For This I Went to Rabbinical School

I am standing in torrential rain outside of the home of one of Chicago’s alderman. I have come here, along with two hundred area residents, to protest the lack of weekend subway, or “El,” service in several low-income neighborhoods. Upset that the alderman failed to appear at a community meeting I about the train situation, we have moved the meeting to his home, in the hopes that he will at least acknowledge our complaint.

While all other branches of the El run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the branch serving the low-income and minority communities of Pilsen, Little Village and North Lawndale, stops running at midnight during the week and does not run at all on Saturdays and Sundays. This lack of late-night and weekend El service, combined with the infrequency of bus service in the neighborhood, makes it virtually impossible for residents to commute to second and third-shift or weekend jobs, or to reach the public library, city parks, museums, or hospitals during the weekend.

In the course of the campaign to secure weekend and late night el service for these neighborhoods, I have ridden the trains at 7AM to survey riders about their needs, spoken to residents about the difficulties of living without daily service, and attended press conferences and city council meetings about the situation.

When did we learn this in rabbinical school?

When people first hear that I am a rabbi, they immediately ask where my congregation is. When I explain that 1 work not with a congregation, but with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the oldest Jewish social justice organization in the country, they generally look confused and ask, “So, you didn’t want to work as a rabbi?”

For me, however, the work that 1 am doing is very clearly rabbinic. My studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and elsewhere have imbued in me a passion for text and a belief in the ability of classical Jewish sources to help us to understand the world. My commitment to the halakhic (Jewish legal) system, which makes demands and imposes obligations, forces me to take Jewish civil law as seriously as I take the commandments to observe Shabbat, to daven, or to keep kosher. As such, rabbinical school did, in fact, teach me to be an activist.

Some of my classmates have dedicated their rabbinates to helping their communities find meaning in prayer, develop personal ritual practices, or deepen their Jewish learning. I have taken on the equally “religious” task of personally responding to the call for action that I find in our texts, trying to resurrect an oft-neglected system of civil law, and helping others to make social justice a conscious part of their Jewish practice and Judaism a conscious part of their activism.

The voices of wisdom that emerge from our texts and the voices of real people in our communities can and must be brought into dialogue with one another. I cannot possibly understand Jewish laws prohibiting landlords from prematurely evicting tenants until I meet public housing residents frightened that they will become homeless if the Chicago Housing Authority succeeds in its efforts to demolish all public housing high rises. I cannot understand Talmudic discussions of workers’ poverty until I witness the desperation of day laborers waiting to be hired. And I cannot understand the biblical insistence on equality until I see neighborhoods denied basic city services.

The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs takes seriously the call of these texts, and therefore dedicates itself to making Chicago a better place for its residents. By partnering with grassroots community groups, advocating for more just legislation, and offering no-interest loans to community groups developing low-income housing, JCUA translates into action the obligations, outlined in classical Jewish texts, to create a fair and just society.

And so, driven by my understanding of Jewish law and inspired by JCUA’s forty years of activism, I allow myself to be drenched by another of Chicago’s endless summer storms. The rabbinate I have chosen demands no less.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Director of Outreach and Education for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, which is based in Chicago