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Jewish Studies and Social Justice

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
5+ years
Target audience

The only program in the world formally linking Jewish Studies and Social Justice, we engage in both theoretical and practical applications of the meanings of social justice and activism rooted in the Jewish traditions. Our empowering courses, lectures, and workshops are rooted in the Jewish communities’ vast histories and identities as related to Activism, Intersectionality, Social Identities, and Social In/Justice. Aside from university-level courses, we have an annual fall Speaker Series on Jewish Identities, an annual spring Social Justice Lecture, Human Rights Lecture, and Social Justice Passover Seder, and offer an intensive study abroad program looking at marginalized communities.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

All of our programs draw on Jewish identities, both past and present, and engage participants in how social justice fits into their worldview and daily life.

One example is a course offered called "Social Justice, Activism, and Jews." After an introduction to texts central to the Jewish tradition, we explore topics related to race and ethnicity, gender, sex, and sexual orientation. We approach each subject generally, then look at responses from the Jewish community particularly, meeting with Jewish social justice activists, organizers, and religious leaders from the San Francisco Bay Area (and sometimes beyond) who dedicate themselves to the particular issues at hand. Through this process we create a context to analyze multiple ways to tangibly address twenty-first-century social justice issues, empowering students to become re/committed to transforming the world into its potential. (Note that a 2015 syllabus for this course is being submitted with this application.

A second example is our annual fall Speaker Series on Jewish Identities, where a handful of each semester’s “Social Justice, Activism, and Jews” speakers also offer presentations open to the larger Bay Area community, both on- and off-campus. Recent presenters include Vanessa Hidary, “Spoken Word about the Complexities of Jewish Identities”; Dr. Joy Ladin, “A Jewish Journey between Genders”; Ariel Luckey, “Amnesia” (a play about Race and Immigration); and Rebecca Walker, “Black, White, and Jewish: A Candid Discussion about the Politics of Identity.”

A third example is our annual Social Justice Passover Seder, where this past spring writer, poet, teacher, and activist Andrew Ramer utilized a “homemade” Hagaddah to shed light on the many ways humans are destroying the natural world and tangible ways for us to change course. (Note that the 2016 hagaddah is being submitted with this application.)

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

All of our programs—whether courses, presentations, workshops, etc.—are designed to integrate participants’ group and individual identities with those of the subject matter being presented. Everything we offer creates a space for those engaged to make connections between their own identities and those of the individuals, groups, or communities being presented. Because everything we do integrates Jewish particularism and human universalism (and even our approach to Judaism is through the lens of Judaisms) we are always making Jewish wisdom accessible to participants, regardless whether they are Jewish or not.

For example, in March 2016 we established our first annual “Human Rights Lecture.” Our inaugural keynote speaker was Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire the head of the United Nations military force in Kigali at the time of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, renowned for disobeying a command to evacuate, which saved 30,000 people. Since then, he has become one of the greatest humanitarians of our time, tackling issues including the use of child soldiers, sex trafficking, and support for military veterans. Because Jewish Studies and Social Justice program organized the event, in my capacity as Director I opened the evening, followed by a rabbi on faculty. In introducing Dallaire, above all else I cited the Talmud’s idea of shtikah k’hoda’ah (silence is akin to consent), saying that the Lt. Gen. is the pure embodiment of this Talmudic concept.

Perhaps most significantly, in June 2016 the Director of the JSSJ program published *Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities.* Based on his teaching a so-called “Introduction to Judaism” course, this new book is written for a new mode of teaching—one that recognizes the core role that identity formation plays in our lives—weaving together alternative and marginalized voices to illustrate how Jews have always been in the process of reshaping their customs, practices, and beliefs. *Judaisms* is the first book to assess and summarize Jewish history from the time of the Hebrew Bible through today using multiple perspectives, with each chapter revolving around a single theme (Narratives, Sinais, Zions, Messiahs, Laws, Mysticisms, Cultures, Movements, Genocides, Powers, Borders, and Futures). This introductory textbook interrogates and broadens readers’ understandings of Jewish communities, and was written for classroom use—written by an educator for other educators—as it: provides a synthetic and coherent alternative understanding of Jewish identity for students of all backgrounds; focuses on both the history of and potential futures for physical and ideological survival; includes an array of engaging images, many in color; and offers extensive online resources including notes, key terms, a timeline of major texts, and chapter-by-chapter activities for teaching. In this way the JSSJ program has the potential to have international influence.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Based on qualitative and qualitative information gathered from students who have taken our courses and participated in our presentations, workshops, and other programs, we know that our programs have a great deal of positive impact.

Here are some select comments made by USF students who have taken JSSJ courses and participated in other JSSJ programs with the JSSJ program Director specifically:

- “Aaron presented…through the lenses of an array of narratives, and prompted questions I had never considered…under Aaron’s guidance…I left learning more about myself than I had in the previous two years I’d spent at the University of San Francisco…Aaron stands out in my mind as one of those rare figures who shifted the trajectory of my life so drastically that its hard to imagine where I would be had I not med him.” (Talal A.)

- Professor [Hahn] Tapper’s class challenged me intellectually, and enabled me to reconnect with my heritage. Both his teachings, and the way he required students to experience the teachings by attending synagogues of different denominations, resulted in my electing a Jewish Studies minor…Thanks to Professor [Hahn] Tapper I now realized that I care more about human rights and helping others than I do about marketing consumer goods (which I was doing at the time). This enabled me to choose to intern at the Center for Justice and Accountability, an NGO which sues human rights abusers (often untenable for criminal prosecution) for civil damages on behalf of their victims.” (Jaime B.)

- “At first my relationship with Aaron was confined to conventional terms…but it was not long before that changed. As a professor, he provided the students with the space to be honest and open, and as a mentor/advisor he competed us to think critically about issues at stake and to question our [sic] role we played in these issues…As a result of a great semester, I decided to participate as a fellow in one of Aaron’s [study abroad] programs.” (Gina E.)

- “Professor Hahn Tapper has inspired me. His teachings, reading assignments, and writing endeavors are about identity and development—something that is often left out of the classroom but that should be focused on as learning tools for life…I left Professor Hahn Tapper’s classes knowing that I was a powerful individual in this world and wanting to apply it to make changes in my ever day [sic] life and the lives of those around me.” (Erin-Kate E.)

- “When studying a conflict that evokes such strong emotions, it is easy to jump to conclusions, be emotional, and choose a side. Professor Hahn Tapper was always careful to help me think through all the positions and to be well rounded in my assessment go a situation. Just when I formed an opinion, he would provide the class with a reading that would questions everything I thought I knew…Although he has his own biases, opinions, and personal connections to the conflict, he never let that show in the classroom. This was crucial because this allowed his students to form their own opinions; he gave us the information and told we needed to decide how we viewed the conflict.” (Kaitlin L.)

- “I’ve never had someone care so much about my education nor spend so much time and energy helping me to succeed. I cannot imagine where I would be without him. Working with Aaron over the years has truly been a transformative experience. He’s inspired me to never find comfort in complacency, to always understand my own power and privilege and most importantly, Aaron has helped me believe in and value my own personal agency.” (Anna Z.)

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Jewish wisdom is replete with ideas that serve as a nexus between the Jewish communities and all humanity. One reason for this seeming wide applicability is because there has never been a single Judaism, only Judaisms; never been a Jewish people, only Jewish peoples. Still present on close to 175 of the world’s 200 countries, from Hebrews to Israelites to Judeans to Jews, the notions of “portable identity” and “cross-fertilization” have played major roles in Jewish communities’ connection with the 99.8% of the world that isn’t Jewish (see *Judaisms: A Twenty-First-Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities* for more).