The Arty Semite

Does Place Matter?

By Jill Jacobs

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Last week, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” is now available. Her posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:


I started “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” with a question: Does place matter?

In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can Skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.

And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.

Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms — Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan; Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple — once our central place — and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place — the rabbis call God “HaMakom” — “The Place.”

At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael — the people of Israel — as a unit not bounded by geography.

So does place matter or not?

I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.

The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of “Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community” and “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law & Tradition.” She will be blogging here all through Sukkot.


The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the reading, writing and publishing of Jewish literature. For more Jewish literary blog posts, reviews of Jewish books, book club resources, and to learn about awards and conferences, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org.

MyJewishLearning.com is the leading transdenominational website of Jewish information and education. Visit My Jewish Learning for thousands of articles on Judaism, Jewish holidays, Jewish history, and more.


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