NEW YORK — Three times a week, a third-year rabbinical student passes through the heavy door at West 40th Street and enters the offices of the Damayan Migrants Association, a grassroots organization that educates, organizes and mobilizes low-wage Filipino workers, many of whom are victims of labor trafficking and haven’t seen their families in nearly a decade.
How Rachmiel Gurwitz, a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, came to devote a summer understanding Filipino migrant women lies in the secular and the sacred — the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Torah both talk about the obligation people have toward their fellow human beings.
“The Torah talks about not holding wages overnight, about not exploiting a worker and not taking advantage of them. It talks about power imbalances and how we have to be careful not to exploit that,” Gurwitz said. “In Proverbs King Solomon also says do not exploit the worker. We have to look at workers as a people, and we have look out for them as a community.”
Gurwitz is one of five rabbinical and cantorial fellows participating in T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights this summer in New York City. Now in its fifth year, the program aims to instill a new generation of Jewish clergy with the skills to protect and fight for human rights through social justice.
‘Rather than just feel bad or make a small donation, I can actually do something’
“My own journey down the rabbinic route was seeing all the injustices in the world and not really knowing what do with it. T’ruah gives you a platform, the knowledge of how to do something to make a practical change,” Gurwitz said. “I’d hear about so many things wrong in the world and rather than just feel bad about it, or maybe make a small donation, I can actually do something.”
That something might translate into advocating for better legislation to protect migrant workers, or ensure that incarcerated mothers have visitation with their children. T’ruah’s underlying vision is that some day practicing social justice won’t be anything exceptional, it will be as much a part of the clergy’s role as writing sermons or tutoring b’nei mitzvah.
“It’s part of our vision at T’ruah that in 10 years you won’t need to say ‘social justice rabbi.’ The idea is that rabbis and cantors doing social justice will just be a part of what they do and who they are,” said Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, head of the fellowship program.
Three days a week fellows from all denominations work with community organizations in four of the city’s five boroughs (Staten Island is too difficult from a transportation standpoint for the time being, Meirowitz said).
Aside from Damayan, there is Faith in New York, an interfaith, multicultural federation working toward public policy change in low-income communities, or the Women’s Prison Association, which has worked with women at all stages of criminal justice involvement since the 1800s.
Additionally, summer fellows spend time with Bronx Defenders, which works to change how low-income people are represented in the criminal justice system, and VOCAL-NY, which helps low-income people affected by HIV/AIDS, the drug war and mass incarceration.
When not in the field, the fellows hear from various experts in the field and study the way Jewish texts relate to human rights.
Applying ancient texts to modern issues is of particular interest to Sarah Grabiner, who is spending her summer working with the Women’s Prison Association in East New York.
As a second year cantorial student at Hebrew Union College, Grabiner said she was struck by the fact that while the Torah doesn’t address prisons per se, there are passages talking about cities of refuge — places outside a community reserved for those who have committed a crime. She said this idea ties in with the WPA’s concept of alternatives to incarceration.
“As a future community leader, I felt it was incumbent upon me to really delve into issues of social justice and to learn the skills that make that talk real,” Grabiner said. “I think about what it is in our tradition that compels us to act. We can’t ignore what’s going on in the world and the Women’s Prison Association is such an inspiring place, it speaks so much to Jewish values, of recognizing every person’s humanity and understanding what led these women here.”
Grabiner looks forward to using what she’s learned when she returns to the United Kingdom after finishing cantorial school.
‘As a future community leader, I felt it was incumbent upon me to really delve into issues of social justice’
At that time Grabiner will join a growing cohort of T’ruah fellowship alumni. Being able to draw on a network of fellow alum is perhaps one of the organization’s biggest assets, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, T’ruah’s executive director.
“We are bringing our rabbinic voice to these issues through experiential training. They meet face-to-face with people experiencing a particular issue, whether it’s mental health or human trafficking,” Jacobs said. “They learn to understand how community organizations work so that when they are back in New Jersey, or Omaha, or wherever, they can more easily connect and work with community organizations. They will have skills which they can take into the field and have a cohort of colleagues to tap into.”
Colleagues like Rabbi Daniel Kirzane of Kansas City, Kansas. A T’ruah alumnus, Kirzane is leading the charge on refugee resettlement. Always interested in social activism, he ran the soup kitchen during rabbinical school and did a year of national service in Washington, D.C.
Kirzane leaped at the chance to do a fellowship with T’ruah.
“It’s integral to my being Jewish. I was always all about volunteerism and I wanted to dive into the social justice side of things from a religious and Jewish framework,” Kirzane said.
Kirzane’s weekly sermon often incorporates an element of social justice. In recent months he’s focused on refugee resettlement.
Kirzane said he felt compelled to act as the rhetoric toward refugees, particularly Syrian refugees, became increasingly inflamed and after Kansas Governor Sam Brownback announced a withdrawal from the Obama Administration’s refugee resettlement plan.
‘It’s integral to my being Jewish’
He learned that while there are just a handful of Syrian refugees in Kansas City, between 800 and 900 refugees from all over the world are settled in the area each year. To help smooth the path to their new life in America, Kirzane works with the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and KC for Refugees, an interfaith organization.
“A lot of people on any given day can speak about an issue with passion and erudition, but I wanted to integrate it into my daily life,” Kirzane said.