As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.
Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.
The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.
But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.
I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.
Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, is now available.
I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?
In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.
And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.
Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan;Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”
At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.
So does place matter or not?
I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.
The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There
Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.
My initial venture into Jewish social justice came my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Determined to learn something about Harlem — the neighborhood that bounded my school to the north and east—I got involved with a community organizing effort to help residents avoid eviction and ensure safe living conditions. At the time, New York City was in the process of ridding itself of thousands of buildings that had defaulted to city ownership when landlords abandoned them during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late ’90s, as housing prices in Harlem were rising, the city began selling these buildings to for-profit landlords, who often found ways to evict long-term tenants or to push them out by refusing to turn on the hot water, or to do needed repairs.
Several times a week, I would walk ten minutes east of JTS, to 123rd and Harlem, and spend time with elderly women trying to get their landlords to turn the hot water on, or families fighting eviction as rents rose. I would then walk back to school, where I would break my teeth over Aramaic grammar, and immerse myself in conversations about Shabbat and Jewish mourning practices. All of these felt important, but I struggled to understand the connection between what I saw in Harlem and what I was learning in school.
My peers and my teachers supported my work, but couldn’t guide me toward anything that would help it all make sense. At the time, nobody in my world was talking about Jewish social justice. Most of the organizations that now define the Jewish social justice landscape either did not yet exist, or were tiny players in the Jewish landscape.
I started studying Jewish texts about the relations between landlords and tenants and, to my surprise, found dozens of rabbinic conversations from 1500 years before, about when one is allowed to evict a tenant, what repairs the landlord must do, and what repairs fall under the tenant’s responsibility.
I took a risk and wrote a short piece about my own experiences both organizing in Harlem and tutoring children in a transitional housing center nearby. I wrote about the Jewish paradigm of the sukkah — the temporary structure meant to be lived in only for a week—and the ma’akeh — the guardrail built on the roof of a home to prevent falls. I wrote about an eleven-year-old boy I had met who was exceedingly bright — but who had never learned to read probably because his family’s frequent moves meant that he never stayed in one school long enough to learn. I wrote about the need for stable, long-term housing that protects the physical and emotional health of its residents.
On a whim, I sent this piece to Tikkun Magazine. I was 23 years old, and had never published anything in a national publication. To my surprise, they took it. To my greater surprise, people read it. And, to my amazement, numerous people told me that they, too, had been looking for connections between Judaism and social justice.
This all happened before such publications had an on-line presence, before blogging existed, and before we could facebook or tweet articles to the world. So it was shocking that so many people read a paper publication, and then e-mailed or called me to tell me what they thought.
This initial experience led me through a long process of working in social justice organizations, both inside and outside of the Jewish world. I wanted to know more about urban politics, so I got a degree in Urban Affairs. And, eventually, I decided to write more. I kept getting calls from people looking for a book that would provide a Jewish approach to contemporary issues. I couldn’t find a recent one to recommend, so I decided to write my own. This led to the publication of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, which came out in 2009. This book looked at criminal justice, housing, labor, the environment, and other justice issues through the lens of Jewish text, social science, and real people whom I have met in my work.
And then I thought I was done. Writing a book is quite a project—especially when one has a full-time job. I spent Sundays, late nights, and early mornings crouched over my computer writing and editing. I drafted my husband and several friends into editing. So I promised not to write another book for a very long time.
But then, I started touring with There Shall Be No Needy. I went to Barnes & Nobles, synagogues, Board of Rabbis meetings, and JCCs around the country. And, at every stop, someone raised his or her hand and said, “It’s good to hear that Judaism has so much to say about social justice. But my synagogue’s social justice committee is struggling. What should we do?”
And so I realized that I needed to write another book. Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide To Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community starts where There Shall Be No Needy leaves off. It gives the theoretical background for why Jews should do social justice work. It walks through how to choose where to focus one’s justice work. And then I get practical. Based on my own experiences, as well as textual precedent, I talk about how we can do effective service, organizing, and advocacy in our own communities. I talk about how we can form strong partnerships with other religious, ethnic, and social welfare organizations. I talk about how we can use power effectively.
I’ve told everyone I know that I’m really not writing another book for a very long time. But I do look forward to hearing from individuals and institutions about your own experience implementing the ideas in Where Justice Dwells.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here all through Sukkot.