YU Students Talk Tachlis about Social Justice

Devorah Deutsch (Scranton, PA) teaching a student from the Reali School about Tzedek and Tzedaka - part of the Sanhedrin Program; image courtesy Yeshiva University

by Abigail Pickus

Tucked away in an office in South Tel Aviv, a group of unlikely bedfellows engaged in some weighty conversation. Stav Shafir, one of the most prominent leaders of the social protest movement that shook up Israel this past summer, and a group of Stern College for Women students of Yeshiva University in New York, talked tachlis about social justice.

“This wasn’t a protest just about housing – housing was the symbol for all of our social services,” explained the 26-year-old Shafir as she delved into the issues that prompted hundreds of thousands of Israelis of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities to demonstrate for a more just society.

This encounter was just one stop on a multi-tiered, eight-day winter break Israel trip for Yeshiva University undergraduates run by the University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Titled, “Tzedek V’Tzedakah,” the mission of two separate groups of 15 men and 15 women explored concepts of justice and social justice in a modern democratic Jewish State.

Through meetings with everyone from top Israeli rabbis and government officials to prison inmates and social activists, these January missions gave students a chance to examine such charged topics as corporate social responsibility and the challenges Israel faces in enforcing justice while being bound to both Jewish law and democratic Western values.

The Tzedek V’Tzedakah groups did not shy away from controversial issues, either. A special panel of haredi and non-haredi residents of Beit Shemesh was added to the itinerary in the aftermath of the violence there against girls at the hands of extremists. Tzedek V’Tzedakah is sponsored in part by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

“Every year we send hundreds of students on various types of experiential and service learning trips around the world,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner Dean of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF). “Our goal is for them to realize how they can be agents of change.”

Over the past five years, CJF has joined forces with other organizations to send students on humanitarian missions to places like Haiti and Nicaragua and to run summer camps for disadvantaged children in Israel. Other students have ventured across the United States to learn about Jewish communities in South Carolina, Florida and Virginia and to participate in LimmudNY.

Coinciding with the Tzedek V’Tzedakah missions was another Yeshiva University student trip to Israel that focused on empowering Israeli teens through art

Elianna Wolf (Passaic, NJ) helps a student with his project - "Art at Ort"; image courtesy Yeshiva University

While the programs vary, the over-arching goal is to expose Yeshiva University students to a larger world – and, in parallel, to infuse Jewish values into the broader community.

“We want to ensure that students realize there is a larger world out there and this is the opportunity they have to make a difference,” said Brander. “It is precisely this synergy between the academic world and the world at large that we are trying to create.”

What gives these programs a distinctly Jewish – or “Torah-centered” approach – is how everything is grounded in Jewish text.

“When you have a program that deals with various issues of civil society, whether it’s issues dealing with the status of women and having [the students] meet with a Supreme Court justice and a Chief Rabbi, they will also spend a good part of the day dealing with the Judaic sources connected to these issues,” said Brander.

For examples, when touring a prison and rehabilitation center, students studied sources from Jewish philosophy and the Talmud on the limits of repentance. When they met with ngo’s, on the one hand, and corporations like IBM, on the other, they examined texts that delve into what the rabbis say is our responsibility to civil society.

“Serious Jews have to understand their responsibility to society, and when this is connected to text, it changes everything,” said Brander. This “everything,” includes the personal transformation experienced by the students and the way these transformed students subsequently influence the culture on campus and the world at large.

An independent study commissioned by Yeshiva University found that since 2008, students who participated in these service and experiential programs have increased their Jewish communal awareness, teaching skills and leadership abilities.

A large percentage of Yeshiva University graduates go on to careers in Jewish communal work, according to Brander.

“Whether they become doctors or lawyers or entrepreneurs, we need engaged Jews around the board tables and in leadership positions,” said Brander.

For Leah Goldstein, 20, a sophomore at Stern College from Passaic, New Jersey, the Tzedek V’Tzedakah trip was “eye opening.”

“We saw so many different situations this week,” she said. “For me, what I learned is that there are more perspectives than just one and you have to see and understand all of them.”

“They are coming from a bubble,” said Gila Rockman, CJF’s Israel Programs Director who accompanied the Stern group. “But on this trip they are able to look at the big picture of Israeli society, one that is made up all different people. It’s very complex and I think that they get it.”