Showing Up for Justice as a Jew

by Jackie Zais / June 8, 2020


Photo by Obi Onyeador | @thenewmalcolm from Unsplash

I don’t need Judaism to tell me that racism is bad. I don’t need Judaism to tell me there are systemic wrongs. I don’t need Judaism to tell me that Black Lives Matter. I do not care about these because I am a Jew, but because I am a human.

I would be active in this movement no matter what. But because of my work at GatherDC I show up in this moment as a Jew. I am having discussions with family and friends (some of those harder than others), I have given money to different organizations that work for racial justice both local and national, I have worked to further educate myself, and I am committing to this work long-term. 

Why do I need Judaism if I would have done this anyway? 

I use Judaism as a framework to help me pursue and advocate for justice.  

At Gather, I have worked to help people expand their understanding of how to engage with Judaism. It is not just synagogue and holidays: we belong to an expansive tradition with many embodied ways to engage with it. On Gather’s Beyond the Tent retreat, we offer people five alternative pathways to engaging in Jewish life: spirituality, wisdom, ethics, culture, and community. Through these paths, we create a new language in Jewish expression. Instead of the narrower religious or cultural Jew definitions, we posit that you can define your Jewish life through exploring Jewish wisdom, or spirituality, or a mix of all five, and leave the rest that don’t work for you. 

Gather has helped me understand that ethics is a legitimate path to engage with my Jewish identity, one rich in meaning and tradition. Judaism tells us we are all made in the image of God and whether or not you believe in g-o-d, the idea compels us and commands us to treat each human with dignity, kindness, and worthiness. That the core of our tradition is to pursue justice and righteousness and all that we do, as Jews, in the name of Judaism, should direct us toward that. 

Pursing Justice Through Tzedakah

One way I have done this is through the practice of tzedakah (justly giving monetarily). This year I have committed to giving 10% of my income to what I consider just causes. 

Tzedakah also compels us to give carefully, to think about how we want to make an impact and where there is the most need. To be honest, I have not given carefully in the last week: I have given to many organizations quickly, trying to react to the emergent need as it arises. But Judaism compels us to give tzedakah as a form of justice and to see every human for their unique and inherent worthiness and value. My connection to my Jewish identity allows me to show up for justice, even and especially when it feels like I don’t know where to start.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 31a, Rabbi Hanina said:

“One who is commanded and fulfills that commandment is greater than one who does it without being commanded.”

According to our Talmudic predecessor, it is better to do something when you are commanded than of your own volition. Why is that? Because Judaism believes in requirements. Mitzvahs are commandments, they are things we must do. When we have commandments, we don’t get to stop just because we don’t feel like it anymore or because we’ve moved on to another cause. 

I believe in a tradition that requires me to repair the world, that requires I give monetarily to the poor, requires I put out the fire, tells me to love the stranger 36 times in the Torah. Judaism helps propel me forward. Ethics of our Ancestors says:

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:21). 

Pushing Change Forward

Changing the nature of an entire country can seem like a herculean task, and to take it on may be too much. We are not required to complete this work ourselves – but we must start it, and we must move it forward. We have to see ourselves as links in a chain. We have to see that we are not alone in creating change, but that we have to move the starting point further for the next generation. 

I am not only inspired by my Jewish values but commanded by 2,000+ years of wisdom, learning, and active struggle to make this world a better place. It’s easy to have this conversation now, while it’s fresh on every screen and every mind – but let’s continue the discussion in the coming months and years about how we continue to push this work forward. 

I am not just a pissed American, I am a pissed Jew. I will fight for justice and I will rely on my Jewish framework to propel me to move the work forward in the months to come. 

Tzedakah is my chosen path for showing up for racial justice, but it’s not the only way. I encourage you to explore what showing up means for you – whether that’s through learning, donating, activism, or anything in between. In the words of Parashat Shoftim, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof (justice, justice you shall pursue). While none of us will ever complete the work on our own, neither are we exempt from it – and we all need to find our way of moving it forward.  

jackieAbout the Author: Jackie Zais is a people person who has taken a personal passion and turned it into a career. As GatherDC’s Assistant Director, Jackie helps navigate the day-to-day of the office and spearhead the programs our community has come to know and love. She loves to think about how GatherDC can best serve 20 and 30 somethings in the DMV. Jackie has a BA in Anthropology and Psychology (she really likes people) from Brandeis University.

She is a native of Massachusetts and loves to gush about her yearly trip to the Newport Folk Festival. Jackie currently lives in Adams Morgan with her 70 plants and two roommates



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