Four Questions with Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America

Originally published on

created at: 2011-05-09Last month, Rabbi Jill Jacobs became Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, an organization working to involve Rabbis in the United States and Canada in being moral voices in current human rights issues both at home and in Israel. Rabbi Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009) and Justice Shall Dwell There: A Hands-on Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights, forthcoming in June 2011). She writes a regular column, “Public Judaism,” for the Forward, serves as a panelist for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and blogs at the Huffington Post. She was Rabbi-in-Residence of Jewish Funds for Justice from 2005 to 2010, and Director of Education and Outreach at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs from 2003 to 2005. Rabbi Jacobs received rabbinical ordination and an MA in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter College, and a BA from Columbia University. She is an alumna of the Wexner Fellowship Program and spent the 2009-2010 academic year as a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute. And perhaps most relevant to, she grew up in Framingham, MA.

What’s the origin of your passion for social justice?

My very first social justice campaign ever was when I was a junior in at Framingham High School, and my principal was quoted in the local newspaper saying there was no teen pregnancy problem in Framingham. I thought otherwise because I walked the halls of my school and saw pregnant teens. I did a little research, called Planned Parenthood, and found that Framingham had one of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the US. We were one of the few schools in Massachusetts that had no sex education whatsoever, and I figured those two facts weren’t disconnected.

I started meeting with the school board about making sex ed and condoms available at our school. At the time, I had no idea that was connected to Judaism – that Jewish women had been involved in reproductive health battles for a long time.  I did notice that my parents were supportive and that my synagogue was supportive, so I knew there was something vaguely Jewish about it, but I couldn’t put it together. Only as an adult did I learn that Jews had been involved in reproductive health forever, and Jews had been involved in social justice work, and Jewish law includes thousands of pages on how we should behave in civil society. 

What brought you to the rabbinate?

I went off to Columbia as an undergrad, and I thought that I was going to be a journalist. I got involved in the school paper right away. I wasn’t involved in the Jewish community, largely because it was heavily New York Orthodox. As a kid who was interested in the Conservative community and didn’t come from a day school or yeshiva, I didn’t see a place for me.  So I ended up founding an organization called Lights in Action. We were doing peer education for Jewish students around the country. I was 18 -19 years old, running around the country giving seminars and writing materials that a hundred thousand students saw… I discovered I didn’t want to be a journalist, I was putting off that work to work on Lights in Action.

I discovered that Judaism had something to say about the world. I had gotten involved in journalism with an eye towards changing the world.  When I started thinking about what I wanted o do, I realized the way I could be learning and teaching and being involved in social justice… it started to feel obvious. The Jewish Theological Seminar was six blocks away, so as I got to know it, went to services there, and meet the people there, it started to feel possible.

Growing up, I didn’t know any women rabbis or rabbis under 40-something, so didn’t think of it as a career path then. But being close to JTS where the rabbinical students were 25 years old, looked like me, and had similar interests as me made it feel like something that was possible.

There are so many social justice causes that need attention. How do you focus your own energies?

One of my major concerns is geographic. I have a commitment to place-based justice. I want to make the places that are mine the best possible places. That means a deep commitment to New York City, where I now live; the United States, and Israel, because that’s my place. I want both of those places to be places that anybody would look at and say, “I want a country like that, that’s the ideal.”

The other commitment for me is looking at people who have the hardest time in society – low wage workers, Palestinians, women, immigrants – often people whose voices aren’t heard, for whom the deck is stacked against them.

I started working in a labor union in NJ on a campaign to organize janitors, doing interfaith outreach. I’d be sitting in a rabbi’s office and the rabbi would jump up, leave the room, and come back with the janitor. While I was sitting in the room, the rabbi would start asking questions that had never been asked – how much do you make, is that enough, how are you doing, etc. I was shocked that the rabbi wouldn’t know, but boards tend to be made up of business people who deal with budgets all day and are likely to say to rabbi: you deal with spiritual questions; we’ll take care of the finances. But finances are a spiritual question!

Simultaneously, there was a Jewish federation in the New York area where the janitors went on strike. I realized at the very, very least, our institutions need to pay a living wage to the people who are mopping our floors.  That was what got me involved in labor issues, so I’ve kept that commitment to the people whose stories we don’t usually know, whose names we don’t know, who come in to clean the building when we’re not even here.

When we think about Human Rights, we tend think about Geneva Convention issues like torture and war, but if you look at the UN Declaration on Human Rights, it includes the right to organize, the right to make a livelihood, the right to economic security. So I’m interested in changing the perception of human rights to include those issues that are officially part of the declaration but often not perceived as such.

What can any of us do to get involved in the human rights work you advocate?

Rabbis for Human Rights – North America has advocacy alerts going out around issues like human trafficking, the destruction of Bedouin villages in the Negev, etc… So the first step is to sign up for the email list and take action on those alerts.

People can also talk to their rabbis about getting involved as a rabbi like giving a sermon about the issues or testifying about state legislation. We have an Israel mission in November, so someone looking to get involved more deeply can come with us to Israel and see the work that we’re doing there.

Bonus question: what’s on your “must visit” list when you come to Boston?

My friends and my parents! The one thing I remember from my childhood is the Museum of Science – now that I have a toddler, I haven’t yet brought her there but I’m definitely looking forward to doing that.  I’ve always been a fan of Rami’s falafel. I used to go do there during break at Prozdor… sometimes during class.  (I could get help on my Hebrew homework!)

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