Robert Lichtman, Chief Jewish Learning Officer
Contrary to the stereotype, teens would still want to save the world even if college admissions officers did not expect it of them. Justice League taps into native teen activism by empowering a select group of 6 teens to envision or to support existing Jewish service learning projects, recruit for them, and execute them. Parallel to this, they identify a social justice issue of concern to them. Guided by supportive coaching and research they present findings to their peers, parents, and the incoming Justice League cohort that incorporates their knowledge, passions, opinions and relevant Jewish sources to make their case.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - Pursue Justice. (Deuteronomy 16:20, this is the Justice League, after all).
One Justice Leaguer brought the Rambam and his 13 Principles of Faith into the freedom-of-information / WikiLeaks debate concerning information that may undermine bedrock communal beliefs or assumptions. Principle #9 refers to the immutability of Torah. “What if there is information that refutes the Torah? Do we suppress that information?” What about other halachot, such as not to testify falsely or to put any Jew to shame? How does uncovering relevant information square with such obligations?”
Another teen addressed the Syrian refugee crisis and Israel’s obligation to come to the aid of the Ger (stranger). He cited Menachem Begin who justified the absorption of Vietnamese refugees by saying “we Israelis know what it means to be refugees.” On the other hand, the student noted the potential to bring in terrorists in the mix, and raised the existential conflict between righteousness and national security by quoting Exodus 23:33, “Your enemies shall not dwell in your land,” and Pirkei Avot 1:7, “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor.” He referenced the Torah’s emphasis on borders, that of Israel and her neighbors, saying “unfettered immigration, an essentially border-less situation, is not a Jewish value.”
Another Justice Leaguer presented on Homelessness, challenging us to open our own homes to people who do not have one. She equated this standard to Israel’s ingathering of Jews from other countries not only to fulfill the obligation of a “kehillah kedosha” but to foster a diverse community. Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 2:40 - “though diversity applies to all forms of life, it applies more to humans than any other. To which one must surely add: and among Jews more than most.”
Members of the Justice League gathered with their professional Coordinator monthly over the year. Each time they met, they delved for two or more hours into social justice issues and the topics they had chosen, exploring contemporary scholarship and research on their issues. The Coordinator and the Teen Director worked with each Justice Leaguer to access relevant Jewish sources to incorporate into their presentations. The presentations were lightly edited, then presented as original positions to a community of their peers and parents in an interactive format, inviting debate and conversation incorporating Jewish learning, practice and communal insights to advance their thinking about these matters.
The Justice Leaguers were asked: How has your participation in the Justice League impacted your
a) appreciation of what Jewish learning has to say about the issues you care about?
b) activities or plans for Jewish learning and / or pursuing Justice?
“Before Justice League I knew about the general ways and principles of the religion but nothing specific. Being able to research topics each member of the League was interested in allowed me to learn what Judaism had to say about a specific topic that I was interested in as well as those of my fellow members. Not only did the projects convey interesting Jewish perspectives, but in each meeting we discussed current national and global issues in the modern world and I was intrigued and surprised at how our ancient religion had text directly relating to solutions and opinions on current social justice conflicts.”
“My experience in Justice League has allowed me to open my eyes to another side of Jewish learning and activism. I can relate social justice issues into service based Jewish practices or ways to alleviate/deal with certain situations.”
“My appreciation for the Jewish take on issues I care about has been greatly expanded. I already had the idea that there was a Jewish view on almost everything, but what I didn't realize was that there is an extensive Jewish view and lens on literally anything. For example, I've learned quite a bit about freedom of information in Judaism for my service project. It's a bit of a new topic, so I was pleasantly surprised by the myriad of information. Another thing I learned about the Jewish view on was social justice and how it should be pursued. Over the course of the year, I have learned quite a bit about the Jewish perspective on things.”
“Participating in the Justice League has impacted my future plans in several ways. First, I am further encouraged to participate in service, particularly of the Jewish sort, in college. Second, I am more informed of Jewish issues going forward. Finally, I have more inspiration to continue to participate in Jewish events.”
“Before the Justice League, I was not very connected with my Judaism. I always appreciated my values but never felt intertwined with my religion. I have learned that there are other, more fun ways to help and learn about Jewish values and pursuing justice other than Hebrew school. This program has changed my perspective on topics such as giving and homelessness and I am so happy that I was able to be part of such an impactful program.”
“My participation in the Justice League impacted my appreciation of what Jewish learning has to say about issues that I care about greatly. There is much more meaning to perfom tikkun olam when you know and understand the Jewish value about that service. The Justice League was just the beginning of my social action career. It motivated me to run for the North American Federation for Temple Youth Garden Empire Region's regional board as Social Action Vice President. Being a part of the core group gave me the skill set and confidence to branch out and run for regional board.”
We formed The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life to create new ways, and to support existing ways to Bring Jewish Learning to Life, to show that there is no such thing as “Jewish Life;” indeed, Jewish learning informs all of Life. The Justice League was a powerful, sophisticated yet straightforward way to empower teens to explore how Jewish learning could inform, indeed deepen their knowledge and activism regarding social justice issues that they care about. By placing them in the public eye to present and defend their positions, as well as to create, lead and recruit for community-based Jewish Service Learning projects that attract hundreds of other teens, we expanded the circle of those who have a deeper appreciation for the relevance of ancient and contemporary Jewish wisdom on emerging social issues. We hope that they will continue this exploration as other issues engage them throughout their lives. Their own comments seem to indicate that this may be so. The more people that understand that, the more successful we will be.
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