By Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay
Every person has the possibility to increase or diminish the amount of justice in the world. This was the theme that emerged in the course I taught for the JustCity Leadership Institute, a pre-college leadership and Jewish social justice program, run by the Jewish Theological Seminary, and on which AVODAH partnered.
Through this course, I met potential future AVODAHniks and saw both that they are truly inspiring in their potential and also how they can benefit from our leadership. As AVODAH alumna Laura Landau, the program leader, can tell you, the JustCity students grew up in Jewish institutions all over the country, and outside of the organized Jewish community. They are engaged in Jewish day schools, religious schools and youth movements, and there are others who are not part of any formal communal structures. They were eager enough to sign up for a program focused on Jewish life and social justice. And yet, even with all of this background, the ideas we explored together were new for most of them. They were not yet familiar with Jewish organizations that pursue justice as part of their conception of what it means to be Jewish. It was exhilarating to hear their questions, interest in learning, and increasing awareness around structural injustice, and to imagine them as part of the larger Jewish antipoverty movement we are building.
Ultimately we focused on the distinction between Jewish tradition’s call for tzedek (justice), and its call for gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness). We talked about race, class, power, and the obligation to study about structural injustice, but to not satisfy ourselves with the pursuit of knowledge – we have to act too.
Working with Laura as she led a group of teens, who are very early in their journeys, I once again felt enormous gratitude for the opportunity to work with AVODAH as we act on a daily basis to increase the amount of justice in the world through acts of tzedek and gemilut chasadim. I was particularly grateful that I could tell the JustCity students what we do – and show a trail of Jewish antipoverty leaders who are paving the way for them.
If the news now teaches us anything, it is that there is so very much to be done. How lucky we are to be part of a network that recognizes the need, faces it head on, supports each other in the hard work of addressing it, celebrates the victories, mourns the defeats, and all the while recommits to working together to make a more just and generous world. And how lucky we are that students like those in JustCity are developing and learning and will soon join us in the work of strengthening the Jewish community’s antipoverty work.
Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay is AVODAH’s Director of Alumni and Community Engagement