Social Justice in Higher Education

By Anna Serviansky

Meet Amy. During the day, Amy works at Jewish World Watch, a nonprofit whose work is to vision a world without genocide and provide humanitarian aid to those who have been oppressed. Meet Aaron, who helps protect tenants to preserve and produce more affordable housing for the most marginalized in his community. Meet Liana, co-founder of Hazon’s Jewish Youth Climate Movement. Amy, Aaron, and Liana are just three of the hard working and diverse activists participating in The Jewish Theological Seminary’s (JTS) Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice program, a new opportunity that enables students to both maintain their important professional roles while engaging in serious Jewish learning on Jewish ethics and social justice topics.

During these unpredictable times when questions of ethics and justice are debated on a daily basis in the news, this new certificate program is training the next generation of professionals to make the world a better place. The Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice, now in its first semester, is an academic program that enables participants to address issues of ethics and justice by studying the wisdom of classical and contemporary Jewish texts and communities, taught by JTS scholars and practitioners.

This program evolved after extensive conversation and research between experts and funders from the field of Jewish social justice. Working together, representatives from JTS, Repair the World, Hazon, and Avodah co-designed a new graduate-level academic program geared toward professionals in the Jewish social justice sector.  

While JTS had previously undergone a feasibility study to explore bringing Jewish textual knowledge to the social justice sector, we knew that this program would not be effective without input from those who would benefit from it. Through a generous planning grant from UJA-Federation, we gathered a cross section of social justice leaders and funders to think collaboratively about the target market, demand for this program, and the evolving needs of today’s social justice practitioners. Led by an expert social impact consultant, Joelle Asaro Berman, we built a group who looked critically at the questions presented and research conducted. Then, we evaluated and designed a program that the group’s constituents would be interested in attending.

Through focused outreach and targeted marketing, we enrolled an exciting and diverse cohort of students that have experience working in a variety of social justice fields ranging from detention and incarceration to employment justice and LGBTQ+ advocacy. These passionate and motivated students are working in the field while simultaneously exploring the ways that Jewish texts and ethics can help them better understand, collaborate, and serve.

Our first cohort of twenty-two students, diverse in age, geographic location, race, and area of social justice expertise, are taking a course taught by Professor Yonatan Brafman called Judaism, Human Rights, and Social Justice. In it, they trace the origins of views about justice in biblical, rabbinic, and classical texts; wade into modern debates among philosophers and theologians about the religious or secular foundations of human rights; and apply this knowledge to issues like triage and healthcare in the era of COVID-19 and racism and reparations in 21st-century America. Others are taking a second class such as Jewish Feminist Ethics, Jewish Bioethics, or Jews and the Civil Rights Movement, exploring the theory and history of Jewish social justice. Students are also participating in a core component of our certificate: an ongoing integration seminar led by Ruth Messinger and Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay, where students explore how to incorporate their academic learnings into their social justice practice, as well as gain new tools to strengthen their work.

What is most exciting about this certificate, and what we look forward to experiencing in the future is not only how the program will impact the students themselves by bolstering their Jewish knowledge, but also how that knowledge in turn will benefit the communities and organizations with which our students work and live, as well as the wider world. At JTS, we are already benefitting from our certificate students’ impact, from their contributions in the classroom to their involvement in our overall justice initiatives. Imagine how, as we work together, we will further impact the Jewish community and the field of social justice.

To learn more about the Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice, visit http://www.jtsa.edu/jewish-ethics.

Anna Serviansky is director of the Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice program and associate dean of Undergraduate and Graduate Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary.