As part of the JTS Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship, we have been engaged in a number of social justice-related discussions this year. Two particular areas of ongoing discussion that relate directly to the work we’re doing in our internships revolve around: what’s Jewish about social justice and who Jewish social justice is for. Since our 2013-2014 cohort convened in August, we have spent a lot of time teasing out what, specifically, is Jewish about social justice. We ask questions ranging from what elements of Jewish tradition call for social action to why we consider social justice a Jewish value. Secondly, we look at the question of who should be the beneficiary of Jewish social justice. If our goal is to ease global suffering, but we feel the need to do so in a uniquely Jewish context, should Jews primarily benefit from social change efforts or should we cater to a more universal market? I find this second question exceptionally fascinating, and would like to explore this inquiry further.
It is interesting to note that out of ten fellows in this year’s Fellowship, only two are working for specifically Jewish social justice organizations. I am one of these two students, working for a new social media-based Israel education campaign called “ReThink Israel” – shameless plug alert!: check us out at www.rethinkisrael.org. I chose to work at ReThink Israel as part of this Fellowship because Israel allows the Jewish people the freedom to self-determination. As a Jew, I find this issue to be of central importance for two reasons. Firstly, self-determination provides Jews with a stronger defense system against persecution, and allows Jews a level of sovereignty they have not experienced for thousands of years. Secondly, self-determination also allows for many Jews to connect with their Judaism on a deeper level. This latter idea particularly resonates with me, as this contributes to a person’s development of a deep-rooted Jewish identity. Whether physically, politically, religiously or culturally, self-determination is a crucial element of social justice that cannot be overlooked – and why working for Israel is so important. Through Rethink Israel, I hope to educate and energize young American Jews around Israel and Israeli social justice through targeted, social media-based pitches. By using new technology to widen Israel’s support, ReThink Israel is committed to assuring Israel’s self-determination in the future.
The personal Jewish motivations behind my internship choice are obvious, as well as my belief that the safety of Israel should be a top priority for the Jewish people. Therefore, sometimes I struggle with the focus of some Jewish organizations on efforts that – while noble and necessary – are not uniquely Jewish. Each week I hear of the amazing work that everyone in our Fellowship cohort is doing at their various internships, as well as the overall importance of their respective organizations. Yet, I wonder if these are efforts we as Jews should pursue, especially over Jewish causes – many of which are also devoted to social justice. After all, while many Americans donate to the Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund, Jews are the primary supporters of Jewish social justice efforts. Without Jewish support, Jewish social justice initiatives that many Jews around the world benefit from will cease to exist.
Over the course of the Fellowship, we have discussed this big question at length and in great detail. First we looked at the Talmud’s opinion regarding the matter, and concluded that while the Talmud clearly states a need to prioritize helping Jews over non-Jews, other Talmudic passages assert the exact opposite notion. Additionally, different contemporary rabbis have used these sources to support his or her particular opinion, thereby leaving us in the same state of doubt. We are left, then, with the same questions. How should a Jew decide which organizations to support? Where to proceed from here?
The need to ask these questions is one of the greatest take-aways from my participation in JTS’s Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. While we each intern for organizations that serve different populations and tackle different social problems, we are all striving to define our work from a uniquely Jewish perspective. No matter what our experience, we infuse it with Jewish meaning that will enhance our lives – and the lives of those we serve – in multiple ways. Perhaps then, maintaining this balance may be enough, no matter what type of social justice we try to pursue.
What are your views on how Jews should enact tikkun olam? For some differing opinions on the particularism versus universalism debate, check out these articles:
- JTS Professor Jack Werthheimer’s “Giving Priority to the Jewish People”
- American Jewish World Service Founder Ruth Messinger’s “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
- Uri L’Tzedek’s Ari Hart’s “Peoplehood, Universalism, and Particularism.”
Danielle was recently proposed to while on the job at ReThink Israel! Her fiancee surprised her at the Israeli Consulate, which wrote a story about the event here.