Rab­bi Jill Jacobs is the author of Where Jus­tice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Jus­tice in Your Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty (Jew­ish Lights).

My ini­tial ven­ture into Jew­ish social jus­tice came my first year of rab­bini­cal school at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. Deter­mined to learn some­thing about Harlem — the neigh­bor­hood that bound­ed my school to the north and east — I got involved with a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing effort to help res­i­dents avoid evic­tion and ensure safe liv­ing con­di­tions. At the time, New York City was in the process of rid­ding itself of thou­sands of build­ings that had default­ed to city own­er­ship when land­lords aban­doned them dur­ing the fis­cal cri­sis of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 90s, as hous­ing prices in Harlem were ris­ing, the city began sell­ing these build­ings to for-prof­it land­lords, who often found ways to evict long-term ten­ants or to push them out by refus­ing to turn on the hot water, or to do need­ed repairs.

Sev­er­al times a week, I would walk ten min­utes east of JTS, to 123rd and Harlem, and spend time with elder­ly women try­ing to get their land­lords to turn the hot water on, or fam­i­lies fight­ing evic­tion as rents rose. I would then walk back to school, where I would break my teeth over Ara­ma­ic gram­mar, and immerse myself in con­ver­sa­tions about Shab­bat and Jew­ish mourn­ing prac­tices. All of these felt impor­tant, but I strug­gled to under­stand the con­nec­tion between what I saw in Harlem and what I was learn­ing in school.

My peers and my teach­ers sup­port­ed my work, but couldn’t guide me toward any­thing that would help it all make sense. At the time, nobody in my world was talk­ing about Jew­ish social jus­tice. Most of the orga­ni­za­tions that now define the Jew­ish social jus­tice land­scape either did not yet exist, or were tiny play­ers in the Jew­ish landscape.

I start­ed study­ing Jew­ish texts about the rela­tions between land­lords and ten­ants and, to my sur­prise, found dozens of rab­binic con­ver­sa­tions from 1500 years before, about when one is allowed to evict a ten­ant, what repairs the land­lord must do, and what repairs fall under the tenant’s responsibility.

I took a risk and wrote a short piece about my own expe­ri­ences both orga­niz­ing in Harlem and tutor­ing chil­dren in a tran­si­tion­al hous­ing cen­ter near­by. I wrote about the Jew­ish par­a­digm of the sukkah — the tem­po­rary struc­ture meant to be lived in only for a week — and the ma’akeh — the guardrail built on the roof of a home to pre­vent falls. I wrote about an eleven-year-old boy I had met who was exceed­ing­ly bright — but who had nev­er learned to read prob­a­bly because his family’s fre­quent moves meant that he nev­er stayed in one school long enough to learn. I wrote about the need for sta­ble, long-term hous­ing that pro­tects the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al health of its residents.

On a whim, I sent this piece to Tikkun Mag­a­zine. I was 23 years old, and had nev­er pub­lished any­thing in a nation­al pub­li­ca­tion. To my sur­prise, they took it. To my greater sur­prise, peo­ple read it. And, to my amaze­ment, numer­ous peo­ple told me that they, too, had been look­ing for con­nec­tions between Judaism and social justice.

This all hap­pened before such pub­li­ca­tions had an on-line pres­ence, before blog­ging exist­ed, and before we could face­book or tweet arti­cles to the world. So it was shock­ing that so many peo­ple read a paper pub­li­ca­tion, and then e‑mailed or called me to tell me what they thought.

This ini­tial expe­ri­ence led me through a long process of work­ing in social jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions, both inside and out­side of the Jew­ish world. I want­ed to know more about urban pol­i­tics, so I got a degree in Urban Affairs. And, even­tu­al­ly, I decid­ed to write more. I kept get­ting calls from peo­ple look­ing for a book that would pro­vide a Jew­ish approach to con­tem­po­rary issues. I couldn’t find a recent one to rec­om­mend, so I decid­ed to write my own. This led to the pub­li­ca­tion of There Shall Be No Needy: Pur­su­ing Social Jus­tice Through Jew­ish Law and Tra­di­tion, which came out in 2009. This book looked at crim­i­nal jus­tice, hous­ing, labor, the envi­ron­ment, and oth­er jus­tice issues through the lens of Jew­ish text, social sci­ence, and real peo­ple whom I have met in my work.

And then I thought I was done. Writ­ing a book is quite a project — espe­cial­ly when one has a full-time job. I spent Sun­days, late nights, and ear­ly morn­ings crouched over my com­put­er writ­ing and edit­ing. I draft­ed my hus­band and sev­er­al friends into edit­ing. So I promised not to write anoth­er book for a very long time.

But then, I start­ed tour­ing with There Shall Be No Needy. I went to Barnes & Nobles, syn­a­gogues, Board of Rab­bis meet­ings, and JCCs around the coun­try. And, at every stop, some­one raised his or her hand and said, It’s good to hear that Judaism has so much to say about social jus­tice. But my synagogue’s social jus­tice com­mit­tee is strug­gling. What should we do?”

And so I real­ized that I need­ed to write anoth­er book. Where Jus­tice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide To Doing Social Jus­tice in Your Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty starts where There Shall Be No Needy leaves off. It gives the the­o­ret­i­cal back­ground for why Jews should do social jus­tice work. It walks through how to choose where to focus one’s jus­tice work. And then I get prac­ti­cal. Based on my own expe­ri­ences, as well as tex­tu­al prece­dent, I talk about how we can do effec­tive ser­vice, orga­niz­ing, and advo­ca­cy in our own com­mu­ni­ties. I talk about how we can form strong part­ner­ships with oth­er reli­gious, eth­nic, and social wel­fare orga­ni­za­tions. I talk about how we can use pow­er effectively.

I’ve told every­one I know that I’m real­ly not writ­ing anoth­er book for a very long time. But I do look for­ward to hear­ing from indi­vid­u­als and insti­tu­tions about your own expe­ri­ence imple­ment­ing the ideas in Where Jus­tice Dwells.

Rab­bi Jill Jacobs is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Rab­bis for Human Rights-North Amer­i­ca and the author of Where Jus­tice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Jus­tice in Your Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty (Jew­ish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pur­su­ing Social Jus­tice Through Jew­ish Law and Tra­di­tion. She will be blog­ging here all through Sukkot.

Rab­bi Jill Jacobs is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of T’ru­ah: The Rab­binic Call for Human Rights, which mobi­lizes 1800 rab­bis and can­tors and tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­can Jews to bring a Jew­ish moral voice to the most press­ing human rights con­cerns of our time. She is the author of Where Jus­tice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Jus­tice in Your Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty and There Shall Be No Needy: Pur­su­ing Social Jus­tice through Jew­ish Law and Tra­di­tion, both pub­lished by Jew­ish Lights. Rab­bi Jacobs has been named to the For­wards list of 50 influ­en­tial Amer­i­can Jews three times, to The Jew­ish Weeks first list of 36 under 36”, and to Newsweeks list of the 50 Most Influ­en­tial Rab­bis in Amer­i­ca every year since 2009. She holds rab­binic ordi­na­tion and an MA in Tal­mud from the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, an MS in Urban Affairs from Hunter Col­lege, and a BA in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives in New York with her hus­band, Guy Aus­tri­an, and their two daughters.