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To Be Young, Activist, and Jewish: Socially Conscious Young Jews Talk

April 18, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is director of outreach and education at the Jewish Council for Urban Affairs in Chicago, the organization whose 40th anniversary was just honored by the “Justice Shall Dwell There” conference. At 29, Jacobs is much younger than her organization. She notes that for many American Jews her age and younger, the organized Jewish community’s rallying cries of Holocaust and Israel don’t resonate as deeply as they did for their parents.

“Israel is more complicated today” as a catalyst for Jewish identity, she said. “We came of age with the intifada, not with the founding of the state. Many of us didn’t go to Israel at the typical time young Jews go.”

Jacobs and her peers looked askance at a Jewish establishment they felt was “becoming more conservative, moving away from the social justice agenda” that animated it during the 1960s and earlier, an era she looks back to with admiration.

At the same time, she says, there is a growing global awareness on campuses that has affected college-age Jews.

“Jews my age are looking for something substantive,” she said. “We want to be Jewish because of something, not just because.”

Social action, increasingly popular on campuses that have been energized by such causes as, for example, the effort to fight sweatshop labor, is an effective way to get younger Jews involved, she said.

“These last five years have seen an explosion of social justice organizations in the Jewish community, run by younger people,” she said.

Though the groups invariably express a political tilt to the left — it’s hard to support President Bush while working actively against his administration’s policies — conference organizers were eager to bring in young Orthodox Jews who share an interest in Judaism’s prophetic tradition.

That would be people like Mike Schultz, 25, a rabbinic student at Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox rabbinic seminary in Riverdale, N.Y.

“I would like to see the Orthodox community more involved in social justice, since it is very much a part of the Orthodox tradition,” Schultz said. “Our halachic code says not only that we must help the Jewish community, but we’re required to help the non-Jewish community we live among.”

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