Interview with Rabbi Jill Jacobs on faith and justice JILL JACOBS addresses a conference. Photo courtesy of Jill Jacobs. it comes to training Jewish men and women for social and political justice, no one can claim a more extensive record than Rabbi David Saperstein, who has led the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism for 30 years. When Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ name is mentioned in news stories, reporters usually note that she ranks among the “most influential rabbis” in America, referring to annual lists of the top 50 rabbis. Usually at the very top of that list, you’ll find Saperstein. So, introducing our interview today are these lines from the Foreword Saperstein wrote for Rabbi Jill Jacob’s new book:
Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community.

“In a compelling tour de force, Rabbi Jacobs weaves together seamlessly several kinds of books to create a work that masterfully integrates Jewish legal and narrative text, sociological research, and compelling stories of people she has met and with whom she has worked. She has created an inspiring call to arms and a practical tool for everyone interested in creating and expanding social justice work in their synagogues and larger communities. Most particularly, it is a rich repository of invaluable analysis and, drawing on the best practices from across the nation, an effective guidebook for synagogues, rabbis and lay activists that describes with clarity, insight, and creativity how to bring about real transformation in synagogue life around tikkun olam.”

To Saperstein’s summary, ReadTheSpirit adds: Christian leaders also will find this book fascinating and a powerful re-connection to the enduring roots of their own teachings on social justice within Judaism.


DAVID: Many of our readers are familiar with Rabbi Saperstein’s Religious Action Center. That group has been around for half a century and often is mentioned in news stories. But, tell us a little about the group you lead: Rabbis for Human Rights—North America. Your group isn’t as well known.

JILL: Rabbis for Human Rights—North America brings together 1,800 rabbis of all denominations. We’re the only specifically rabbinic group that works in social justice. As rabbis, we collectively must be leaders in some of the most difficult moral issues of our time.

DAVID: We will provide a link to your group—but we should make it clear that your book is different from the specific agenda of Rabbis for Human Rights. Rabbi Sapperstein does a nice job of describing the breadth of your book. This really is a basic orientation to social justice for congregations. Since your day job and your new book seem to be a bit different—tell us how you connect the dots between the two. For example, Rabbis for Human Rights works tirelessly to combat human trafficking, what many people may call “modern slavery.” You also campaign for workers’ rights. In your book, you write more generally about religious principles of combatting poverty. How do you connect the dots? For us, a commitment to end poverty and injustice for many people starts with a commitment to workers’ rights. Then, a commitment to workers’ right starts by ending human trafficking. We don’t see the problem of human trafficking as separate from the labor situation. It’s really the ugly bottom rung of our labor market. This is all a part of doing social justice.

For example, I just went with a group of 16 rabbis down to Florida to an area where workers pick most of the tomatoes we eat. These workers don’t get paid minimum wage. They work with all kinds of chemicals that are dangerous for humans. A trip like this allows us to see for ourselves as rabbis what really is happening in these situations. When we return home, we can report first-hand to others about these conditions.

DAVID: For three years, you’ve been included in the top-50 listings of “most influential rabbis.” Beyond the boost that provides you in your work, tell us what you see when you look at the other 49 men and women in that list. What does this top tier of publicly celebrated leaders look like to you?

JILL: One thing that strikes me when I see those lists is that many of the people are not working in traditional settings. We have rabbis on that list like Sharon Brous, who created a new kind of community in Los Angeles. Rachel Nusbaum, who co-founded the Kavana Cooperative, is on the list. The guys from Mechon Hadar are there—they’re trying a new approach to train thoughtful Jewish lay leaders. I’m seeing more young people on the annual lists. Of course, the way they find people for those lists is that journalists look for rabbis who are out in public a lot. I’m honored to be on the list, but I’m aware that most of us are there because we do show up in public a lot. I could name for you a dozen pulpit rabbis who are under the public radar, but are very influential in their local communities. These rabbis are not known nationally, yet they have had a massive effect in the lives of so many people they serve in their communities. So, it’s nice to be on the list, but I don’t get too carried away with it.


DAVID: As we publish this interview, the Jewish High Holidays are starting. What messages would you like to hear rabbis discuss in their holiday sermons? Often, they address the community’s concern for Israel.

JILL: The message we want people to talk about concerning Israel is that we’re at a critical juncture. The Zionist dream was that there would be a social-democratic state, a peaceful life, a refuge, a country that would take care of its people. But there’s this huge question of what will happen with the Palestinians. And, all summer, we’ve been seeing social protests. Young people are saying: I went to grad school and now I can’t even pay my debts. I am trying to live this middle-class Israeli dream we were promised—but that dream doesn’t exist. Right now, Israel has the highest income gap in the Western world. For those of us who care about the future of Israel, the question is: How do we get Israel to live up to the dream? We tend to talk about Israel as having already fulfilled the dream. But we’re not there yet.  We’re not at the ideal. I’d like rabbis to say: What do we want Israel to be? And how do we make it what we imagine it should be?

Beyond the question of Israel, we also are at a critical juncture here in America. We need to be asking: What do we want America to be? Is this a country just for rich people? Or is this a country for everyone. What do we want America to be? A lot of Americans are realizing that they can’t simply hope to work hard and support their families. We’re seeing the rich getting richer and more Americans getting poorer every year. Our income gap is the highest we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Somehow we’ve lost sight of the American dream. Owning a yacht isn’t part of the American dream. We don’t seem to have learned anything from the Wall Street crash. We’ve got politicians arguing that we need to extend tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. They’re arguing that America should be run by the wealthy.

In Judaism, there are protections so that nobody is supposed to get too rich and nobody is supposed to get too poor. There’s the concept of the sabbatical year when things are made right again. At least people can get back to zero and have a fair shot. But somehow, we’ve lost sight of this.

DAVID: That’s eloquent and you’re actually outlining conclusions that our own OurValues project has been reporting in recent months. We just published a five-day series on the threat that this widening income gap represents for America’s future. As you talk about this, I’m reminded of the opening of your book, which we will excerpt in Part 1 of our coverage his week. You’re talking about religious ideals here. As a nation, we are living our political lives out of whack with our own religious ideals.

JILL: As a Jew, I’m always thinking about whether what I’m doing in the world is going to bring us closer to the messianic era. We need to have a vision of how the world can be much better than it is—so we don’t get stuck on trying to make one little fix here or there and thinking that’s enough. It’s crucial to envision that there can be a much better world—and that we should contribute toward making that much better world possible. There are many things we can do close to home that will help, but we can’t get anywhere if we don’t know where we’re going.

For me, doing social justice day in and day out is frustrating. We move a step forward, but we often move two steps back. If our vision is too limited—if we’re simply committed to serving in a soup kitchen and that’s as far as our vision extends—then one day we may wake up and decide: Hey, this isn’t worth it anymore! That’s why we need that vision of the kind of world we believe is possible. If I see what I’m doing in the context of hundreds of years and hundreds of generations working toward a better world, then I’m in a much better position to keep going and to make a real difference. That’s the message we really need to share with people right now.

(Part 1 of this 2-part series includes an excerpt of Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ new book.)

Care to read more by and about Rabbi Jill Jacobs? RABBIS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS—NORTH AMERICA: Here is the Staff page that introduces visitors to the nonprofit group that Rabbi Jill Jacobs now leads.

BUY HER BOOK FROM JEWISH LIGHTS PUBLISHING: It’s called Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community—and this link takes you to Jewish Lights.

READ ABOUT RABBI JACOBS’ EARLIER BOOK: In 2009, we interviewed Rabbi Jill Jacobs about her first book, There Shall Be No Needy. (The Jewish Lights link, above, also features that earlier book.)

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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