NEW YORK (JTA) – The tale Jill Jacobs tells of the first steps in her journey to becoming one of the most recognizable names in Jewish social justice work has something of a storybook quality.
As a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Jacobs recalls having a “vague” social justice sensibility that inspired her to resist the school’s insularity. She notes that even the institution’s physical structure on the Upper West Side has its back turned, literally, on the poor Harlem residents to the north and east.
“I had very much been taught to be afraid of them,” Jacobs said, recalling the warning issued to undergraduates at nearby Columbia University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1997, not to venture north of 125th Street.
So Jacobs ventured beyond, working with disgruntled tenants by day and poring over Jewish texts by night, curious to see if the rabbis had anything useful to say about such matters. Turned out they did.
Nearly a decade later, those early explorations have led to the recently published “There Shall Be No Needy” (Jewish Lights Publishing), the product of years of Jacobs’ study of rabbinical teachings on social justice questions and her efforts to bring them to bear on current social policy debates in the United States.
But in truth, her gravitation toward the rabbinate and social justice work began earlier, as an undergraduate. While attending Columbia she became involved with a now-defunct peer education group called Lights in Action, and upon graduation she stayed on to run the organization.
“I was loving seeing the effect when I would teach somebody and they would suddenly connect in a way they hadn’t before,” Jacobs said. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could do this all the time.’ And then suddenly I realized that, oh, actually there is a profession that would let me do it.”
So Jacobs enrolled at the seminary, never really expecting that she would follow the bulk of her peers to the pulpit. A chronic overachiever — one seminary colleague describes her as brilliant, the kind of student who aced all her courses, spent her nights working in homeless shelters and still managed to arrive on time for her appointments — Jacobs earned a master’s degree in urban affairs from Hunter College while studying for the rabbinate.
She has twice been named to the Forward 50 list of the country’s most influential Jews and, in 2008, persuaded the Conservative movement’s law committee to adopt her halachic position paper on the living wage after years of effort. Through her teaching, speaking engagements and prodigious writing in Jewish publications, Jacobs has become one of the most prominent names associated with Jewish social justice.
But at the time of her ordination, the notion of combining the rabbinate with social justice work was an unusual one and Jacobs was at the vanguard of a growing trend. Large synagogues now are hiring assistant rabbis to focus specifically on social action — or in the current vernacular, “tikkun olam” — while a host of new or reinvigorated Jewish groups are doing social justice work, including programs geared specifically for rabbis and rabbis-to-be.
“On the one hand it feels incredibly gratifying that there’s now all these people who are graduating from the rabbinical schools who want to do social justice as rabbis,” said Jacobs, 33, the rabbi in residence at the nonprofit Jewish Funds for Justice. “On the other hand, I always feel bad because I don’t actually have any jobs to give them. There just aren’t that many jobs like this.”
Though the book, her first, is in part meant as a teaching aid for these rabbis, Jacobs also hopes it will push serious Jews to think about their social obligations and serious Jewish activists to think about what Judaism has to say about their efforts.
What it probably won’t do, notwithstanding its erudition, is dispel the suspicions of those on the right, many of whom are skeptical of the burgeoning Jewish social justice movement, seeing it as little more than code for a liberal social program.
In “There Shall Be No Needy,” Jacobs grounds key planks of the liberal agenda — government control of the health-care system, federal efforts to ensure affordable housing and environmental responsibility, among others — in the Jewish tradition.
What the book does do is provide a useful corrective to what Jacobs describes as the tendency “to slap tikkun olam on everything, or ‘tzedek tzedek tirdof’ [justice, justice thou shalt pursue], or find the one verse that supports whatever it is that we think.”
To her credit, Jacobs includes text that doesn’t perfectly jibe with her admittedly liberal agenda, in particular a substantial discussion of the various understandings of the oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood notion of tikkun olam (literally, “repair of the world”), expanding it significantly beyond its common association with just doing good deeds.
I want us “to engage internally in complicated and interesting conversations about text and about how our Jewish heritage and Jewish values might have some impact on how we think about a particular issue,” said Jacobs, who lives in Manhattan.
It’s a tall order in a community that seemingly has found a useful catchall phrase that seems applicable to just about every conceivable effort to do good in the world, particularly for a soft-spoken rabbi who spends her days in a tiny office at Jewish Funds for Justice.
But as one old seminary friend puts it, Jacob’s quiet demeanor should not be misconstrued.
“It takes getting to know her,” said Rabbi Julia Andelman, “to realize what a powerhouse she is.”