Next Time, Let’s Teach Social Justice in an Effective Way

January 29, 2010

Source: The Jewish Daily Forward


In an opinion piece in The Forward, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the rabbi-in-residence of Jewish Funds for Justice, outlines five principles that can guide Jewish educators toward more effective social justice education programs.


Implementing the following principles, social justice education can help students to find meaning in Jewish wisdom and practice, to build community among themselves and to gain the skills for a lifelong engagement in creating a better world.

  1. Clarify our broader goals. Done well, Jewish social justice education should create individuals and institutions for whom responsibility to the world is a central and integrated part of their Jewish lives, and who act publicly as Jews. This work should also lead directly to positive change in the world. Instead, we sometimes use social justice as a tool for engaging unaffiliated Jews, or we look for service opportunities that correspond to our own needs, rather than to the needs of the target community.
  2. Integrate social justice into the life of the institution. Too often, service or tzedakah experiences stand apart from the curriculum of a school, or from the life of the synagogue. As a result, students internalize the idea that social justice is an optional extra. Instead, we can connect the social justice work to other parts of the curriculum, and highlight the connections between social justice work and ritual practice.
  3. Take text and history seriously. This means engaging in a dialogue between Jewish texts and contemporary issues, in which we bring each to bear on our understanding of the other. Rather than choose a few quotes that support the work that we are doing, we should dive deeply into Jewish civil law discussions about housing, poverty, worker-employer relations and other issues. We should not be afraid to deal with texts that seem difficult or even offensive, but should bring these texts into conversation with our experiences. This means allowing texts to challenge our assumptions about what we have seen or experienced, and also allowing our experiences to challenge our readings of the texts.
  4. Equalize the encounter. In their social justice work, participants should learn directly from local leaders and community members who are making change in their own communities. This approach breaks down the paradigm in which wealthier communities encounter lower-income communities only as victims and recipients.
  5. Tackle big issues and big solutions. In the course of service work, ask, “What is the source of this problem, and how can we solve it?” We should make learning about the causes of hunger, homelessness and other issues an essential part of the curriculum. While encouraging students to participate in direct service work, we should also explore means of creating long-term change through advocacy, organizing and community development.
Updated: Feb. 04, 2010