Welcome to Just!
Just is not just a book, not just a curriculum, not just a resource guide, and not just a “how to” manual for implementing social justice initiatives. What we present in the pages which follow is a set of textual resources, discussion questions, and planning exercises related to social action and community service.
This guide is based on a single premise—that our world is in a state of imperfection and that we feel compelled to improve its condition. This assertion is quite simple, yet it is unclear exactly how we can—and should—respond to the flaws that we encounter. What should we be doing to assist individuals in need? How can we address the social and environmental problems that we face? As we dig beneath the surface, we wonder why we feel any sense of responsibility or moral obligation to repair the world. What motivates our response? What are the core values that direct our actions and determine our priorities?
Our first impulse is to hone in on a contemporary issue that touches us
personally and then to fight for the side that we judge to be right. The threats posed by crises such as poverty, racial injustice, political oppresssion and climate change might spur us toward immediate action. Yet without educating ourselves on the issues, we are fighting blindly. Can we make an informed decision on the proper course of action without intensive study? How long does it take to become a reasonably knowledgeable activist? Where do we begin?
In this text, action refers to the ritual and ethical behavior found in the
Torah and interpreted by the rabbis. Rabbi Tarfon initially contends that
engaging in these behaviors is our primary purpose for existing.
The alternative view, presented by Rabbi Akiva, is that we should focus
primarily on the study of Torah. While this claim does not surprise us,
the conclusion of the text is striking. Akiva, Tarfon, and the elders do not
defend study as valuable in and of itself. Rather, they interpret it as a
causal force, guiding the learner toward a desired action. In asserting the
importance of study, however, the rabbis articulate a belief that intellecttual
engagement is a prerequisite to meaningful action in the world.
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The Form and Structure of Just
We present this story from the Talmud on the debate between study
and action for two reasons. First, the notion of grappling with ideas that
exist in tension is the cornerstone of this curriculum. The disagreement
between Akiva and Tarfon demonstrates that no matter how learned we
are, we will face challenging situations in which two or more values that
we hold dear are in conflict. In other words we cannot uphold one value
without undermining another. There are no simple solutions to these
conflicts. Nonetheless, by identifying the values at stake and weighing
them against each other, students can see the relevance of Jewish values
to their daily lives. No matter what solution the participants propose,
we see from the story of the rabbis that multiple viewpoints are validated
and preserved by our tradition as legitimate answers.
The second teaching that emerges from the story of Akiva and Tarfon
relates to the overall structure of this guide. It is divided into two sections,
each corresponding to one side of the rabbis’ classic debate. The
first section is Torah/Study, using the term “Torah” in a broad sense—
not only describing the Five Books of Moses, but referring to the ongoing
Jewish interpretive tradition rooted in our sacred literature. The word
Torah literally means “teaching” and this section features a variety of
Jewish texts—both traditional and contemporary—that present challenging
ideas that relate to the pursuit of social justice.
Section I – Torah/Study, is an exploration of some of the Jewish ethical,
theological, and philosophical underpinnings for engagement in society.
The first two chapters explore the call to take action in society and the
core value of tzelem elohim, the idea that every human being is created
in the image of God. The five chapters that follow are structured around
some of the value conflicts inherent in social justice work. Through an examination of both classical and modern texts we see how core Jewish
values can sometimes be in tension with each other.
The second section of Just, Ma’aseh/Action, is a practical guide for
implementing social justice initiatives. This section provides a systematic
approach to Jewish service-learning, organized according to the acronnym
P.A.R.E.: preparation, action, reflection and evaluation. There is
one chapter on each of these stages, and the chapter entitled, “Action”
outlines five paths toward social change. In addition to describing these
five modes of activism, we also profile individuals who model each of
It is important to understand that the two sections—Torah/Study and
Ma’aseh/Action—do not have to be used sequentially with students.
In the same way that the Akiva and Tarfon text reveals the interplay
between study and action, so too the exploration of the Jewish ethical
foundations of social responsibility and the experience of becoming a
change agent should inform each other. The theoretical and the practical,
reflection and action, must go hand in hand. We encourage educators
to lead participants though the conversations outlined in Torah/Study
while undertaking the kind of social justice initiatives described in
This curriculum is the product of partnership between PANIM: The
Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values and Hillel: The Foundation
for Jewish Campus Life. While our two organizations focus on different
student populations (PANIM working primarily with teens and Hillel with
college students), we share a common approach to Jewish education
and Jewish social-justice programs which is reflected in every page of
We believe that there is a distinctly Jewish way to pursue social justice.
Committed Jews should struggle with texts and explore the ways in
which our tradition can inform our lives. Similarly, the responsibility to
serve the community by responding to those in need is essential to
our Jewish identity. We believe that social justice experiences have the
power to expose students to the contemporary relevance of the Jewish
tradition and that Jewish study will add layers of personal meaning to
Finally, we believe in the potential of a Jewish social justice experience to
serve as a gateway into further Jewish engagement. By learning to examiine
social issues through a Jewish lens, participants become more likely
to recognize Judaism’s relevance to other areas of their lives as well. In
accordance with this belief, we have utilized the Hebrew language regularly
in this resource. Exploring texts in the original Hebrew contributes
to the depth of our discussions, and learning Hebrew terms for concepts
the students already understand helps ground the curriculum in classical
Jewish language. To guide users of this curriculum, an extensive glossary
is provided to explain Hebrew terms or classical Jewish sources.
We anticipate that this curriculum will become the backbone of many
Jewish service-learning programs for Jewish teens and college students.
In either educational setting, we encourage educators to creatively use
and adapt these materials to best meet the needs of their community.
We wish you much success in your educational enterprises and your
efforts to help cultivate the next generation of socially responsible,
civically engaged Jews.
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