Choices and Change: How I Became a Social Justice Rabbi

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February 20, 2014


I didn’t set out to become a social justice rabbi. I didn’t grow up in an activist family or do a lot of community service in high school, and my Judaism is not all about tikkun olam.

“I’m looking for an internship in lobbying,” I said to my high school guidance counselor toward the end of junior year.

“Ok. Lobbying for whom?”

“I don’t care — could be the NRA, could be Planned Parenthood. I just want to learn how this lobbying thing works.”

I don’t remember what got me excited about the idea of community organizing. In my head at the time, it was the same thing as lobbying. To this day, 15 years later, I recall this conversation vividly, perhaps because of how stupid I felt as soon as the words were out of my mouth. I didn’t support the NRA, but I knew they were effective at banding together to amplify individuals’ voices, and I wanted to figure out how that worked. (I ended up interning at a Washington Heights social service organization, a much better fit for my values.)

That summer, I was in Israel with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. It was the height of peacenik fever —Ehud Barak had just been elected prime minister, and a deal seemed inevitable, close — which made me all the more dismayed when I learned for the first time about East Jerusalem. Arab Israeli citizens get treated how? Discrimination like that practiced by us?! It couldn’t be. Something would have to be done.

But I didn’t think it was rabbis who would do it.

In college, I was going to be a diplomat, then an environmental policymaker, then a science writer. It was Brown, so there was plenty of activism around. Yet I was drawn most to the Jewish community and questions of pluralism: how we get along with — and learn from — Jews of different stripes. The Second Intifada was fresh, and there was plenty to hash out.

When I was briefly drawn into campus-wide politics, it was around Israel and Palestine. I was pushing a pluralist, open-hearted agenda, neither the Israel-is-an-imperialist-oppressor we were hearing from the socialists nor Hillel International’s official “Wherever We Stand, We Stand with Israel.” Back then, my friends and I joked that “wherever we stand, we retain the ability to think critically.” I went to the rally on the National Mall in the spring of 2002 with a sign that said “Israel. Palestine. Coexistence.” I was enraged when a stranger tried to tear it from my grasp.

My academic and professional interests kept shifting; my commitment to Jewish leadership didn’t. As graduation approached, I was considering rabbinical school. It felt like I was living the Brian Andreas “StoryPeople” print our Hillel staff gave me as a parting gift: “I don’t think of it as working for world peace, he said. I think of it as just trying to get along in a really big strange family.” Judaism is my big, strange branch of this big, strange human family, and I was ready to devote my career to tending that branch in service of the health of the whole.

My engagement with Israel and Palestine waxed and waned as I spent time in Israel, in Manhattan teaching fifth grade, and then in rabbinical school — cycles of enthusiasm followed by periods of despair. During one particularly heated argument on a Hebrew College student listserv, I thought I had found the right combination of words and tone to defuse an explosive exchange. My heart hammered as my cursor hovered over “send” — was I up for wading into this again? Would it just pour fuel on the fire? Did I have something meaningful to add? But I felt a calm confidence. It felt right. The next day, quiet congratulations poured in from faculty and students. I realized that, with ordination a little over a year away, I was headed toward being a rabbi who could write with a public moral voice.

And then I landed at T’ruah. Last May, I wasn’t yet ordained or working there full-time, but I found myself protesting outside a Wendy’s shareholder meeting with farmworkers from Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers. I didn’t know the first thing about workers’ rights or about modern slavery, except that I was for the former and against the latter. I was inspired by their story and had no idea how much I would learn. Quickly.

The morning after ordination, June 3rd, I was on a train to New York to start full-time as T’ruah’s director of education. My first order of business was to attend the annual board retreat. I was welcomed warmly by the board members, all impressive social justice rabbis with years of experience. The ink was still drying on my ordination document. It felt great to be included as part of the team, but it was hard to feel like I’d earned it yet.

Just over a month on the job and I was asked to write a Mi Sheberach prayer for the hunger strikers in California’s Pelican Bay prison and at Guantanamo. That was fun — an opportunity to actually use some of my training in liturgy — creatively. But even more fun were the posts about it on my Facebook wall — friends whom I didn’t know followed T’ruah had seen what I wrote. It wasn’t just an academic exercise. This was starting to feel real.

Two months after that, over Chol HaMoed Sukkot, I found myself on the phone with a rabbi from a synagogue outside the Northeast. He had written a d’var Torah about Islamophobia for our biweekly newsletter; he called to ask me not to publish it.

“With everything going on in the world, I just can’t at this moment,” he said.

“What do you mean, everything going on in the world?” I asked, racking my brain. After a moment, I ventured hesitantly, “Syria?”

“Yes, Syria.”

I was taken aback. In my New York progressive bubble, Syria was a foreign policy issue, a human rights issue. It hadn’t registered as being a “Muslim issue.” In this rabbi’s right-leaning community, however, it was a different story, and anti-Muslim passions were enflamed. Locally, he was doing what he could to meet his congregation where they were and slowly change their perceptions. Nationally, publishing the d’var Torah he had written would only undercut his credibility with them. I agreed and promised we would find an alternative d’var Torah. I wished him luck, and as I hung up the phone, two realizations clicked. First, I should never forget that the whole country is not like the New York-to-Boston corridor in which I’ve lived my entire life. And second, this is what it felt like to do my job at T’ruah, being a resource for rabbis.

Looking back on how I got here, I realize that I have strong local-improvement tendencies. In college, I wanted my Hillel to be the best it could be. In rabbinical school, I wanted Hebrew College to function the best it could.

Now I’m at T’ruah, and my definition of what’s “local” has expanded. Suddenly, it includes prisoners in California, farmworkers in Florida, rabbinical student fellows across the country, and African asylum seekers in Israel. It’s a big world. I’ve learned the difference between organizing and lobbying. And, after nine months on the job, I’m getting down to what I do best: observing, analyzing, imagining, and collaborating to help T’ruah perform its mission — advocating for human rights in the US, Israel, and the occupied territories — a little better. The work is different every day: drafting Senate testimony about solitary confinement, talking with a rabbi about why Israel would put asylum seekers into indefinite detention, planning the curriculum for this summer’s rabbinical student fellows. Each is a small step for man, which hopefully —eventually — will add up to a giant leap for humankind.

Apparently, that’s how I became a social justice rabbi.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Education at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. In 2013, he received rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Before that, he taught fifth grade for three years at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. Lev holds an AB in geology from Brown University. He lives with his wife, Eliana, and their son, Barzilai, in Brooklyn, NY.

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