Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz might not have been coming to Englewood next week from Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, had he not gone to El Salvador in 2003.
Now, Rabbi Yanklowitz runs Valley Beit Midrash — an interdenominational Jewish study program that works to provide Jewish study classes in partnership with local synagogues— and heads Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox Jewish social justice organization he started when he was a rabbinical student at Riverdale’s Yeshiva Chovevei Torah. (The Hebrew phrase “Uri L’Tzedek” means “Awaken to justice.”)
(Rabbi Yanklowitz will speak at an Uri L’Tzedek parlor meeting at a private home in Englewood on Tuesday evening. See below.)
But in 2003, he was a student at the University of Texas in Austin, leaning into his Jewish identity once his initial culture shock and amazement at being in Texas after growing up as a Reform Jew in the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Deerfield had worn off. The American Jewish World Service offered a weeklong trip to El Salvador, and Rabbi Yanklowitz found it to be eye opening.
“We would split our time between service and learning,” Rabbi Yanklowitz remembered. “I became friends with the farmers in the village. We worked on their farms and worked with the children, teaching English. And doing a lot of listening to stories. And then there were times of Jewish learning and reflection.
“That started to intertwine these global justice issues with my own Jewish learning journey.
“I had a pretty simplistic notion of both kindness and justice. That was all challenged in my first trip to the global south, where I realized how much deeper the poverty was than anything I had imagined. And how much more complicit as Americans we were than I had suspected.”
He would return to central America with AJWS again as a trip leader; he now counts Ruth Messinger, the long-time president of AJWS, as among his most influential mentors. That club that also includes YCT’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.
While the trip to El Salvador didn’t change his immediate academic course — he earned a business degree at UT, something he finds somewhat amusing in hindsight though he admits that given that he’s founded several nonprofit organizations, it has proven useful — Judaism and social justice became his life’s calling.
After graduation, he returned to the Chicago area for a management consulting job. His passion for Torah study led him to study Talmud at a local charedi yeshiva at night. While he was there, he got his first inkling that some paths of Orthodoxy were too narrow for him when he was reprimanded for reading a book written by Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, who had led Chicago’s Yeshivas Brisk before, late in life, taking the Talmud post at New York’s Yeshiva University left vacant by the retirement of his older brother, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in 1985. When Rabbi Yanklowitz asked what was wrong with the book, his charedi teachers couldn’t actually provide an answer.
So, in the sort of chutzpah that underlies great business biographies, Rabbi Yanklowitz called Yeshiva University seeking answers. He initially got no response, but he wasn’t deterred. Meanwhile, at the recommendation of the charedi yeshiva, he had traveled to Israel to study at Yeshiva Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. A sign in his dorm room that read “Don’t be so open minded your brains fall out” only heightened his doubts about the charedi path.
He finally connected to Rabbi Yosef Blau, who was in charge of spiritual guidance at YU’s rabbinical school. By the end of the conversation, Rabbi Yanklowitz decided to transfer to Yeshivat Hamivtar, where Rabbi Blau’s son was on the faculty and the outlook was more to Rabbi Yanklowitz’s liking. He spent two years studying at the yeshiva in Efrat, and then he came back and enrolled at YCT, while also earning a masters degree in Jewish philosophy from YU and a doctorate in psychology from Columbia.
After a stint at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Yanklowitz took over Valley Beit Midrash, which he has grown to include a Colorado branch.
“I came to love Torah learning, and a few years later I learned that I loved to teach,” he said. “And what I loved was having diverse people in the room, in a very open and critical emotional and intellectual process, where we learn Torah with two primary goals.
“One is the transformation of self, working on our moral refinement. And one is the transformation of society, that our learning should lead towards making the world better, and that it should charge our moral responsibility to seeing injustice and oppression, and doing our part in addressing that.”
That kind of Torah study “has to be deeply intentional,” Rabbi Yanklowitz said. He has learned that he had been naive to think that “the more Torah study for its own sake we engaged in, we would automatically become better and agents of change. I learned that Torah actually could be perverted so easily and actually further the wrong character traits and lead one to actually perpetuate injustice.
“The questions we ask of the text have to be not only ones of meaning, of what do the commentators say, but ones of application and moral relevancy. We have to uproot our own shadows, our own assumptions around our own sense of what is right and just and our own sense of personal responsibility, and look at questions of how we ourselves are complicit.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz first made headlines in 2008, as a rabbinic student, when he called out the complicity of the kosher food industry in the mistreatment of animals and organized a boycott of the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacker in the wake of a federal immigration raid of the company’s Postville, Iowa, facilities and revelations of animal mistreatment there. That was the founding moment for Uri L’Tzedek. After the group called off the boycott in the wake of new ownership, Uri L’Tzedek then launched Tav HaYosher, literally seal of righteousness, to certify fair business practices a at kosher restaurants. It has half a dozen Bergen County facilities under its supervision.
“It certifies that they pay their workers at least minimal wage and overtime, that they get breaks throughout the day, and that there’s no mistreatment of the workers,” Rabbi Yankowitz said.
“At first we wanted much higher standards, living wage and environmental and animal welfare standards. Then we looked and found that in many kosher restaurants, forget minimum wage, they’re paying the workers $5 an hour. They’re not getting any breaks. And we found that the treatment of workers in the restaurant industry is often atrocious, and that nobody either knew or cared as consumers. And so we wanted to bring light to that.
“Once we get these kosher establishments abiding by basic law, then our goal is to operate on a level where the kosher industry actually can represent a higher ideal,” he said.
Once a restaurant owner signs with Tav Hayosher, “our compliance officers go in and talk to the workers privately, in English or Spanish, and verify” how their employer treats them. “When I’m Englewood, I’m going to go to restaurants to do compliance checks, and to new places to try to get them on board as well.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz and his wife, Shoshana Stein, who grew up in Teaneck, have four children, and also have fostered “eight or nine children over the years.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Rabbi Yanklowitz launched Yatom: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network to “incentivize Jewish families to start fostering.
“We give micro grants to families who are fostering or have adopted,” he said. “We also have a fellowship program where we take singles or families who want to foster and we give them a community and a stipend and education on how to do this, and we support them through that journey.”
He has also written more than a dozen books, including a series of “social justice commentaries” on the Book of Jonah, the Book of Proverbs, and Pirkei Avot, that are published by the Reform movement’s CCAR Press. He coedited an anthology, “Jewish Veganism and Vegetarianism: Studies and New Directions,” with Dr. Jacob Ari Labendz, who recently was named director of Ramapo Colleges Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
“Jacob is a secular cultural Jew,” Rabbi Yanklowitz said. “We’ve been close friends ever since we were in the Wexner graduate fellowship together in the same class. And we came to veganism through many similar values and some different ones. Dr. Labendz’ thinking has helped refine my own on the Jewish vegan front.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz recently published a book, “The Five Ounce Gift: A Medical, Philosophical & Spiritual Jewish Guide to Kidney Donation,” which he said “emerged from my own moral philosophy inquiries. Peter Singer, who I know is controversial on many fronts, really challenged me to think about the idea of luxury income and moral responsibility for anything beyond our basic necessities.”
And your second kidney might be said to be a luxury.
“It’s hard to morally justify keeping an organ that is likely not to be needed, when someone will likely die who could be saved through donating that organ,” he said. “That really startled me when I thought about it. I sat with that idea for years. I knew that once I started to explore it on a serious level, that as terrified as I was, I was going to end up doing it.” And he did, at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
In actuality, the experience of organ donation turned out to be far from terrifying.
“There were a number of months of testing and paperwork. I stayed at the hospital for three days and two nights. Then I recovered in a hotel in Teaneck for a week. And then I stayed with my in-laws in Teaneck” – that’s Rabbi Kenneth and Helene Stein — for a few more weeks, because I couldn’t fly until four weeks after. And then I was at 100 percent and I flew back home.”
Who: Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder of Uri L’Tzedek
What: Will give a talk on “Modern Orthodoxy Today: Addressing the Most Pressing Moral Issues of Our Time”
When: Tuesday, August 9, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Englewood private residence. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org for the address.