Expressing Our Judaism Through Social Justice in 2019


A homeless family tries to find housing in NYC with Section 8 vouchers and is turned away illegally by landlord after landlord. An asylum seeker who identifies as LGBTQ sits in a detention center. A couple who left the Ultra-Orthodox community is trying to remake their lives with no family and no resources. A woman who was trafficked to the United States tries to break free and rebuild her life here. These are just a few of the stories we hear at Avodah daily; they are a reminder of the huge amount of work needed to repair the many cracks in our broken world.

What is the Jewish response to this type of brokenness in our society? There’s so much wisdom in Jewish tradition about how every human being has inherent human dignity and worth, about how we should treat each other the way we treat ourselves, and about our ability to make a difference in the world. The Torah mentions the obligation to love the stranger 36 times, many more times than it mentions the obligation to keep kosher or observe Shabbat. Our tradition teaches that “anyone who destroys a single life is considered . . . to have destroyed a world, and anyone who saves a life is considered to have saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

The field of Jewish social justice is a response to the brokenness of our world and a way to bring deep Jewish wisdom to that work. For our Jewish community to fully live our justice values, we cannot hold ourselves at arm’s length from those who are in need now. Our work for justice must flow from being in relationship with people who are vulnerable, from listening to the stories that they share, and from standing up for their needs.

At Avodah, a Jewish leadership development organization for young adults, we seek to connect a passion for social justice with Jewish values. Through our Jewish Service Corps program, we provide members with the opportunity to spend a year working at a nonprofit while living and learning with a group of peers. Our programs are grounded in Jewish teachings, preparing our participants to approach every situation with open hearts and minds, and to form relationships with clients, peers, and supervisors that are based on a belief that recognize the dignity and potential of all people. “Avodahniks” are then able to process their experiences with their bayit-mates (housemates) over Shabbat meals and daily interactions. Our Justice Fellowship brings together cohorts of young adults to learn about social justice through a Jewish lens as a community. Our goal is that our participants have the greatest possible direct impact on the thousands of people they work with and on the organizations they serve. In addition, our participants are transformed by their service and learning experiences into passionate and effective lifelong leaders for social change whose work for justice is rooted in and nourished by Jewish tradition.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of US Jews, when asked what it means to be Jewish, one of the most common answers was “working for justice/equality.” We believe the Avodah model has been highly effective because of the meaningful connection it makes between Judaism and social justice. Eighty-five percent of our alumni remain in social justice work and the vast majority of members also report feeling more connected to Judaism. In addition, over the last 20 years, Avodah’s 1,000+ Jewish Service Corps members have provided $20 million in staff capacity to organizations fighting issues such as chronic poverty, homelessness, hunger, sex trafficking, and gun violence. 

So, how do we nurture impassioned Jewish change-makers and foster this type of Jewish expression? Here are some of the key concepts we embed in all our work:

  1. Being proximate to suffering is fundamental. It’s essential to understand why people are suffering in our society in order to create change. As Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, says, “When we get close, we hear things that can’t be heard from afar. We see things that can’t be seen. And sometimes that makes the difference between acting justly and unjustly.” At Avodah, this means that our Service Corps members work with undocumented immigrants, incarcerated people, individuals and families of people who are homeless and hungry, and victims of sex trafficking.
  1. We all have the ability to make a difference in the world. When asked what advice he had for young people, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can do our share to redeem the world despite all absurdities and all the frustration and all the disappointment.” At Avodah, we are exposing young Jews to the many ways they can make change in the world and then helping them figure out which way they can lean in to make a difference. We are investing in creating leadership capacity and leveraging that experience into a lifelong personal and professional commitment to social change.
  1. Being rooted in community makes a vital difference. Avodah’s founder Rabbi David Rosenn speaks about how social change is inspired and sustained when people are a part of communities of moral courage and spiritual strength. Avodah focuses on the role of community for effective social justice work. Our Jewish Service Corps members live together in an intentional, pluralistic bayit (home) where they can discuss ideas, troubleshoot issues, forge lasting relationships through Shabbat meals and holiday celebrations, and process their work with a group of compassionate friends and housemates. Through our Justice Fellowship, we provide Jewish social justice professionals with an essential container for religious and secular learning, reflection, inspiration, and sustainability for lifelong social justice work over the long haul. As alumna Rebecca Mather says, “Intentional communities like those in Avodah give us the opportunity and challenge of living out the future we hope to build through our social justice work.”
  2. We need to aim for solutions rather than bandages. At Avodah, we explore the systemic causes of poverty and injustice in our communities and country. We ask deep questions about how to create permanent solutions for the most pressing issues, including racism, poverty, hunger, and immigration, and analyze how these challenges manifest themselves across cities, communities, and institutions. For example, while soup kitchens are necessary, Avodah’s participants ask, “How do we create a country and a world where no human being will go hungry?” Shaul Elson, a 2018 Service Corps member, said that Avodah taught him to “spot so much more of the injustice threaded through daily life, a skill that is essential for progress.”

Avodah is an example of how Jews actualize their deep understanding of the link between social issues and their Jewish expression. Through their work, they use this knowledge to guide their professional impact. At the same time, the organizations they work for benefit from the investment of hours and passion of our members. It is a win-win situation for all involved. Ultimately, we hope this model and the work of many other Jewish and social justice organizations will result in permanent and far-reaching healing in the world that recognizes the value of human dignity for all people. For now, though, it is our duty to keep trying.

Cheryl Cook is executive director of Avodah. Under her leadership, Avodah is expanding to new cities and creating innovative models for the Jewish community to help alleviate poverty in the United States. Cheryl has close to 30 years of leadership experience in the Jewish community. Cheryl is a proud alumna of the JTS/Columbia master’s program.