and pain to which human beings have subjected one another, Judaism maintains a belief in the possibility of a world of loving-kindness and justice. In such a world, humans will fulfill their destiny to be "very good," in the words of the creation story, and will perfect rather than destroy creation.

In a column for the New York Times, the philosopher Peter Singer asks whether human beings should make a worldwide pact not to have children. In the end, Singer rejects this proposition, saying that he remains too much of an optimist to wish for the end of the human species. But along the way, he questions the justice of bringing a new person into the world when it is likely that this person will suffer. Singer asks, "Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?"

Along the same lines, a midrash imagines the angels arguing about whether human beings should be created at all. In this midrash, God comes to the angels to ask their opinions about whether human beings should be created. The angels split into factions, representing the attributes of loving-kindness, truth, justice, and peace:

Loving-kindness said, "Create humanity, for they will do acts of loving-kindness." Truth said, "Do not create them, for they are full of lies." Justice said, "Create them, for they will do acts of justice." Peace said, "Do not create them, for they are quarrelsome."

Determined to break the tie in favor of creating humanity, God throws truth to the ground. In response to the other angels' pleas, God eventually restores truth, but not before human beings have been created (B'reishit Rabbah 8:5).

In this midrash, the angels make logical arguments for and against the creation of human beings. At the end of the discussion, the philosophical question has not been resolved. We do not know whether the authors of the midrash conclude that human beings do more harm or more good to the world. We do know that God dispenses with logic and creates humanity by fiat. This is the Jewish response to Singer: logical arguments will not solve the question of whether human beings are ultimately good or evil. Rather, the investment in human survival is a matter of faith, not philosophy.


Excerpted from Where Justice Dwells by Rabbi Jill Jacobs Copyright © 2011 by Jill Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. . Widely acknowledged as one of the leading voices in Jewish social justice, Rabbi Jacobs is also the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition and Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (both Jewish Lights). She has been voted to the Forward newspaper's list of fifty influential Jews, to Newsweek's list of the fifty most influential rabbis in America and to the Jewish Week's list of "thirty-six under thirty-six."

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is available to speak on the following topics:

  • Social Justice in Judaism: Historical, Textual and Political Roots, and Their Meaning for Jews Today
  • Synagogue Social Justice That Works
  • In the Image: A Jewish Take on Human Rights
  • Torah in the Workplace: Ethical Business Practices for the Synagogue, School, Home and Business
  • A Jewish Approach to Combating Human Trafficking

Click here to contact the author.

Rabbi David Saperstein has served as the director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism for over thirty years. He co-chairs the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty and serves on the boards of numerous national organizations, including the NAACP and People for the American Way. In 1999, Saperstein was elected as the first chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

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