This weekend, the young people of Netivot Shalom will study the concept of social responsibility at a Shabbaton hosting Rabbi Ari Weiss, director of Uri L’Tzedek.
The group -which describes itself as “an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression” – has been actively involved in the Tav HaYosher ethical seal project, which stresses not only the kashrut of food but also “the dignity and rights of those who produced it.”
According to Pam Scheininger, president of the Teaneck congregation, members of her synagogue have traditionally turned out in large numbers for chesed projects, often bringing their children with them.
Whether participating in the shul’s CareOne bikkur cholim project, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Mitzvah Day, or the congregation’s new “birthday ma’aser [tithing] program, which encourages kids to give a certain number of their birthday gifts to children who are less fortunate,” the youths have been exposed to “the idea of looking to the Torah and taking lessons on how to react to the larger community,” said Scheininger.
Hod Klein, a Rutgers senior entering his third year as the congregation’s youth director, said he has heard a lot about Uri L’Tzedek and was inspired to bring its message to the synagogue.
“What they’re doing is very important,” he said. “There are some great people working on it who can help us” at the synagogue.
While the congregation has tried to include its youngsters in chesed projects over the years, said Scheininger, this year she and Klein decided to move in a new direction, organizing activities around a specific theme.
“While many of our projects have been specifically within the Jewish community, the idea is that the Torah and halacha are not only a guide to [this kind of] interaction but can be expanded to focus on issues of social justice such as homelessness, poverty, immigration, health care, ethical kashrut, and prison care,” she said.
While this kind of outreach is not new to the Orthodox community, “it’s definitely in its newer stages,” said Scheininger. “It puts a title on it,” urging the community to fight for social justice “because Orthodoxy demands it,” she said.
Working with Uri L’Tzedek is a “natural fit,” she said. “They have programs running on college campuses and high schools and can provide a curriculum.”
“Our shul is dedicated to the idea of tikkun olam, the Torah view of justice, and our responsibilities” in that regard, said Klein, who grew up in Bergen County and had been a rabbinic intern at the synagogue.
Both Klein and Scheininger noted that parents and students have responded positively to the social justice initiative, and they are expecting a large turnout at the Shabbaton.
At the event, synagogue youth group leaders, ranging in age from 13 to 18, will be trained to lead students in the new venture. While seventh-graders are too young to be group leaders, said Klein, they will also be given a chance to participate, taking on an “informal” role in working with younger children, from nursery-school age through third grade.
Klein, who meets regularly with youth leaders, said “This is the first time we will train them around a theme,” he said. Curricular materials will be provided by Uri L’Tzedek.
Klein said that while he has generally worked in cooperation with parent groups on chesed projects, “Uri L’Tzedek engages the children in a more educational way. We’re building a curriculum,” he said, adding that he is compiling different ideas for the youngsters to discuss over Shabbat “to see what the kids are interested in.”
“We’ll bounce ideas back and forth,” he said, noting that he hopes to see a project centering on fair trade. “It’s a great way to get the kids engaged and active,” he said.
While the weekend will include text study, “it’s also important that the kids be involved” in social justice projects.
“It’s really exciting to be offering something new and unique to the shul,” said Klein. “I want to see it grow and develop.”