Rabbis defending human rights

T’ruah seeks to cultivate a new generation of clergy.

T’RUAH FELLOW Rachmiel Gurwitz (center) meets with coworkers at the Damayan Migrants Association in New York (photo credit: RABBI LEV MEIROWITZ)
T’RUAH FELLOW Rachmiel Gurwitz (center) meets with coworkers at the Damayan Migrants Association in New York
(photo credit: RABBI LEV MEIROWITZ)
NEW YORK – Rabbinical student Katie Greenberg, who attends the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, will always remember the first time she engaged in “Tikkun Olam,” the Jewish concept of “repairing the world.”
She was just five years old and had made a $5 donation to the World Wildlife Fund, which she cared deeply about.
“Charity was always important in my family, so was social justice,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “I was always involved in various causes.”
Greenberg, who is now 30, has decided to go beyond making donations, and is one of five rabbinical students taking part in this summer’s social justice fellowship organized by the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
The program, which began last month and is in its fifth year, aims to cultivate a new generation of Jewish clergy who are working to protect and advance human rights through a focus on important social justice issues.
The New York summer fellows divide their time between theory and handson experience, meeting twice a week to engage in group discussions and Jewish text studies and spending the remaining time volunteering at local human rights organizations.
Since beginning the program, Greenberg has been working with VOCALNY, a grassroot organization focusing on the issues of drugs, HIV/AIDS affecting low-income people and the problem of mass incarceration. She is currently working on the group’s campaign to close Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, in which they say there is “corruption, violence and disregard for human dignity.”
“A lot of people end up in jail around small drug charges or around misdemeanors,” she explained. “I met a 16 year old last week who went to jail for jumping a turnstile, which should only be a misdemeanor you get a ticket for. You shouldn’t have to go to jail for that.
“I’m thinking about these things. If I had a congregation right now, what would I want to be saying about the shootings last week or about all the information that has come out about Rikers, and how would I encourage people and tell them that this is our issue, too,” she told the Post.
“It’s all over the Tanach that we were strangers in Egypt and we should treat the stranger well,” she added. “So, social justice is the core of what we are and what we do.”
Greenberg and the other T’ruah fellows are all working in non-Jewish organization dealing with various social problems.
“It’s important to be in non-Jewish organizations because we are part of the American civil fabric,” Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, who heads the fellowship program said. “We are citizens here and what happens to the whole society affects us deeply, so it’s not just about taking care of other Jews but it’s about how to be part of this larger public faith role of Americans.”
Nelson explained that the program has a two-fold goal.
“One is for them to be able to do something hands on, accomplish something and have materials for reflection,” he said. “And, then, to get an insider’s view of what these organizations look like so that when they go out in the field as rabbis and cantors they can be savvy and educated partners.”
Twenty-five year old Rachmiel Gurwitz from California, is also participating in the summer program and volunteering at Damayan Migrants Association, which aims to “educate, organize and mobilize low-wage Filipino workers to fight for their labor, health, gender and immigration rights,” according to its website.
“Pretty much everyone that walks in the door is a labor-trafficking survivor,” he explained. “It’s more than just numbers and how much people are making or not making. It operates on a human level.
“I think a big part of being a faith leader is looking out for the vulnerable people in society and social justice work is the core of that.”
Gurwitz and Greenberg, who will finish the fellowship in the beginning of August, still have two more years of studying ahead of them, and hope to find a professional path that incorporates their rabbinical training with social justice and human rights work.