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March 24, 2009 11:19AM
“Uri L'Tzedek is an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression. Through community based education, leadership development and action, Uri L'Tzedek creates discourse, inspires leaders, and empowers the Jewish community towards creating a more just world.”

[uriltzedek.webnode.com] uri.ltzedek@gmail.com

It has been observed that Orthodox Judaism is becoming more and more parochial, advocating only for causes that are close to home (Israel advocacy, fighting anti-Semitism, school vouchers, etc.). Certainly these issues are important, but for younger generations of Jews, who don’t hold the survival fears that their parents and grandparents held, there is a craving for new meaning. Serving as an Ohr L’Goyim (a light to the nations) as teachers and activists for global peace and justice is a lost discourse in contemporary American Orthodoxy. Young religious Jews want to reclaim and reinvent those models in a new globalized interconnected society. Countless students in Jewish day schools are turned off by what they perceive as the irrelevancy of their educations to what they care most about. Yes, they leave knowing berakhot (blessings), the laws of how to build a sukkah, and how the Tabernacle was built but they are clueless about what Judaism can offer on topics such as universal health care, environmentalism, domestic worker rights, immigration issues, statute of limitations, business ethics, poverty alleviation, as examples. Additionally the discourse has narrowed, making halakhah the only language and lens for asking difficult questions about society.

The Torah has a very broad and universalistic message in addition to our particular legal worldview. How can we bring that inspiration and charge into classrooms, into informal education, and into the streets? How irresponsible would it be to not train a student that is under our tutelage to thrive in the world and not to ensure that they are equipped with the skills of integrating their Jewish values with contemporary issues or that they are trained in methods of creating social change to live their values in a meaningful way. In a world where 1 billion people (1/6th of the world’s population) live on $1 a day and 2 billion people (1/3rd of the world’s population) live on $2 a day, our Jewish voices are needed now more than ever to protest the injustices. Learning these values and living these values must begin in early Jewish education.

Orthodox college students have been joining pluralistic organizations to engage as global citizens. These students are working on service projects in developing countries with American Jewish World Service (www.ajws.org) and on domestic year-long projects with Avodah (www.avodah.net), to give two examples. It is great to have Jews of different denominations working together on crucial issues but there should also be options grown out of the Orthodox community itself.

Additionally, models for service in the community are often limited to chesed (one-time acts) at the exclusion of tzedek (strategies that are systemic, sustainable, and complex). Many young Jews have been turned off from activism and volunteerism due to its overly simplistic nature. They want more than bikkur cholim (visiting the sick), soup kitchens, and shalach manot (gifts given on Purim). Those mitzvot are vital to our education and daily lives, of course, but they do not inspire Jewish leadership or systemic change. Rav Ahron Soloveichik discussed tzedek with a language of “rights” in “Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man” as something crucial and enduring. Thinking politically, systemically, and creatively about how to respond to oppression and injustice is the main thrust of the ethos of the Torah and of Chazal.

Additionally, Orthodox Judaism has been lacking serious accountability in how its enterprises are operating. The Rubashkins case and Madoff scandal have shown us that we need to be watchdogs for ourselves to ensure that the Halakhic community, and Jewish community at large, is not perpetuating injustice in the world at the least and is optimally setting a paradigmatic high moral standard. Regarding transparency, Uri L’Tzedek is launching the Tav HaYosher to certify kosher restaurants that meet legal standards. This is only one crucial step of many to be taken to ensure that we are taking responsibility for our own communal dollars and institutions.

So these are the challenges we face:

1. How to create a new discourse and activism that is effective and inspiring for young Jews.
2. How to infuse the ethics of the Torah and the laws of Choshen Mishpat into great collective efforts to perpetuate justice in the world.
3. How to create more internal transparency and accountability for Orthodox leadership and businesses.
4. How can this social justice activism be unique to the needs and talents of Orthodox Judaism (resources, types of halakhic and values discourse, etc.)

These trends are beginning to change. Shifra Bronznick, (http://www.jewcy.com/user/2956/bronznick), recently argued that three major factors have sparked an increased interest in young Orthodox engagement in social justice: Darfur , Rubashkins, and the plethora of non-denominational Jewish social justice organizations inclusive to Orthodox students. It seems that the first may touch upon our Jewish national collective history and conscience (the Shoah), the second is a desire for increased internal moral accountability, and the third is the demonstration of an enhanced passion for universal justice through an inclusive Jewish framework. These are great reasons to engage! Of course, not all of the movement has come from outside of the Orthodox community though. This sad, these students not privy to a strong education in civic duties and social justice can come to feel far behind. Orthodox students arrive on college campuses after a year in Israel and find that they have few tools to discuss the most fascinating issues of contemporary politics or of social change like so many non-Orthodox students have.

It is the belief of Uri L’Tzedek that Torah and the guarders of its laws and teachings have a tremendous amount to offer to contemporary thought and activism. It is for this reason that Uri L’Tzedek has introduced a three-pronged approach for inspiring the Orthodox Jewish community to become activists for justice.

1. Education
2. Leadership Development
3. Actions

In education, Uri L’Tzedek provides dynamic education for teens, teaches on college campuses throughout the country, offers batei midrash for young professionals, and holds yamei iyun in synagogues.
A typical “beit midrash” that Uri L’Tzedek leads will have a central social justice theme (health care, domestic abuse, poverty, ethical kashrut, tenant rights, etc.) and attracts between 25-60 Modern Orthodox attendees at each beit midrash. There are 4 different components:

1. Shiur : high-level learning from Chumash, Talmud, Halakhah, and Jewish philosophy.

2. Issues scholar: Someone who works in policy, an academic, or an activist.

3. Spiritual chavruta: Personal sharing about how the learners experience this topic.

4. An Encounter with “The Other”: Someone directly affected by the issue who can share personal anecdotes and experiences.

Batei Midrash always have the first three components but do not always necessarily have the fourth component (the encounter). The leaders are strict to always keep these programs to one hour and 20 minutes (no longer) to respect the time constraints upon our learners with full-time work schedules.

In leadership development, Uri L’Tzedek mentors grassroots activists and empowers young leaders to act on their convictions. For example, there is a student at SAR High School that has received a grant from Uri L’Tzedek and who we mentor in his “Micro-Consulting” project in Riverdale. Similarly, we mentor many Yeshiva College and Stern College students, along with students at 15-20 other campuses around the country, who are craving outlets to create serious social change. A recent case: A YU student realized that her university was not providing a location for the cafeteria workers to eat their lunches (only the bathroom or the street) since they did not keep kosher. Under Uri L’Tzedek’s mentorship, a student began to organize her fellow students. While the problem has not been resolved, she was able to attain a temporary room where workers could eat in for that semester on certain days and at certain times. This was a big first victory for her. This is one example of many where college students are looking for training and mentorship in creating change on their campuses and beyond. Uri L’Tzedek has at least 10 college fellows coming to New York for a summer of training, learning, and organizing for change.

Seeking to empower women and to empower young people is a part of the necessary decentralization of power that Orthodox Judaism needs in order to thrive, where all of its members can grow and contribute based on their unique passions and talents.

In our actions focus, we believe that our learning must be transformed into action on behalf of the other. We do community organizing, political advocacy, demonstrations and rallies, fundraise, micro-lending to poor families in villages in the developing world, lead boycotts, and direct service.
How can we better teach the midot of spiritual activism? How can we inspire with the spirituality of perpetuating justice into the world? How can we be more eclectic in the types of discourse that we include into our religious Jewish identities? How can we continue to support Israel and local Jews in countless ways while also going beyond our own communities to assist all types of people of need? How can day schools best integrate our curricula into their programs?

Uri L’Tzedek has now existed for two years and has reached thousands of learners and activists. The organization now has full-time staff, hundreds of activist partners, thousands of supporters, nation-wide educational programming, and global projects.

We would like to begin thinking about how we can best assist Jewish educators, particularly in day schools, in their work to make their teaching relevant to current issues, to inspire leadership and service, and to facilitate deeper level thinking about our distinct civic engagement as religious Jews.
Subject Author Posted

Shmuly Yanklowitz March 24, 2009 11:19AM

Samuel Kapustin March 24, 2009 09:25PM

Uriel Lubetski March 24, 2009 09:26PM

Chaye Kohl March 24, 2009 09:27PM

Uri L'Tzedek and Creative Challenges in Education

David Wolkenfeld March 25, 2009 07:08AM

Meesh Hammer-Kossoy March 27, 2009 03:42PM

Michael Berkowitz March 30, 2009 09:18PM

Tamar Friedman March 30, 2009 09:19PM

Shmuly Yanklowitz March 31, 2009 10:17PM

Michael Berkowitz April 17, 2009 01:27PM

Lynn Kaye April 21, 2009 07:15PM

Michael Berkowitz April 28, 2009 06:16AM

Avi Billet April 19, 2009 07:36PM

Barbara Freedman April 05, 2009 07:33AM

Aryeh Klapper April 17, 2009 01:30PM

Michael Berkowitz April 19, 2009 08:27AM

Avi Abelow April 24, 2009 01:48PM

Yitzchak Blau April 26, 2009 11:20AM

Shmuly Yanklowitz May 04, 2009 06:07AM


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