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Jewish Journal

Exploring the mitzvah of social action

by Jonathan Kirsch

November 4, 2011 | 12:50 pm

“Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Jewish Lights: $24.99).

“Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Jewish Lights: $24.99).

Among the gifts of the Jews, to use Thomas Cahill’s flattering phrase, perhaps none is more stirring and enduring than the biblical call to social justice.  We are reminded of the Jewish injunction to seek justice in a couple of new books from Jewish Lights, each of which shows us how do more than pay lip service to one of the bedrock principles of Judaism.

“Which is more Jewish — wearing a kippah or clothing the naked?” asks Rabbi David Saperstein in his provocative foreword to “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” by Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Jewish Lights: $24.99). “Which is more urgent — feeding matzah to our children on Pesach or feeding the starving children dying in Sudan?”

The point is made even more forcefully by the author herself. “[V]irtually every rabbi, educator, and synagogue lay leader I’ve met brags about his or her synagogue’s or school’s involvement in social action,” writes Rabbi Jill Jacobs. “But we Jews can hardly just pat ourselves on the back for having produced so many prominent social justice leaders or for the existence of social action committees in virtually every synagogue.  The Jewish community has also produced more than its share of slumlords, bosses who mistreat their workers, and corporate tax evaders. Ubiquitous as they may be, social action committees often hover on the sidelines of synagogue life.” 

So Jacobs takes it upon herself to prod her fellow Jews into putting their pious good intentions into action, and she offers nothing less than a how-to manual on how to honor the tradition of social justice in Judaism. Along the way, she grapples with all of the hard questions: Should we concern ourselves with the needy who live among us or the ones who live far away?  Should we help our fellow Jews or the world at large? How much should we give of our money, our time, ourselves? 

Again and again, she holds us to the highest standards.  “Designating a single day as ‘Mitzvah Day’ communicates the message that social justice or social action stands apart from the regularly scheduled programming of the synagogue, school, or organization,” she points out. “By definition, if one day is ‘Mitzvah Day,’ the other 364 days are not.” Instead, she asks us to transform our good deeds “from something we do for other people to a meaningful spiritual practice for ourselves.”

The same call to action can be found in “The Mitzvah Project Book: Making Mitzvah Part of Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah…and Your Life” by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman (Jewish Lights: $16.99).  In addition to mastering the Torah portion and composing a speech — and in stark contrast to the sometimes excessive parties that accompany a Bar Mitzvah — the authors suggest that any bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah will be more meaningful if it includes “a service project to help others.”

The authors are addressing a youthful readership, and they are careful to give lots of clear and specific examples of a mitzvah project. “Alex helped knit three hundred hats in time for the Christmas dinner for shelter guests at his synagogue,” goes one example. “He also included a note in his Bar Mitzvah invitation asking his guests to bring either knitted hats or yarn to his Bar Mitzvah. The response was overwhelming!”

The projects described in the book range from hands-on craft projects to global activism.  Jewish Heart for Africa, for example, brings Israeli technology to Africa villagers who need clean water, solar power and vaccines. “Collect returnable bottles and cans,” the authors suggest, “to raise funds to donate.”  And, perhaps heedful of Rabbi Jacobs’ caution, they insist that every day can be mitzvah day: “Think of your Bar/Bat Mitzvah project as a beginning, not an end, to the good you can do in the world.”

Both of these books make the point that selflessness and self-interest are two sides of the same coin.  “The Rabbinic teaching challenges us to view service as a two-way relationship, rather than a one-way gift from above,” Jacobs writes. “When those who do service take time to listen to the experiences and wisdom of their partners, to meet low-income people who are working to transform their own communities, and to support efforts initiated by and led by these communities, these encounters create the opportunity for learning and long-term change.”

Or, to put something of the same idea in different words: “Making the world a better place is a core Jewish value,” the authors of “The Bar Mitzvah Project Book” tell their readers. “Your grandmother might even call you a mensch.”

Note to the Reader: As is my customary practice, I want to disclose that I have had business dealings with Jewish Lights Publishing, the publisher of these two books.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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