On Individuals, Ethical Leaders, and the Pursuit of Justice

Justice Scale.

It’s almost scary how easy it is to forget about other people. I go about my day mostly worrying about myself, thinking about what I need to get done, what I want, and what I’m looking forward to. I realize that I mostly exist within my own privileged, safe bubble, and I don’t ever have to step out of it if I don’t choose to. That’s where I must remember my duty, as a Jew, to possess moral courage. I will always carry in my heart a phrase I read from the Torah portion while becoming a Bat Mitzvah: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” In this phrase, justice is emphasized twice. It is not just something to seek, but the most important thing to seek. To me, having moral courage is being someone that stands up for what’s right when everyone else is doing what's wrong.

I lack moral courage often in my own life. As I mentioned, it’s so easy to drown in my own day-to-day struggles and push others’ to the side. Where I live, in Austin, homelessness is a huge, persistent issue. It is impossible to drive anywhere without seeing a group of people who are homeless. Oftentimes, people will camp out in tents and homemade forts under highways, reminiscent of the shanty towns from the 1930s I learned about in history class. I see this issue all around me, and yet I do nothing. I drive past people who are homeless and flash a quick smile, before focusing back on wherever I’m headed in my air-conditioned car. I know I’m not the only one who does this: the whole dance of avoiding eye contact, locking car doors, and offering only a tight-lipped expression before slipping easily back into a life of comfort and stability. But I also know in my heart that it’s wrong.

Building my own moral courage around this issue only takes small changes. I can begin to carry cash or necessities such as water bottles and socks around with me to hand out. I can begin advocating in my own community to give people who are homeless more support. I can educate myself and listen to the stories of people experiencing homelessness and poverty. To be honest, I have not begun doing any of this yet. Every time I see a person experiencing homelessness, I remind myself that I need to, but it is so easy to forget. But there is no justice in our society when some of us get to return to a stable home and food while others are on the street and starving. This work doesn’t only need to happen on an individual level.

In my home state, our governor actively works against policies aimed to aid people experiencing homelessness, like laws decriminalizing homelessness. At a governmental level, it seems like those in power are turning their heads away from these struggles. They shame people who are homeless for their status, and it only adds to the cycle of poverty.

Now more than ever, as we look forward to the 2020 election, it’s important to actively live with strong morals in order to create a world that treats everyone with humanity and respect. It is not only up to us to choose ethical leaders and public figures, but to act ethically ourselves in our everyday lives. So many things are changing right now, as of course things tend to do. Personally, I turned eighteen a couple months ago, and in just a few months I’m moving away from home to attend college. I realize that I can no longer make excuses for not being an upstanding person. I cannot turn my head away and smile and think that I’m too young to make changes to myself and my surroundings, especially when there are people all around me who don’t have resources, time, money, or a support system and still find ways to positively impact their communities. As I reflect on my daily routines, I’ve found that I don’t show the moral courage that I know I have. I want to stare the brokenness of our society in the face and do something every day to make it better.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Pollack, Maddy. "On Individuals, Ethical Leaders, and the Pursuit of Justice." 15 July 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 11, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/individuals-ethical-leaders-and-pursuit-justice>.

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