07/25/2010 07:31 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Social Justice and Orthodox Judaism

Last summer, Jesse Rabinowitz, a 19-year-old Orthodox Jew, found himself in a hot, dusty Guatemalan village. A participant in a service-learning trip, Jesse built houses and learned about the lives of migrant workers and their families who stayed behind. At the end of his trip, Jesse made a promise to the people he met in the Guatemalan village: he would fight for the rights and dignity of their relatives in the United States.

This summer, he is working with a social justice organization in New York to fulfill his promise. At first glance, the group he works with would not seem out of place among other social justice organizations. Twelve excited, idealistic college students are gathered around a long conference table, discussing a text about worker's rights. A closer look, however, shows that this group is different. All the males at the table wear kippot (skullcaps), and several of the women sport long sleeves and skirts despite the 90-degree weather. The text they are discussing is not a contemporary justice article; it is over 1000 years old and in Aramaic.

These 12 students are members of the Uri L'Tzedek summer fellowship. Uri L'Tzedek, Hebrew for "Awaken to Justice," is America's first Orthodox Jewish social justice organization. Founded in 2007, it is leading an awakening within the Orthodox community: Orthodox Jewish youth are rediscovering the Jewish tradition's call for social justice work. Orthodox college groups are sponsoring service learning opportunities in developing countries, which would have been unheard of 10 years ago. This past year, a group of Yeshiva University students spent their winter break working in a small village in El Salvador. These are the kinds of students, profoundly committed to Orthodoxy and social justice, who comprise Uri L'Tzedek's summer fellowship.

Uri L'Tzedek's mission is twofold: to pursue social justice in the world and to educate the Orthodox community to understand that social justice values are not only permitted but commanded by the Torah and rabbinic literature. In pursuit of these goals, Uri L'Tzedek created the Tav HaYosher, or Ethical Seal. The Ethical Seal is meant to parallel the supervision that kosher restaurants have to make sure their food is prepared according to Jewish law. However, rather than certifying the restaurant's food, the Tav HaYosher certifies that the restaurant's workers are treated and paid ethically and legally. The Tav HaYosher's standards include minimum wage, overtime, and basic worker dignity. While these standards may seem basic, they are often flagrantly violated in hundreds of New York restaurants. A joint report by the Ford Foundation, the Haynes Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation indicated that 26 percent of restaurant workers in major US cities are paid less than minimum wage.

The Uri L'Tzedek Fellows are hitting the streets, encouraging kosher restaurants to sign on. Many restaurants have been enthusiastic about the idea of receiving free publicity for treating their workers ethically. Others, however, are less receptive. Some restaurant owners object to the idea that their ethical practices need to be monitored by an outside organization. One restaurant owner said: "The way I treat my workers is between me and God." Another chased the fellows who approached him out of his restaurant, yelling that he didn't "want anyone looking at" his "Mexicans." Others are suspicious of the organization's motives, asking the obvious question, "What's in it for you?"

An outside observer might ask the same question. What is it that motivates these college students to spend their summer working for no pay, spending hours walking from restaurant to restaurant in Manhattan's 90-degree summer, often enduring verbal abuse from the restaurant owners they approach? According to Noa Albaum, a rising junior at Brandeis University who is involved with her school's Labor Coalition, "This is one of the most productive things I can do, both for myself and society. I'm not only doing volunteer work, I'm being trained to do even more effective service work in the future and to bring back my new training to my campus community."

Jesse's promise to the people he spent time with in Guatemala is materializing. In the past two weeks the summer fellows have convinced seven restaurants in the New York area to sign on with the Tav HaYosher, adding to the 40-plus restaurants that already carry the seal. When asked about the experience of signing a restaurant, Elianna Pollak, a student at Stern College for Women and one of the fellowship's most successful marketers says, "Signing a restaurant is a truly fulfilling experience. Despite the hours spent in the hot sun and the many rejections, signing a restaurant really spurs me on to continue. I know that I'm slowly making a difference in the way restaurant workers are treated and the way consumers relate to their food." Emmanuel Sanders, a student at Yeshiva University, adds, "One of my favorite quotes by [philosopher] Emmanuel Levinas is, 'Ethics is not the corollary of the vision of God, it is that very vision.' That's exactly how I feel about what I'm doing at Uri L'Tzedek. It's not in addition to my religious obligations, it's an intrinsic part of them." The other fellows in the room nod their agreement and turn back to their individual projects, eager to continue spreading Uri L'Tzedek's mission throughout their communities.