Student-driven Uri L’Tzedek weds ethics and Orthodoxy
He had been to Ghana, Thailand and El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service and had worked for Jewish Funds for Justice, but Shmuly Yanklowitz felt a void.
“I found that there was a need for a space for more traditional Jews to enter into social justice work,” said Yanklowitz, now in his final year at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary. “There was a major gap in engaging the Orthodox community in particular in this work. We need to take on a serious activist voice within that community.”
Yanklowitz found that voice through an organization he created two years ago called Uri L’Tzedek (ULT), a Modern Orthodox social justice group focused on ameliorating ethical issues within the United States. The group’s name, which in English means “Awaken to Justice,” plays off of a similar phrase in the Friday-night prayer “L’Cha Dodi.”
Capitalizing on young people’s enthusiasm for social justice, ULT has students at its foundation and targets them as a base for expansion. The organization began a summer fellowship for students this year and works with volunteers at several campuses.
Jordanna Birnbaum, a junior at New York University (NYU), got involved with ULT because “the Orthodox movement needs an organization to empower us.” She sees students as the crux of ULT, both because of the passion they exude for social justice and because of the time and energy that they can devote to the organization.
“I can tap into this network of passionate young people who are knowledgeable about Judaism and want to effect change,” she said. “[ULT] couldn’t be run without the student volunteers.”
ULT’s major initiative this year is Tav HaYosher, a foray into the ethical kashrut movement. Unlike the Conservative Jewish Hekhsher Tzedek, an ethical certification for kosher meat factories, Tav HaYosher’s goal is to certify kosher eating establishments, like restaurants and bakeries, for fair labor practices. Tav HaYosher is based, in part, on the Tav Chevrati, a similar social justice organization in Israel that has achieved success.
Rabbi Michael Seigel of Hekhsher Tzedek said that the production of food has become more complex in recent years, raising ethical issues that did not exist beforehand.
“The Jewish community has by and large focused on the fitness of the animal and assumed that the ethics were being attended to” Seigel said. “In our day and age we understand that this is not something we can take for granted.”
While Yanklowitz lauds Hekhsher Tzedek and the conservative movement for taking an ethical stand, he notes that because the Orthodox community controls the United States’ kosher establishment, an Orthodox social justice organization will have the most influence there.
“There has been a real chilul hashem, a real desecration of God’s name in the way that many Orthodox institutions have represented this community publicly and the only way to repair that is to challenge it publicly,” Yanklowitz said. “It’s creating a new intellectual and spiritual discourse in the community. While some have felt challenged and confronted by that, the majority have felt it embracing.”
Birnbaum has thrown herself into Tav HaYosher, setting up a corresponding committee at NYU and working to certify the school’s kosher cafeteria according to Tav HaYosher’s standards. She hopes to have accomplished that goal by next year.
She added, however, that some Orthodox students are wary of ULT’s message.
“Orthodox students get defensive because they’re nervous,” she said. “They’re scared that halakha will take on a different tone. We’re not trying to co-opt Orthodoxy. Social justice is one part of our mission, and to ignore it is wrong.”
Whatever controversy there may be, ULT and Tav HaYosher have gained approval from the Orthodox Union (OU), the largest kosher certification organization in America. While both the OU and Yanklowitz posit that ritual laws of kashrut and ethical labor practices are not intertwined, both agree that for a restaurant to have both would be ideal.
“We’d like to see that all workers are properly treated in consonance with American law,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of OU’s kashrus division. “Our focus and our area of expertise is the laws of kashrus specifically but we want to make sure that the companies we’re dealing with are adhering to American law and ethical norms.”
Tav HaYosher has spurted recently, with over 100 volunteers—many of them students—acting as compliance officers for the movement’s standards, thousands of signatures of support from kosher consumers and 14 certified eating establishments. Yanklowitz hopes that the movement, whose mission has already spread to cities outside of New York, will create a standard of its own within the kosher community.
“Just like people choose a kosher restaurant over a non-kosher restaurant, they’ll choose one that commits to ethical standards over one that does not,” he said. “This represents a change in the Jewish student activist community.”