Pioneering rabbi to blend social justice, Judaism in local talks

When Rabbi Jill Jacobs was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she spent several days each week studying for long hours, and then volunteering with a tenant’s rights organization in nearby Harlem.

“It was very disconcerting — I felt like I was living two worlds, but I couldn’t share either with the other,” Jacobs said.

So she hit the books to find out if Judaism had anything to say about housing issues. It turned out there was a lot.

“And it clicked for me: Judaism has a lot to say about ritual, and it also has a lot to say about civil law,” Jacobs said. “I decided I wanted to open up that world for myself and for other people.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

This was in 1998. As a first-year rabbinical student at JTS, she’d study Jewish texts in the beit midrash and then walk to Harlem, where she’d talk with clients who couldn’t get their landlord to turn on the heat or hot water.

The experience made her realize that she wanted to dedicate her rabbinate to Jewish social justice.

“Now, everyone’s talking about Jewish social justice,” Jacobs said. “But in 1998, when I first said that I wanted to do Jewish social justice, people looked at me as if I had said, ‘I want to be a rabbi on the moon.’ ”

Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi and the rabbi-in-residence at Jewish Funds for Justice in New York, has since become the author of an influential Conservative teshuvah (legal position) that maintains that synagogues and other Jewish institutions, as well as individual employers, should pay their workers a living wage, create dignified workplaces and hire union workers when possible.

She is also the author of “There Shall Be No Needy — Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition.” An educator’s guide for the book will be published this spring. Jacobs is currently in Jerusalem as a fellow with the Mandel Institute for Educational Leadership, where she is working on her second book.

She will continue her social justice work next week at both the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael and Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

At the JCC, Jacobs will speak in conversation with Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 10.

Joanne Greene, director of adult Jewish programming at the JCC, said the event, “A Jewish Approach to Social Justice,” will be anything but a lecture. During the evening, the rabbis will give the audience specific questions to answer in pairs with someone they’ve never met, Greene said.

“Community change starts with people sitting down panim el panim — face to face, one to one — and sharing their stories,” Greene said.

The event is free, but those who attend are encouraged to bring food to donate to the Marin Food Pantry of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

“I didn’t want to charge because it seemed incongruous with what we were trying to do,” Greene said. “This way, in addition to learning basic community organizing work and understanding the Jewish roots of social justice, we can fill the JFCS food pantry so that the increasing number of people in the community who don’t have enough food to eat can get it.”

On Thursday, Feb. 11, Jacobs will speak on a panel at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. The evening, dubbed “Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism,” will explore new forms of Jewish spirituality and social justice activism. Jo Ellen Green Kaiser (the editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture) and Jay Michaelson (author of “Everything is God”) also are on the panel, which will address whether spirituality and activism are enemies or allies.

“I think that people want to live integrated lives,” Jacobs said. “There’s a real hunger to connect our religious lives with work in the world and to find real meaning with what we’re doing in the world.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
will speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Information: Joanne Greene, (415) 444-8066. Jacobs also will speak on a panel at 7 p.m. Feb. 11 at Congregation Beth Sholom, 301 14th Ave., S.F. Information and registration:

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.