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Program Teaches Rabbinical Students How to Use Social Justice in Their Jobs

September 15, 2005
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Penina Podwol, a rabbinical student at the University of Judaism, was on a picket line in Chicago for the first time this summer with several colleagues when a Jewish chant broke out. One of the rabbinical students started chanting “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek,” which is traditionally said in synagogue after the completion of each book of the Torah and translates to “Strong, strong, we will be strengthened.” The striking hotel workers took up the chant, translating it into Spanish.

“The fact that we were Jews, and the people preventing them from going back to work were also Jews, meant they could see there are Jews who support them,” Podwol says.

The five rabbinical students, each from a different Jewish stream, spent nine weeks in Chicago working with community and labor organizations, combining their fieldwork with group study of Jewish texts on social justice as part of a new summer fellowship program sponsored by the nonprofit Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

The idea behind the project is to encourage future rabbis to incorporate social-justice work into their rabbinates, says the program’s creator, Rabbi Jill Jacobs. That’s a different, more nuanced responsibility than simply participating in a social-action project, since rabbis are uniquely positioned to be the catalysts for such efforts.

“Rabbis should be actors in the community and be able to help their congregations, their Hillels, their JCCs, act as Jews in the larger community,” Jacobs says. “Rabbis need to know how to involve people in social- justice work in a way that feels authentically Jewish.” Therefore, she says, it’s important to have a program specifically designed for rabbinical students, “to give them a structural way to integrate the work with Jewish learning.”

The rabbinic-intern program is one of a growing number of Jewish institutions — including congregations, campus Hillels and national organizations such as the American Jewish World Service — that are

sponsoring social action projects, at home and abroad, championing the idea that feeding the hungry, cleaning up cemeteries and building houses for the homeless can be powerful ways for young Jews to express their Jewish identity.

According to Jacobs, Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, the main seminary of the Reform movement in the United States, was “instrumental” in pushing the rabbinic-interns program forward. He remains a fan of the project, saying, “The need for social justice remains a primary imperative of our tradition, and Rabbi Jacobs has taken the lead in having the texts of Jewish religious tradition speak to contemporary social problems.”

HUC and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College each paid half the $4,000 stipend for their student participants this summer. The other half of the stipend for the interns is paid for by the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation; these foundations cover the entire cost of the other interns and the rest of the program.

Jacobs says one of the reasons she created the fellowship program is that social justice is not a required part of the curriculum at most rabbinical seminaries. It certainly wasn’t at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, where she was ordained in 2003.

“I’d say none of them teach it,” she says. “There’s one elective course at HUC in L.A., but it’s not taught every year. Various professors may incorporate aspects of social justice into their classes” but on an ad-hoc basis, she says.

Podwol, 28, says a course in social justice is offered as an elective every other year at the University of Judaism. She had spent a year in Israel with Otzma, a service-based leadership-development program for Jewish adults ages 20 to 26, sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for North American Jewish federations.

She also spent two years working for her local Jewish federation but says she only grasped the universal aspects of the Jewish notion of social justice after traveling to El Salvador in December on a trip for rabbinical students organized by the AJWS.

“That trip, where we worked with local farmers and then had conversations about it among ourselves, introduced me to Jewish social justice as not something you just do for Jews,” she says. “It was a transformative experience.”

Podwol spent this summer working with UNITE HERE, a labor union representing hotel employees in a strike against Chicago’s Congress Hotel. She did outreach to local rabbis, bringing strikers to talk to them and encouraging the Chicago Board of Rabbis to write a letter calling for open dialogue between the striking workers and hotel management. “Maybe the fact that the owner and his manager onsite are Jewish might help,” she says.

That connection between social justice and religious values was not lost on the participating community groups either. Dion Miller Perez, the executive director of the Telpochcalli Community Education Project, a Latino community organization where rabbinical student Will Friedman did a summer internship, says it was “pretty exciting to have a person of faith” working with them.

Friedman, 24, is a student at Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox seminary in the Bronx, N.Y. In addition to helping the Telpochcalli group get permission from the Chicago public school system to build a school-community center on abandoned public land, he used his skills as an MIT graduate to set up a computer lab for the group’s English as Second Language class, attended mainly by Latino mothers.

“The summer reminded me how important it is to be in other communities, offering the skills I have and seeing how best they can use them,” he says.

Miller Perez says his organization “didn’t have the skills or the time” to set up the computer system itself, and he praised all the rabbinical students for their commitment, saying, “It was a really cool thing seeing folks out there putting their faith on the line, whether it was with our workers on the picket line or helping our moms.”

Just as important as the community work, the fellows say, was the two days a week they spent studying Jewish texts.

Friedman admits he “didn’t expect a yeshiva,” level of study but says he found the opportunity for in-depth discussions of Jewish sources with rabbinical students from other movements invaluable. “We had great conversations, each week on a different theme — poverty, labor, housing.”

Sometimes, he says, Jewish sources suggest actions he calls “problematic.” He points to a talmudic passage the group studied about the hiring of workers, which permits a Jewish employer to “follow local custom,” meaning that workers may be paid and required to work according to usual work conditions in their homeland, rather than according to the regulations of the employer’s place of residence.

“That’s exactly the problem of globalization,” Friedman notes, adding that he and the other summer fellows “are still struggling with what that text is trying to tell us.”

Emma Kipley-Ogman, 24, a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., says her school offered a seminar on social justice in December, but she wanted more in-depth knowledge of the relevant Jewish sources. “As a rabbi, I think it’s very important to learn how to move other people to get involved. It’s essential that we know what our texts say about poverty, homelessness, and other issues.”

The students were each mentored by a Chicago rabbi of their denomination and were required to present a program on social justice either in Chicago or in their home seminaries.

Kipley-Ogman’s summer internship was with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing. She went door-to-door in low-income Chicago neighborhoods surveying public-housing residents about their needs. Then, for Tisha B’Av, she developed and taught a class at Minyan Lomdim, a Chicago synagogue, exploring talmudic, Biblical and rabbinic allegorical texts about displacement along with articles and editorials about public-housing problems in the city.

“Reading these stories in parallel was in the hope that each could teach us about the experience of the other,” she says. She was gratified when one synagogue member responded to a letter from a public-housing resident about to be thrown out on the street by saying, “It’s as if someone told Lomdim we couldn’t meet anymore,” she relates.

“I hope that kind of empathy will move her to action,” she says.

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