‘I want my Judaism and my activism to be part of one whole’

‘I want my Judaism and my activism to be part of one whole’

Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah to speak in Livingston shul 

Rabbi Jill Jacobs
Rabbi Jill Jacobs

When Jill Jacobs was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary 20 years ago, her career goal was “to do social justice work as a rabbi. People would get confused and asked why I wasn’t going to law or social work school,” she said.

Now, as CEO of T’ruah, an organization that bills itself as “the rabbinic call for human rights,” Rabbi Jacobs is not just doing social justice work, she’s bringing the next generation of rabbinical students on board. Eighty percent of liberal rabbinical students spending their year in Israel take part in T’ruah’s programs, which introduces them to different Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists and organizations. (Rabbi Jacobs will speak at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston next Sunday afternoon, May 15; see the box for details, including how to stream it.)

This year, T’ruah marks its 20th anniversary. Originally formed to support the Israel organization Rabbis for Human Rights, T’ruah today has a staff of more than 20, a budget above $2 million annually, and 2,300 rabbi members.

“We think that’s about half of the rabbis” in the liberal branches of American Judaism, including the liberal wing of Orthodoxy, Rabbi Jacobs said. “It’s a larger percentage among people who are being ordained now.”

In addition to its Israeli program and a shorter, more intense program in New York for rabbinical and cantorial students, T’ruah provides a forum for rabbis to learn about social issues, and connects them based on common interests, such as political activism in in swing states or wanting to be a chaplain for social movements.

But beyond the rabbinic training, T’ruah takes a high-profile activist role.

“Half of our work is in the U.S. and Canada; half is in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” Rabbi Jacobs said.

In the United States, T’ruah focuses on workers’ rights, fighting on behalf of refugees and immigrants, and ending mass incarceration. In New York State in 2021, it helped pass a bill that limited the use of solitary confinement and is now supporting three bills that would reduce prison sentences through such means as eliminating mandatory minimums.

T’ruah’s labor advocacy has been focused on working with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of Florida tomato harvesters, and their fight for corporations to join the “Fair Food Program,” which regulates working conditions for tomato workers. This campaign has led to rabbis’ high profile visits to Florida tomato farms.

With 14 corporations on board — including McDonald’s and most of the other fast-food giants as well as leading supermarket chains — the group is now focusing on Wendy’s.

“Wendy’s is not budging,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “It’s the only major fast-food chain that has not signed a fair food agreement. They’ve decided they would rather buy from Mexico, where there is known slavery and trafficking.” On Thursday, May 12, a demonstration is planned on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, outside the Park Avenue offices of Trian Partners, a major Wendy’s shareholder.

This labor activism has come as many centrist organizations have moved to the right politically from where they were half a century ago. This was evident when, in honor of May Day, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who is scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, posted a thread on Twitter with Jewish sources on labor and workers’ rights. She started with the Torah and the Talmud, moved forward to early 20th-century Orthodox rabbis, and then quoted statements from the 1960s when several mainstream Jewish organizations supported boycotts of non-union grapes and lettuce. But for 21st century union activism, she pointed to the work of T’ruah and the equally specialized Jewish Labor Committee.

“There’s a story of Jews moving into management,” Rabbi Jacobs said. “It means that in lots of mainstream Jewish organizations you have board members who want to make sure their companies are not getting unionized and might not have a lot of support for organized labor.

“It’s also the story of organized labor in this country, which went into a deep decline beginning in the 1980s, but is now resurgent, which is hopeful. Hopefully we will see more Jewish organizations that go back to that Jewish history of the labor movement.”

Rabbi Jacobs said she got involved in justice work in high school. She grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts outside of Boston, in a Conservative congregation where she was active in USY. She enrolled in Columbia College, hoping to find both a progressive world and a Jewish community. She found it “here and there,” but the two didn’t really connect, she said.

Before college, “I had never really thought about being a rabbi,” she continued. “This was in the 1990s. JTS had been ordaining women but none had landed in my direction. The rabbis I knew were all middle-aged men.”

At Columbia, however, she got to meet rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Center, right up Broadway. “I saw the students and they looked like me,” she said. “It now felt possible to be a rabbi.”

She didn’t enroll at JTS thinking she would combine the rabbinate and the fight for justice. That came after she decided to “find out what was going on in the neighborhood. I ended up getting involved in some housing issues happening in Harlem at the time. Essentially, the city was selling a lot of property and people were getting pushed out.

“I decided to find out whether Judaism had anything to say about housing. I had no idea. I very quickly found myself in a chapter of Talmud talking about what repairs landlords have to make, and what repairs tenants have to make, and when you’re allowed to evict people. The same issues I saw in Harlem in the 1990s were being discussed in the Talmud 1,500 years before.

“I was obviously not the first person to figure this out. But I started to think about how as a rabbi I could do this kind of work.”

She found internships at places that don’t usually bring rabbinical students on board — a union and housing organizations. And she earned a master’s in urban affairs at Hunter College.

“I really had no idea whether there was a job at the end of the day,” she said. “I got very lucky.”

As it happened, she entered a barely existing field at an opportune time.

“In the last 20 years, the whole Jewish social justice sector has grown massively,” she said.

“For younger Jews in particular, there’s a desire for people to integrate the way they live their lives. It’s not, ‘I’ll do Judaism on Saturday and my activism on Sunday.’ I want my Judaism and my activism to be part of one whole, for Jewish practice to drive my activism, for Jewish thought and texts to bring depth to my work, for Jewish ritual to enhance it.”

And despite T’ruah’s focus as an organization for and of rabbis, “There are lots of opportunities for everyone to take action through us. There are learning opportunities open to everybody.

“The majority of our support comes from people who are lay leaders. We see rabbis as a model for helping the Jewish community but we don’t see rabbis as the endpoint.”

Who: Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, the rabbinic call for human rights

When: Sunday, May 15, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Temple B’nai Abraham, 300 E Northfield Rd, Livingston, and online at tbanj.org/

What: In conversation with Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg, as part of the synagogue’s “Sunday Afternoon With…” series

How much: Free

Covid protocols: Proof of vaccination or negative test results must be shown at the door. Details, and a required online form, are on the synagogue’s website, tbanj.org.

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