In Which Rabbi Jill Jacobs Writes a Really Smart Book and I Tell You About It

I love review copies-I love when they arrive in the mail,  I love having them in my hands, and I love the smell of new book. I wish they made an air freshener with that smell, and a shampoo and a soap, because I would buy a lot of them.
Recently, I got a review copy of Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ latest book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands On Guide to Doing Justice in Your Jewish Community. (Jewish Lights 2011) It’s arrived at a particularly salient time for me, as I wonder what’s tying me to this Jewish thing, and how I can have a connection to something without knowing what the fabric of that connection is.
Jacobs’ book is many things-a manual for organizers, a resource for folks looking for relevant Jewish texts, beyond what Jacobs calls the “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice shall you pursue) Syndrome of using a short, well known verse to claim legitimacy for a position, and a place to access insights about the relationship of Jews to power, poverty and change.
This is not a book that coddles. This is a book for those who are serious about building and infusing a culture of social justice into their Jewish lives, institutional and otherwise. If you’re looking to feel good about taking part in that last Mitzvah Day at your shul, be prepared. Jacobs challenges and dissects not only the concept of one day service projects, but also direct service work, advocacy, text study and community organizing, asserting that in order to make change, these vehicles must be employed together.
Jacobs confronts and dismantles the concept the idea that there are Jewish and non Jewish issues (as well as political and non political ones), and that somehow, we might be exempt from dealing with that which we consider to be outside Jewish community purview. Insularity is not only impossible, it’s dangerous.
My favorite chapter in the book is  ‘Partnerships and Power,’ which offers an essential and compelling analysis of the value that comes with working with folks of various ethnic, religious, socio-economic and racial identities (to name a few) in a manner that transcends the beneficiary-recipient model-” white and upper middle class people as experts and donors, and low-income people and people of color as needy and passive.”
Gd knows the American Jewish community needs a reality check when it comes to power, and here it is in this chapter. Jacobs cites the gap between “Jewish self perception and the ways in which other communities view the Jewish community,” as well the cycle  that leads to Jews having some access to power, resulting in our becoming a target of anti Semitism and realizing that those above will not protect us. If we are to form  meaningful partnerships, it’s vital, Jacobs argues, that we engage with partners when anti Semitic tropes emerge, such as those around money, and do the work of confronting our own assumptions while holding others accountable.
There’s much in this book I’m not mentioning-the splendid attention Jacobs pays to story telling as a tool for organizing, the guidelines and questions for consideration that help one locate themselves in this work, the discussions on community investment, Jacobs’ call to lead  “intergrated” Jewish lives, where we see social justice as a part of our spiritual practice, and her imperative for us  to commit authentically to  places and revisit and reconceptualize  doykayt– hereness, investment in one’s home.
Read this book. Copy the forms (the publisher says you can!) and use them. Dog ear the pages and warp them with attention. Seriously.

3 thoughts on “In Which Rabbi Jill Jacobs Writes a Really Smart Book and I Tell You About It

  1. I’ve got a strong interest in this book, in addition to a strong respect for R’ Jacobs’s work in general.
    As it concerns the community that I’m currently dwelling in, how will this message best reach the frum/haredim, best known for their insularity? In There Shall Be No Needy, she couches the issues in a very halakhic language. That, supposedly, is the best way to relate to the religious, but I haven’t observed her work making inroads with the frum. (Then again, absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence blah blah blah.) Can I expect this work to be in the same vein (i.e. using traditional textual sources)? I’d like to improve my host community in this aspect, so do tell!

  2. B.BarNavi– Thanks for your kind words and your interest in my book. Where Justice Dwells is less halakhic in nature than There Shall Be No Needy–while I do integrate Jewish texts into every discussion, the focus is practical–how we do social justice in our communities as Jews. I wrote this very much because after There Shall Be No Needy came out, people kept asking, “But how do I do this in my shul.” The skills I talk about in the book are absolutely applicable to any community, and are best put into practice by people in that community–meaning that you will have the best chance of making change in your community. Definitely write again to let me know your reactions after reading the book and speaking more with your community about the issues in it.

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