5 Questions with … Yael Assor

by Abigail Pickus
This is the first in a three-part series.

Yael Assor, 26, is a social activist living in Jerusalem. Originally from Be’er Sheva, she moved to Jerusalem to attend Hebrew University, which was where she learned about Bema’aglei Tzedek (“Circles of Justice”), an organization that raises awareness and engages the public to take action to make lasting changes in the area of social justice. Today, Yael is the coordinator of the Tav Chevrati (“Social Seal”), a certificate granted by Bema’ageli Tzedek to restaurants in Israel that treat their workers ethically and are handicap accessible. She is also pursuing a Master’s degree from Hebrew University in sociology and anthropology. Additionally, Yael is a member of the ROI Community, a global community of Jewish innovators created by Lynn Schusterman that connects dynamic, creative young Jews with each other, enabling them to translate their ideas into innovative work that will transform the future of Jewish life around the world.

Recently, Yael discussed Tav Chevrati and Bema’ageli Tzedek with 57 Teach For America corps members visiting Israel under the auspices of the REALITY Israel Experience program. During the 10-day trip, corps members explore Israel’s education and social justice systems, gain exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and uncover and re-commit to the values that drive their passion for public service. REALITY Israel Experience is a project of the Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation, in partnership with Teach for America.

Yael tells eJewish Philanthropy about grassroots activism and her vision of an ideal society.

1. How and why did you get involved with Bema’aglei Tzedek?

When I was in my first year at Hebrew University, there was a student strike and I thought to myself, maybe I should do something productive with my time, like volunteer or work. I was looking specifically for something connected to social action, with a focus on social justice – not just to donate to a charity organization.

By chance I heard about a meeting organized by Tav Chevrati, specifically, and Bema’aglei Tzedek, in general. The experience was profound because where I grew up, I used to look at all things affiliated with Jewish religious belief as a set of restrictions, many of which are enforced by the government and constitute religious coercion – for example, not being able to take public transportation on Shabbat or marry outside of the Rabbinate. And here comes this idea that says, davka, out of my Jewish heritage and tradition I can do something to promote social justice, pluralism and humanity in Israeli society. For me, that was a very innovative thought and it helped me make sense of my own identity as a secular, yet Jewish feminist Israeli woman. Soon after I heard this lecture, I started working as an educator for Bema’aglei Tzedek and as a volunteer for its Tav Chevrati initiative.

2. The mission of Bema’agle Tzedek is about grass roots activism, about young people creating change from the bottom up. Why is this so important to you? To Israeli society?

The reason I think this is so important from an organizational level is because I think real change can only come from a movement, from the people, as we can now witness through the “tent protests” happening throughout the country about housing costs. All in all, since this is about people’s lives, it makes the most sense for all of us to fight for ourselves. Moreover, taking responsibility for our community, our society, is a basic Jewish principle and one of the key principles for us at BeMa’aglei Tzedek. The most practical implication of this principle is the development and support of grassroots movement demanding social justice in Israel.

On a more personal level, I believe that today, more than ever, we need to create change through grassroots movements. We are living in such an individualized and alienated society with so many people sitting by themselves in front of the computer. So to really affect change, we first have to get people engaged and then get them involved. It’s happening all over Israel these days. You see it with the doctor’s strike, with the social workers strike and with the housing protests. Change is underway in Israeli society and the people are speaking out.

3. Tell me more about TavChevrati. How many restaurants have this seal, and what kind of an impact is it making on restaurants in Israel and the general public?

So far, the Tav Chevrati has been issued to approximately 150 restaurants in Jerusalem, which is one-third of all businesses in the Jerusalem district. There are approximately 20 restaurants with the Tav in Be’er Sheva and we are now in the process of launching Tav activity in Haifa.

The process to receive a Tav Chevrati is rigorous and involves numerous in-person meetings and interviews with the owner and the staff and making sure the venue is handicap accessible and meets all the criteria. After all of that, they must sign a statement that they are obligated to enforce the criteria. We do spot checks throughout the year to make sure that they do.

One of the most obvious measures of our impact is that in the beginning, we had to approach restaurants, but now restaurants are approaching us. Tav Chevrati is no longer just a campaign; it is a brand. It is known as an instrument for helping the average person on the street be a part of creating social change. I see the Tav not as a goal, but as a destination – as a tool to make more people aware of social and ethical issues such as labor laws and accessibility issues. Because the Tav is not just about raising awareness but about giving everyone the opportunity to join the collective effort to make a difference in our day to day lives.

4. What drives you as a person to do this kind of work? What is your inner-calling?

It has disturbed me for a long time that when it came to social action, the only answer was charity acts or organizations affiliated with certain religious groups. It was all very sectorial. I have been looking a long time for a place where you can affect real change across all sections of society, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. For me, becoming involved with the Tav Chevrati enables me to be part of a larger group making positive changes in our life here in Israel.

5. What is your vision for an ideal society?

To me, an ideal society is one in which each and every person feels an equal part of it all, they don’t feel better or worse than any other person, and they all feel obligated and responsible for what is going on and are willing to take part in improving their world.

Will this vision be a reality? I think that is the difference between a dream and a vision. If I didn’t believe in this vision, I couldn’t motivate myself to do what I’m doing every day. Of course, I’m realistic. I know there are always setbacks and limitations, but I need to have this vision in order to keep on working. Because this vision keeps me going and to me, it is within reach. It is not just a dream.