Ancient Texts, Modern Social Justice


American Jewish World Service, the 24-year-old, New York-based organization that sends volunteers to “alleviate poverty, hunger and disease among people across the globe,” has increased its Jewish content in recent years. AJWS provides its volunteers a more intensive Jewish background through educational workshops and a curriculum that stresses Jewish sources for its ecumenical work. The organization, in conjunction with Avodah, Hazon, Tzedek, Mechon Hadar and Uri L’Tzedek, recently established an extensive database — On1Foot — of Jewish social-justice texts. Ruth Messinger, AJWS’ president, explains why.

Q: Why is an ostensibly secular Jewish organization getting into the Torah business?

A: AJWS has actually been in the “Torah business” for quite some time. Our mission … to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease among people in the
developing world and to educate in the Jewish community about global responsibility … is deeply rooted in Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice. One significant way in which AJWS works to promote the values and responsibilities of global citizenship is to highlight the voices in Jewish texts that explore what it means to be a responsible and engaged global citizen. The creation of On1Foot is simply an attempt to make these texts more accessible to the Jewish community.

Everyone knows “love your neighbor as yourself.” There are enough social justice sources to warrant a Web site?

The Jewish textual tradition is full of discussion and debate over numerous ethical issues related to social justice. The Bible alone contains a range of ethical commandments concerning the treatment of workers, the provision of food and clothing for the poor and the care of the vulnerable and marginalized members of society. The biblical prophets are famous for their poetic and inspiring visions of a just society. And rabbinic Jewish literature … continues the Jewish conversation about social justice into the present day.

Are all these mostly ancient texts translatable into a 21st-century — Facebook and iPod — context?

Absolutely. The texts on On1Foot engage with issues that are incredibly relevant to our contemporary context. Sometimes the connections are explicit, like texts that instruct us about the treatment of workers or admonish us not to stand idly by when others are dying. Other times the texts require more creative readings like applying texts about the cancellation of debts during the sabbatical year to the issue of debt relief for poor countries.

How does a knowledge of Judaism’s teachings affect the work of your volunteers in the field?

The volunteer experience raises numerous ethical questions and challenges. Our volunteers engage with Jewish texts about social justice as one source of guidance. The richness of Judaism’s teachings about social justice helps our volunteers understand the complexity of many of the issues they face in the field.

Conversely, how does a social-justice consciousness make rabbis better rabbis?

As the Jewish community, and especially young Jews, become more aware of and concerned about social-justice issues … rabbis need to be able to engage meaningfully with their congregants around these issues. As teachers and leaders, rabbis need to be able to communicate this message so that the Jewish community is indeed fulfilling its mission to pursue justice.