THE JEWISH HIGH HOLIDAYS begin this week with Rosh Hashanah, ushering in the year 5772. Each year, most rabbis devote at least one High Holiday sermon to Israel. This year, given the tumultuous pace of front-page headlines concerning Israel’s future—rabbis may speak at length about Israel. That means many of the men and women who soon will be delivering sermons to their congregations are spending long hours thinking about what they should say concerning the Middle East.
In this high-anxiety season of news events, Rabbi Jill Jacobs—who regularly is ranked among America’s “most influential rabbis”—is voicing a nationwide appeal for courageous preaching on social-justice issues, as well. Of course, social justice always is a theme at the High Holidays. This year, Jacobs is appealing to men and women to go beond the annual calls to repair America’s fragmented cities, defend workers’ rights, combat poverty and speak out against many forms of bigotry. Beyond voicing those essential goals, Jacobs wants men, women and young people to roll up their sleeves and oganize long-term programs in one community after another.
Her new book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, is less an analysis of specific issues than a nuts-and-bolts manifesto connecting scripture with centuries of accumulated Jewish wisdom and practical advice on organizing communities in 2011. ReadTheSpirit highly recommends her book for Jews—and for non-Jews, too.
TODAY, to stir you to order a copy of Where Justice Dwells, here is a short excerpt, taken from the opening pages of Rabbi Jacobs’ book …
Envisioning a Just Place
(from Where Justice Dwells)
By Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Jewish tradition holds out the promise of a messianic era, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, every person will have a roof over his or her head, nobody will die before old age, and all war will end. This vision challenges us to believe that incremental progress in each generation will eventually lead to a perfected world. With this vision in mind, we can never be satisfied even with major changes in policy or culture. …
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. …
Even as we pray for and dream of the perfected world, we also need a goal that’s a bit closer at hand—perhaps five or ten years away. In sitting down with members of your own community to plan your social justice work, you might start by asking yourselves, “What do we want our city to look like a decade from now? What do we hope that our own community will look like as a result of our involvement in the place where we live?” By beginning with this question, rather than jumping into whatever projects seem readily available, you will create a collective vision that will guide your work in the years to come. …
Today, social justice is hot in Jewish circles. Thousands of young people participate in Jewish service learning trips to the Gulf Coast, Latin America, Africa, Arizona and other places usually far away from their homes. These participants return inspired to take action. In the best cases, program alumni devote themselves to raising money for the community they visited, to taking political action on an issue they learned about during their program, or to involving themselves in a local issue for the first time. But more often than not, the initial excitement dissipates with the return home. Too often, we jump from place to place in search of the next exciting cause or meaningful experience. Heartbreaking pictures of a natural disaster in New Orleans, Haiti, or Chile prompt us to empty our wallets, but we have typically forgotten about that place by the time the difficult work of rebuilding gets under way. We listen to speakers talk about the human rights crisis of the moment, and we leave the hall furious. But a week later, another speaker excites our passions about a different issue in a different place.
What if, instead, individuals and communities chose a small number of places and invested heavily in a personal, financial, and political relationship with these places? One of these places should be the place we live. But another might be a place we have visited on vacation, where we have studied, or one that fascinates us from afar. For some Jews, one of these places will always be Israel. Some of us will choose the place where our grandparents were born. Parents of children adopted from abroad might continue to invest in their children’s birthplace. Television images of genocide or natural disaster might prompt us to learn more about the struggles of people we may never meet.
“Our places” may change over the course of our lifetime, as we move from city to city, explore the world, and develop relationships with new people and locales. But in the course of a multiyear commitment to a place, we have the chance to develop an intimate connection to that place, and perhaps even to have an impact there. This commitment does not mean that we should never respond to a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis or should never direct our money or advocacy toward a place that is not “ours.” But these contributions should supplement, not replace, our primary investments in our places.
Jews once had a word for this idea. The 19th-century Bundists—Jewish socialists in Eastern Europe—called investment in one’s home doykayt, “hereness.” For the Bundists, doykayt represented an explicit rejection of the early Zionist movement, with its belief in sh’lilat hagolah, “the negation of the Diaspora.” That Zionist belief proposed that Jewish life, by definition, could not flourish in the Diaspora; the Bundists thought otherwise. But doykayt no longer has to stand in opposition to a commitment to the State of Israel or another place. Air travel, the Internet, and the common practice of living in multiple places over a lifetime all enable us to establish a long-term relationship with a distant part of the world—even while we form deep commitments to the place in which we currently live.
Care to read more by and about Rabbi Jill Jacobs?
VISIT 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 readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.